What can NGOs do in a political downturn? Ideas from Central America

March 28, 2012

Guatemala v Honduras: comparing prospects for change

March 28, 2012

Is blood and sacrifice enough? The Honduran peasant movement's model of change

March 28, 2012
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[This post is published in Spanish on the 3500 milliones blog]

I spent three days last week trying to understand the peasant (campesino) movement in Honduras. It was the perfect field trip in many ways, split between a flying visit to the Bajo Aguan region up on the lush Northern coast, site of the most intense land struggles in recent years, and a series of back-to-back debates with NGOs, academics and movement leaders back in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

The ‘asentamientos’ of peasant squatters were extraordinary. Some were rebuilding among the wreckage of their former homes,

credit: Esteban Melendez

credit: Esteban Melendez

destroyed by landlords’ bulldozers a few months ago. Elsewhere hundreds of families were living under blue plastic sheets (right) in the middle of a huge African Palm plantation (the biofuels boom has come to the Bajo Aguan, bigtime). Another felt like some kind of social movement utopia – 600 highly organized families, with land all neatly parcelled out, plots set aside for schools, health posts and churches (evangelical and catholic), poultry and fish projects and plans for much more. It reminded me of Brazil’s MST even down to the red banner welcoming visitors (see below).

What emerged in a series of conversations held under trees or on rough wooden benches under tin-roofed shelters was an all-too familiar picture of Latin American land struggles. A cycle of invasion, eviction, targeted repression of leaders, interminable lawsuits and negotiations with untrustworthy government officials. But in the Bajo Aguan it’s got particularly nasty in the last few years – dozens of assassinations or deaths during evictions, a lot of blood spilt, all turning the region into a cause celebre in Honduras and beyond. Unlike most of Latin America, Honduras retains a majority rural population, with some two million small farmers, so what happens in the Bajo Aguan really matters.

The focus of my questions was the change strategies of the peasant movement and its supporters, and I have to say I found it pretty depressing. The campesinos seem resigned to isolation and betrayal, abandoned by the state, unable to get credit or technical assistance, and subject to the attacks of their opponents. ‘There’s no law, we are abandoned’ said one, and yet they cling to legal process as one of their few strategies, despite repeated evidence of the corruption and incompetence of the courts. The heavy presence of drug traffickers in the region adds to the problems by further undermining the rule of law – peasant leaders say the going rate for an assassination is about $1,000.

I asked about the alliances they had built up or were planning, and again, the tone was pessimistic. ‘We are alone. The landlords, military and police are all together and the state does nothing.’ The peasant leaders saw little chance of building alliances at local level with, say, municipal officials, or the Churches. Their preferred allies are NGOs and international bodies. And the movement itself is horribly fractured, with a long history of splits and leaders being bought off by the government or big landlords.

Their change strategy is built on sacrifice: ‘We’re not here [on the land] because they want us to be, but because of the blood that’s been spilt.’ Some hope that the deposed former president Manuel Zelaya will do well with his new Libre party in the 2013 elections, and that the ‘correlation of forces’ will shift in the peasants’ favour.

It’s easy for me to say, but this all seems too defeatist. There must be fractions of social and political elites more open to alliances, even short-term tactical ones. Churches, both catholic and evangelical (I met some very active evangelical pastors among the activists in Bajo Aguan), industrialists standing to benefit from a less impoverished domestic market, those worried about Honduras’ extraordinary levels of social violence (it is one of the murder capitals of the world).

'Welcome brothers to land liberated by the Unified Peasants' Movement'

'Welcome brothers to land liberated by the Unified Peasants' Movement'

But to connect with these groups would require deep changes to both tactics and language. Reaching out to other sectors means offering a vision of a better Honduras, going beyond the grim litany of ‘denuncias’ of human rights violations (horrendous though they undoubtedly are) and ‘demandas’ for a long shopping list of state interventions.

We talked to one middle class restaurateur in Tegucigalpa who has set up a ‘Restaurants Against Hunger’ movement and wants to start ‘Honduras deliciosa’, a campaign to ‘buy Honduran’, with lots of attention to issues of malnutrition and poverty. She’s no leftie, and the peasant movement would struggle to work with her, but surely it is possible to find some common ground? Naive? A coffee growers’ leader recalled that it was this shift to a positive frame that enabled the coffee growers to win serious concessions about 10 years ago, as part of a Honduran Make Trade Fair campaign. He also pointed out that it is far easier to get buy in from political leaders on a range of support to small farmers – credit, help with marketing, technical assistance etc – than to persuade them to sign up for land redistribution, and yet land is the dominant issue raised by the peasant movement.

Any thoughts of alliance building have been complicated by Honduras’ 2009 coup and the subsequent ‘resistencia’ in favour of deposed president Zelaya. Campesino activists, convinced Zelaya was their last best hope, arrived in Tegucigalpa and led the resistance that ultimately allowed Zelaya to return to Honduran politics (though not yet to the presidency). That earned them wider recognition, but the coup polarized politics still further, triggering yet more splits in the peasant movement and among some of them, a refusal to talk to anyone seen as a ‘golpista’ (which seems to include almost anyone in a position of influence).

As for the model of change, all this made me think of Jonathan Fox’s work on ‘transitions to accountability’ in Mexico. Fox found that progress depended on a cycle of conflict and cooperation – a conflict would break out, and then a more progressive section of local state officials would talk to more approachable protest leaders and a period of reform would ensue. When those reforms ran out of steam, or new issues emerged, conflict would reemerge and the whole cycle would start again in a process of ‘interaction between the thickening of civil society and state reformist initiatives’ (see diagram, below). In Honduras, unless something extraordinary happens in the elections and their aftermath, it’s easy to see the conflict half of the cycle, but there are few signs of cooperation and resolution.

conflict cooperation cycle

2 comments

  1. Duncan, I found this posting very interesting– and very intriguing. Obviously, the example of this hard-pressed peasant movement is one that leaves many questions unanswered and deserves more study. Why is it having so little success in winning land rights? How is the movement structured, and what kinds of solutions are their members looking for? Could it try to be more self-sufficient, looking for foreign partners to help fund initiatives, rather than wait for a better government to be elected? In some ways, it reminds me of the Assembly of the Poor in Thailand, a social movement that saw its membership and effectiveness gradually decline as successive Thai governments promised to meet its demands then repeatedly failed to deliver.

  2. Interesting post, but I’m troubled by the suggestion that the activists in el Bajo Aguan have not thought well enough about their strategies… as if they lack creativity or strategic thinking? Rather, there are politics sorrounding this conflict that have not been explored. The fact that the ‘owner’ of this land in Bajo Aguan is one of the wealthiest and most influential Hondurans plays a role, as does the fact that politics, government, business and drugs go hand in hand in the country (i.e.: A recent case proved that it is the police robbing and killing people in Tegucigalpa). The campesinos’ isolation and their strategies, or lack thereof, may be better understood in that context.

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