In many Honduran communities, men and women awake at dawn to tend the land to feed their families. The hillsides and valleys at daybreak smell of freshly made coffee and damp earth, so much so it’s a part of the national identity. Nevertheless, the campesinos are one of the most vulnerable populations in a country where land scarcity is a daily battle.
Santa Bárbara, in the northwest, is one of Honduras’ most productive regions. At the same time, it is also one of the country’s poorest. The non-government organization Social Forum for External Debt and Development in Honduras (FOSDEH), estimates that by 2014, 80 percent of the population there will be living in poverty.
The Regional Association of Organized Communities (ARCO) attempts to counter the hunger affecting marginalized populations, especially among small-scale farmers. It was created to break the development paradigms touted to farmers in the region, where coffee has emerged as the only crop. The association works with families in four Santa Barbara municipalities: Arada, Atima, San Nicolás and Santa Bárbara; 27 villages and approximately 100 families are part of this project, which started in 2002 through the social ministry of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Santa Barbara.
“Our goal is to promote socioeconomic development with economic solidarity, restoring our native seeds and training families to produce for their own consumption,” said Orlando Martinez, one of the leaders of ARCO.
The families produce coffee and vegetables, there is a farmer’s fair, and the use of native seeds is encouraged to avoid transgenics, Martínez told Latinamerica Press.
The encouragement of agroecology to establish food sovereignty goes against market forces and therefore is a challenge for those who dream of a food production system free from transgenics and rooted in indigenous culture.
In Honduras, there is the National Association for the Promotion of Agro-Ecology (ANAFAE), an umbrella group of 35 organizations around the country that promotes recuperating native seed usage and clean, healthy farming to work toward food justice and sovereignty, especially in communities and municipalities in the country’s poorest areas — which are paradoxically also the regions with the richest soil and natural resources.
The association has documented diverse experiences around the country, especially in the south, where drought is the leading enemy of small-scale farmers.
Engineer Jacqueline Chenier, expert and consultant on agroecological farming, told Latinamerica Press Honduran farmers have a sad history, from agrarian reform to the current economic crisis crippling the country.
“In the 1970s Honduras was called the breadbasket of the Americas. Now we see a form of excessive consumption with imports, we import most of the grains we eat: rice, beans and corn,” Chenier said. Recent reports from the Secretariat for Central American Economic Integration (SIECA) rank Honduras third among countries in the region that buy more food than it exports.
Central American countries in January achieved a 5.7 percent increase in exports across the board compared to the same period in 2012, according to SIECA, however they still bought more than they sold. In January, the trade deficit balance in Central America grew by 11 percent over a year earlier. The region imported in 2012 US$2.1 billion more than it exported.
“We would appreciate it if the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations], along with government, wouldn’t counteract our work to salvage native seeds, because they are also carrying out campaigns supposedly to guarantee food sovereignty, but what they are doing is promoting transgenics and that’s what we want to eradicate,” Jerson Medina, a small-scale coffee producer who belongs to ARCO, told Latinamerica Press.
Medina has a micro-business affiliated with a cooperative ARCO created to encourage fair trade for small-scale farmers who produce organic crops.
Still, Medina and other Honduran farmers are used to seeing the Department of Agriculture and Livestock (SAG) team with the FAO to form a destructive duo against those who want more sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming.
Many campesinos accept the technological bonus for improved seeds and fertilizers allotted per block (0.7 Ha or 1.74 acres) of basic grain crops, which SAG offers as its only aid to the agriculture sector and pays once a year, especially in May.
Chenier said although FAO runs the Special Program for Food Security (PESA) — which promotes improvements to sustainable production systems for family farms to achieve food security — even if it has worked well in other countries, the lack of political will in Honduras among the government counterparts has turned PESA against the goal of food sovereignty.
“For us, whose traditional crop is corn, we have that wealth. However, it’s an uphill climb for those betting on agroecology because of all the actors behind this industry,” the expert said.
Land in few hands
Honduras has a long history of land ownership concentrated in the hands of few people, which has intensified with incentives for monocultures especially in the valleys, and is now reaching the hillsides like Santa Bárbara with coffee and also African oil palm production.
“We know who wins with this method, the landowners win — like Miguel Facussé, one of the country’s largest palm growers, who has exacerbated the agrarian crisis in the Bajo Aguán,” Chenier said, referring to the conflicts that have occurred since 2009 between landowners and campesino groups occupying estates cultivated with African oil palm.
Farmers claim they received the land in 1980 through agrarian reform. However, a 1992 law allowed the sale of plots in the form of cooperatives, which have been fraudulently acquired by landowners at very low prices.
Furthermore, the monoculture of sugarcane and palm has generated massive displacement of people from rural to urban areas, causing increased poverty.
ARCO is one of many initiatives seeking to eliminate systemic hunger and poverty in Honduras. They started small, working with farming families for the project. Now the scope is bigger, with field schools, rural credit unions, and community stores.
As an organization they have many ambitions, like a training center to operate a public school that will expand agroecology and salvage traditional knowledge that is being lost in younger generations. Another is to establish marketing for their products in line with fair trade principles.
They also dream of someday witnessing public policy that ensures the welfare and health of all Hondurans. —Latinamerica Press.