Thousands of Honduran farm workers have launched a co-ordinated land occupation, squatting on some 12,000 hectares nationwide and fuelling new tensions over land rights, authorities said.
More than 3,500 families started squatting on farmland in the provinces of Yoro, Cortes, Santa Barbara, Intibuca, Comayagua, Francisco Morazan, El Paraiso and Choluteca on Tuesday – the International Peasant Day of Struggle.
Activists say the seized arable land is public property and small farmers have the legal right to grow crops under Honduran law. The large landowners who have been farming the land say they bought it legally from the government.
On Wednesday, police and soldiers read an eviction notice to farm workers on the San Manuel sugar plantation, about 22km north of the capital Tegucigalpa. The workers then peacefully vacated the 2,500 hectare area.
The rest of the farms were still occupied late on Wednesday, activists said.
Mabel Marquez, of the organisation Via Campesina, said that the largest seizure had occurred on the country’s Caribbean coast, where roughly 1,500 farm workers had seized land held by a sugar plantation near the city of San Pedro Sula.
“We want to avoid any type of confrontation,” Marquez said, adding that the farmworkers were unarmed and used no force.
A land dispute between small farmers and landlords in the northern Aguan Valley has led to dozens of deaths among farmworkers in recent years.
Leaders of the farmers in the impoverished Central American nation said they were worried authorities would violently kick them off the land they were currently occupying.
Activists said they were seeking meetings with government officials to open up a national dialogue on land disputes, and to make clear that the lands were public property and that the farm workers should not be dislodged.
Farmers say they have been waiting for land for 15 years, and have not received any titles. Forty per cent of farmers are living in extreme poverty, aggravating the situation’s urgency.
According to United Nations figures, 53 per cent of Hondurans live in the countryside and, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America, the residents of 72 per cent of rural homes are below the poverty line.
Cesar Ham, director of the National Agrarian Institute, meanwhile said the land seizures were politically motivated and aimed at destabilising the government.
He blamed leftist lawmaker Juan Barahona at least in part for the land use tensions.