The Tacamiche Conflict: A Good Test
The agrarian conflict between the banana transnational Tela Railroad Company and a group of its workers demonstrates the limits that popular struggles have in these neoliberal times.
On July 19, 1994, the Tela Railroad Company, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands Fruit Company, informed the Tela Workers' Union (SITRATERCO) leadership of a decision to close the banana plantations of the San Juan, La Curva, Copén and Tacamiche farms in La Lima and El Progreso. Tela's manager proposed that laid off workers choose between being relocated to other farms or receiving severance pay. Thus began the Tacamiche conflict, which has kept the country on edge, demonstrating the extent and limits of popular struggle in today's Honduras.
"We Will Die Here"Although some Tacamiche banana workers accepted relocation, a number of them decided to stay, occupying the living quarters where they had spent a good part of their lives as Tela wage workers. Ignoring their presence, the company proceeded to clear out the banana trees and prepare the land for sorghum production in a joint project with several national investors. It was Tela's first step toward selling the land to its business partners, but the sale of 3,000 of the 5,600 hectares of Tela land was not announced until May 9, 1995, nearly a year later. Of the 3,000 hectares, 2,000 were offered to private enterprise and another 1,000 to SITRATERCO as an institution.
Everything appeared to be resolved and "in peace" when some 40 ex workers from the Tacamiche farm decided to organize what they called the Tacamiche Agrarian Community, with support from the combative National Rural Workers' Central (CNTC), of which they were members. Just after the sale was announced, the Tacamiche Agrarian Community took over some 100 acres of land on the former San Juan banana farm to plant corn, following a tradition of organized Honduran peasants. The occupants asked the government to give them the occupied land and negotiate with Tela for ownership of the living quarters. But the transnational ordered the occupants removed and destroyed their crops.
The spark quickly caught fire. The Tacamiche Agrarian Community responded to Tela by occupying some 500 acres of land that the transnational and its business partners had already begun planting with sorghum. Organized into teams, the occupying peasants planted corn where sorghum had not yet been planted, declaring that they had occupied plowed Tacamiche land because the transnational had destroyed lands they had already plowed and planted in San Juan. "And if they want to get us out of here," they challenged, "we will bathe this land with blood, because we will die here."
"Honduran Chiapas"On July 4, the Regional Director of the National Agrarian Institute (INA), the state institution in charge of adjudicating lands and of the agrarian reform process, ordered the occupants removed from the Tacamiche lands. The very next day, however, INA suspended its order because of doubts about whether the conflict was agrarian or labor related.
Learning of this vacillation, Tela took the initiative and demanded a new and speedy eviction. "At risk," stated the banana company, "is not only our percentage of the 40% of the basic grains investment, but also the majority percentage of the Honduran investors." And in an attempt to frighten the government, it threatened to ask for support from the US embassy.
The threat had the desired effect. INA's director ordered an immediate eviction. In the early morning hours of July 8, some 150 soldiers and anti riot police forced the peasants and their families off the land they had not yet been able to plant with tear gas and shots in the air. Various occupants were hurt then, primarily women and children, and others were injured when they lay down in the fields trying to prevent tractors from destroying their crops. A stone thrown by one of the occupants also injured a policeman.
Four days after this unequal battle, a second confrontation took place between occupants and uniformed soldiers when sorghum planting was begun on the lands from which the peasants had been removed. Armed with machetes, slings and stones, the Agrarian Community peasants returned and tried to halt the work of the sowing machines. They only stopped when they found themselves face to face with armed police and soldiers ready to shoot.
After this new skirmish, some peasants allowed themselves to be photographed with their faces covered with handkerchiefs and machetes raised. "Tacamiche is Honduras' Chiapas," claimed some media.
A National SymbolThe CNTC quickly mobilized in support of peasant land occupation. As early as July 9 it began sending groups of peasants from other parts of the country to Tacamiche. By July 12, a pilgrimage of some 500 CNTC affiliates from the departments of Santa Bárbara, Comayagua and La Paz arrived to strengthen the resistance and help the local peasants work the disputed fields. For a few days Tacamiche became the national symbol of the organized peasant movement. As such, it lived some of the most glorious moments in recent years.
Marches in solidarity with the Tacamiche peasants in El Progreso and Tegucigalpa helped awaken the anti imperialist sentiment rooted deep in the consciousness of many Hondurans. Tacamiche also reanimated the struggles for national dignity. The peasants received solidarity from El Progreso organizations grouped in the Catholic Church's Popular Action Coordinating Body, from the Coordinating Council of Popular Organizations and from other grassroots identified groups.
Looking for a new profile for their struggle, the Tacamiche occupants decided to turn their Agrarian Community into a Peasant Associated Enterprise, which they baptized as "June 28th." A Peasant Associated Enterprise is a better known organizing figure in the country than an Agrarian Community. With CNTC support, the new Enterprise asked the INA to adjudicate the occupied lands. The peasants consider them state property to which they have rights since they are watered with the sweat of their brow. "We gave our lungs to the business," said one peasant leader. But despite the strong solidarity movement and the justice of the cause, Tela continued to claim rightful ownership of the lands to sow them with sorghum. Its attitude was supported by Honduran big business which echoed the demand that the peasants be removed in the name of legal property guarantees and investment security.
Who Does Own the Land? To prevent the conflict from escalating, Leo Valladares, National Commissioner for the Defense of Human Rights, accepted a CNTC invitation to act as mediator. He was received with enthusiasm and trust by the Tacamiche peasants, who know of his courageous position on the thorny issue of the "disappeared" from the 1980s.
Valladares met with the occupants and then with high level Tela officials, and managed to relatively stabilize the mood of confrontation and hostility reigning in the zone, replacing it with a tense calm. At that point the Tacamiche occupants were faced not only with the removal order but also with a detention order issued by a San Pedro Sula judge.
Echoing the demand of the peasants, who refused to give up the land, the government named a commission to look into the legal status of the occupied lands. It was made up of government officials and representatives of both the banana transnational and the occupying peasants. Tela's representative presented the commission with titles dating back to the second half of the 19th century giving property rights to the US company. At a nominal cost, these titles have been successively transferred from one to another subsidiary of the various banana companies that have operated in Honduras since the beginning of this century. The peasant representatives questioned the validity of the titles and demanded an investigation into how they were obtained. But President Reina recognized them as valid, and considered the case of ownership of the occupied lands closed. Ramón Custodio, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH), also recognized the legality of the titles presented by Tela, basing his position on the results of a legal investigation conducted by CODEH.
A New EvictionAt that point in the conflict, the least dangerous solution for the government was to convince the peasants to accept their removal from the lands and relocate them on state lands in the north. To expropriate the Tela Railroad Company for reasons of public utility as could have been done in the 1960s or 1970s would be almost impossible in these neoliberal times when private national and foreign investment demands more solid guarantees. Expropriating Tela would mean challenging Washington and the international financial institutions, and it was clear that the government did not want so much conflict. It was thus urgent to convince the occupants to accept their relocation on lands ceded by the state.
President Reina named Assembly representative Guatama Fonseca as his personal emissary for this task, sending him to Tacamiche on July 21 with a two point proposal: first, the government promised to negotiate with Tela so that residents of Tacamiche and other communities could remain owners of their houses at no cost, and second, assign them lands in another zone.
At one point in the conflict it looked as though the occupants were willing to give up their lands and relocate in an area adjacent to Tacamiche, on the condition that they be given some 1,700 acres of flat land with production financing, as well as 300 newly constructed houses better than the living quarters they currently use. But this was not the government offer, which the peasants rejected.
President Reina decided to make one last attempt. He sent his own brother, Assembly representative Jorge Arturo Reina, to Tacamiche as his personal representative. But as the peasants awaited this new emissary, they saw instead of Reina some 600 soldiers and anti riot police with eviction orders from the President himself.
Pro Banana GovernmentThe police and soldiers swarmed onto the occupied lands without encountering resistance and, with three tractors they had brought with them, proceeded to destroy the 135 acres of corn sown by the peasants. This so enraged the occupants that a group destroyed Tela's sorghum crop with machetes.
Secluded in their quarters, the peasants faced a rain of tear gas while some of them threw stones and even molotov cocktails. One policeman and one soldier were injured and a journalist was knocked out for a few minutes by the tear gas. Twenty six occupants were briefly detained.
On the afternoon of July 26, the commanding officers of the police and army forces succeeded in getting the Tacamiche occupants to sign various accords. In the first the peasants accepted the presence of "60 soldiers bivouacked in two living quarters at the entrance to the community to maintain order and tranquility." The second agreement negotiated that "all people who are not members of the community will abandon the land within 48 hours beginning in the afternoon." These "people" were the CNTC peasants who had come to strengthen the resistance. In a third agreement the peasants accepted "agricultural activity by Tela and the investors in the whole area, without jeopardizing the corresponding legal actions exercised by the Tacamiche community."
As was to be expected, the violent removal in Tacamiche sparked all manner of reactions. Tela, its investment partners, private enterprise and US Embassy spokesperson Paul Kozelka applauded the action. Some representatives in the National Congress questioned it, accusing President Reina of not having exhausted all negotiating possibilities and criticizing Tela for its intransigence throughout the conflict. The eviction was openly condemned by the CNTC peasants and all the grassroots organizations that were in solidarity with the Tacamiche peasants; they accused the Reina government of being "repressive and pro banana." The government's management of the conflict has considerably deteriorated its image before the nation.
The heroic chapters of the Tacamiche conflict appear to have concluded. The future of the occupying peasants is now in the hands of the government, which has promised to adjudicate lands in other areas within two months. It is possible that Tela, which can afford a more condescending attitude after its triumph, may allow the peasants to stay in their living quarters at nominal cost. The legal quarrel brought by the Tacamiche residents over the land ownership is still pending.
The Tacamiche eviction has demonstrated the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of winning a nationalist fight with a transnational in these neoliberal times. It also demonstrates that the anti imperialist sentiments that made the banana workers protagonists of important social movements in Honduran history are still alive and can be revived with force in propitious situations.
In Memory of LempiraTaking the Tacamiche conflict as a backdrop, the Civic Committee of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Intibucá (COPIN) organized a march of some 2,000 indigenous people, most of them Lenca, in Tegucigalpa on July 20 to demand that the government fulfill its promises made to the indigenous a year ago. According to indigenous leaders, only a fifth of the commitments have been fulfilled.
Despite government attempts to impede the march, the indigenous arrived in Tegucigalpa with a list of 16 petitions, most of them related to the construction of infrastructure that would free them from the isolation they have lived in for centuries. They also demanded health and education services and land titles, since they are constantly threatened by area landowners. The government promised to fulfill these demands immediately.
The indigenous chose July 20 because that is the day the Honduran nation honors Lempira, a Lenca cacique who led the resistance against the Spanish colonizers and is a symbol of national sovereignty and independence.
In their march through the streets of the city and in demonstrations in front of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the National Congress and the Presidential House, the indigenous men, women and children were accompanied by hundreds of secondary students and peasant leaders from Tacamiche and the CNTC.
For the First TimeFor the first time, the indigenous went beyond their traditional demands and incorporated those of the rest of the grassroots movement: price freezes on basic products, no privatization of public services, imprisonment for corrupt officials, a budget reduction for the armed forces, clarification of the 184 disappearances in the 1980s, a 50% subsidy for agricultural inputs for indigenous and peasants, property titles for Tacamiche peasants, approval of a student transport subsidy, cost of living wage increases and no payment of the foreign debt as long as there is no just and favorable negotiation for the country.
The indigenous demonstrators once again brought unique color to Tegucigalpa and reminded us of our national roots. They returned to their communities with the hope that the government this time will be capable of respecting its word and honoring its commitments.