Sunday, June 03, 2012

A few acres of beans and corn, a cow that fell off a cliff: Farming in Honduras

I’ve been reading about land occupations and protests in the Honduran papers since April 18, when several thousand campesinos and supporters moved onto private lands and claimed them.
Like almost everything else in Honduras, it’s baffling. Land titles are a mess, laws routinely ignored and small farmers claim their land has been confiscated illegally and sold or given to large landowners. There are laws limiting the size of holdings, but they aren’t enforced.
It’s a long dispute, with some 60 activists reported killed in the last two years. In the big direct action started in April, some 1,700 campesino groups occupied land.
The government has promised to expropriate some 3,600 hectares from sugar companies and give it to small farmers, but when isn’t clear. The process is long. And, of course, the companies are unhappy and warn expropriation will hurt foreign investment.
This kind of dispute has been going on at least since the 1970s. Land reform has been an on-again, off-again enthusiasm of Central American governments - though usually off-again.
Acess to couple of acres of steep, marginal land is the difference between poverty and extreme poverty. (More than 60 per cent of Hondurans live in poverty and 40 per cent in extreme poverty.)
I’ve been back in Spansh classes for two weeks. At this stage, we mostly talk for four hours a day, which means we cover a lot of topics to keep from getting bored. Religion, family, mental illness, illegal immigration to the U.S. - and farming, since my current teacher’s spouse has a small farm.
Copan Ruinas is a sort-of familiar market economy. People mostly trade their labour for money (or run tiny businesses) and buy things in stores.
But go two kilometres outside town and everything changes. Subsistence economies are the norm. Families try to grow enough beans and corn between May and November, in the rainy season, to make it through the year. Frijoles and corn tortillas are the staple foods. If they have more beans or corn than they need for the coming 12 months, they sell or barter it in the local community. If they are fortunate, and good managers, they have chickens and maybe a cow for milk, and work for some cash.
That all requires at least a little land. Ridiculous land, often. People farm rocky slopes than I would be reluctant to try and climb because they’re just too steep. A woman told me how she and her spouse had bought two calves and raised them to be healthy cows, but one fell off a cliff on their precipitous land and was killed. They ate it, but it cut their milk supply in half. (They use some milk, sell some to neighbours for 40 cents a litre, about one-third of the store price, and sometimes make quejada - fresh cheese.)
It’s hard work. Plant by hand, weed by hand, bend the corn stalks over before harvest to let the sun dry the ears, pick them, husk them - the husks bring a few pennies because they’re used to wrap corn meal in for steaming - pick out the bad kernels, put the ears in a net bag and beat them with sticks until the kernels come off. Clean, use and sell.
That’s if you have land. If not, you’ve got it even harder. There is work; even small farmers will hire help with the backbreaking labour. 
It’s piecework. The standard unit is a tarea, about 20 by 30 metres. Chop the weeds in a tarea, and you make $1. A fast worker might do two or more in a day; an older campesino one. Sometimes, the landowner doesn’t have money, so the  payment is in corn - a day’s work for five or 10 lbs of corn. It’s not much, but it’s more than you would make cutting sticks for firewood with your machete and carrying it into town on your back to sell.
Even if you have land today, you might not tomorrow. We did a horse ride into the hills with a guy Jody met who works in the sewage lagoons (a very good place to see birds). As we plodded up the dirt track - the campesinos use even steeper, shorter footpaths to town, children and women with babies making their way home with supplies - we asked if the families own their little adobe one-room houses and tiny plots. No. The dueno - landowner - lets them squat. If he sells, the new owner could tell them to move on.
USAID is the American government agency providing economic and humanitarian assistance, like CIDA. It has a really useful land tenure and property rights project. In Honduras, it found, land distribution is highly unequal and a small percentage of the population owns much of the land. Ownership rights, including exclusive use and transferability, are generally the province of large landowners and multinational corporations.
“Approximately 80 per cent of the privately held land in the country is untitled or improperly titled,” USAID reports. “Only 14 per cent of Hondurans legally occupy properties and, of the properties held legally, only 30 per cent are registered.”
And the most insecure are “minifundistas,” the small farmers working on 70 per cent of the land.
There’s a limited supply of good land. About 15 per cent of Honduras is suited for agriculture - it’s surprisingly mountainous. Big companies have had some of the best land tied up for 120 years, since the Vaccaro brothers, Italian immigrants living in New Orleans, started exporting coconuts and bananas. Today, the best land is used for sugar canes and bananas and palm oil.
Which is fine. Exports are important.
But give families - or co-ops - a little usable land, and some support, and... 
I was going to write lives are changed, but that might not be true. The difference between poverty and extreme poverty is important, but might not mean a different future for anyone.
But it would mean a slightly better life for children and families today.

Footnote: Of course, the other useful measure is improved farming practices, which Jody Paterson writes about here.