In February, Honduran smallholder farmer organisations presented the “Emergency Law for the Reactivation of the Agricultural, Livestock and Forestry Sector to Combat Poverty” before the National Congress. The legislation aims to end the environmental, agrarian and food crisis in Honduras. “We can no longer stay on the sidelines in the face of a situation that is affecting food sovereignty, health, income, extreme poverty and migration,” explains Rafael Alegría, director of peasant organisation Vía Campesina. Together with the creation of a National Council of Agricultural Production, Livestock and Forestry (CNPAPF) and the extension of credit, the proposed law also calls for the “urgent resolution of the agricultural deficit through the inventory of accumulated unresolved case files that are currently held by the National Agrarian Institute (INA)”. While awaiting a response, which is still yet to arrive, the COVID-19 health emergency created further complications in a difficult situation that stretches back over several decades.

Reviewing the history of agrarian reform in Honduras allows us to understand almost two decades of demands made by smallholder communities, indigenous and afro-indigenous peoples, who asserted their rights to a plot of land to grow crops and guarantee their survival. 1962 saw the introduction of the Agrarian Reform Law, which aimed to transform the agrarian social structure and eradicate the so-called latifundio-minifundio system of large commercial estates dominating employment and land tenure in rural areas. The National Agrarian Institute was founded as a result of the reform, and was charged with implementing the law and promoting processes to assign and redistribute land. During the 1970’s, over 400,000 hectares of land were distributed to 60,000 smallholder families, just 12.3% of the rural population in the country. 

With the 1992 introduction of the Law of Modernisation and Development of the Agricultural Sector (LMDSA), the process of agrarian reform began to unravel as vital articles allowing for the expropriation of uncultivated land were struck down. The National Agricultural Development Bank (BANADESA) and technical assistance services were privatised, agricultural research and seed banks were handed over to private universities, and public sector institutions linked to Honduran agriculture and forestry were broken up. Meanwhile, the institution that had become a key element of agrarian reform, the INA, “was one of the worst hit by this process of downscaling and dismantling of public institutions”, as noted by the Centre for Democracy Studies (CESPAD). As a result of this law “we have institutions that are completely weakened, that in no way contribute to the development of the rural world”, Vía Campesina argues.  

Within this context, various peasant and indigenous movements have emerged over the years to fight for access to land and the defence of territory, leading to severe tensions with national landlords, private security companies, and state security forces. The community of Rigores is a good example of these processes. The community, located in the department of Colón, began its own land recuperation process in 2000. Over the following 11 years, the community suffered 24 violent evictions, during which their homes and crops were destroyed. Each time they returned, they built champitas (makeshift homes) and planted crops. According to statements made to PBI by members of the community, during this period they suffered attacks, land-grabbing, and were subject to criminalisation. Finally, the government was forced to negotiate with the landlord through the INA and sell the lands to the smallholder families. These families live there today, “but we still have doubts because we do not have the titles to the land that support the sale”, explains Rosa Santamaría, a Rigores local and a member of the National Board of the National Centre for Fieldworkers (CNTC).   

On confiscated land, constant uncertainty

We can find other typical cases of the situation faced by rural communities in the land tenures registered with the Office for the Administration of Confiscated Goods (OABI), the majority of which formerly belonged to persons implicated in corruption and drug trafficking. Various communities have signed agreements with the OABI in order to work and live on these lands. However, signing an agreement does not change the titles to the land. As a result, “smallholders live with the constant uncertainty of whether the landowners will come to demand the land, or if the landowners’ family or friends will come to threaten their communities”, the CNTC explains.

Although land recuperation processes have guaranteed the subsistence of numerous smallholder communities and indigenous peoples, the lack of land titles remains a systemic issue that characterises these processes. Of the 404 communities that form the CNTC, just 20% have titles to their lands. Many others have worked and lived on their lands for three or four decades, and have spent 15 years awaiting the official recognition of their rights that never seems to arrive.     

Recent government initiatives on the matter are unlikely to improve the situation for smallholder families. According to Franklin Almendares, General Secretary of the CNTC, “recent laws have followed the line of privatisation and have brought with them displacement and dispossession”. In October 2019, the government published Decree PCM-052-2019, which granted almost 1,000 millon of lempiras to the armed forces in order to promote agricultural projects. “In reality, the government was buying favours from the military”, the CNTC denounces. The smallholder organisation also explains that with Decree 030-2020, which was approved under COVID-19, “they are buying favours from big business…”. The recent decree authorises an inventory of state and municipal land, which in many cases is occupied by smallholder communities and indigenous peoples, in order to free its use for the agroindustrial sector.

This context draws attention to the structural issues that have caused smallholders, indigenous and afro-indigenous peoples to distrust state institutions in Honduras. As a result, in the face of situations like the COVID-19 emergency, these communities self-organise. “We have decided that the military will not enter our communities”, explains Sebastián Reyes, regional secretary of the CNTC La Paz. CNTC communities in this area have organised to avoid the entry of the virus in their communities and to manage food, masks and other personal protective equipment.

Their focus on the importance of community management of the crisis recalls Johnson Sirleaf, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to the peace process in Liberia. “In order to combat the pandemic, we must rely on community leaders, because they embody first response. They are the ones who understand the cultures, traditions and customs of their communities”. Aware of this fact, smallholder communities in the CNTC continue to organise: “We are self-organsing. We are going to sow a total of 40,000 manzanas (approximately 28,000 hectares) of maize and other products. Because we can’t sit on our hands waiting for agrarian laws to help us”.