In a land struggle that is fast becoming a symbol of national pride, Honduran banana workers have garnered support from the country's Catholic bishops and other members of the church in their attempts to negotiate with a subsidiary of the Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International.
The dispute, which pits approximately 100 Honduran families against the world's largest producer, marketer and distributor of bananas, is a contemporary example of historic tensions that have arisen throughout Central America when local peasants provide cheap labor for large multinational companies. It also highlights the disparities that can result when governments allow outside corporations to operate in a feudal type of relationship with local populations.
In the current case, though the company built schools, clinics and provided basic housing and utilities, the workers and their families, many of whom have lived in the region for decades, had no legal claim to land or to their homes when the company decided to move
The families, from the northeastern community of Tacamiche, face a Sept. 26 eviction from their homes by Honduran security forces. According to Jesuit priests working in the area, 44 of the families are headed by former permanent employees of the Chiquita subsidiary, Tela Railroad Co., and most of the remaining heads of households have worked at some time for subcontractors of Tela.
Tela, which handles 70 percent of Honduran banana exports, holds legal title to the land, but the people have been "loaned" the land to live on "as if we were still living under a feudal system," said Jesuit anthropologist Ricardo Falla who works in Progreso, near Tacamiche.
In the summer of 1994, following a 43-day strike by 6,000 unionized banana workers, Tela Railroad Co. announced that it was terminating production on the Tacamiche farm and three more of its 26 plantations in the region. Tela claimed financial reasons for the shutdowns. Workers say the move was meant to weaken their union, one of the most powerful of its kind in Central America.
Financially, Tela could gain from moving production out of areas like Tacamiche, located near the town of La Lima. Legislation passed by the Honduran Congress in 1991 gives tax exemptions for three years and reduced tariffs for three more years for bananas exported from cultivations in new areas.
With production discontinued in Tacamiche, Tela "attempted to evict all the people living in the large communities that exist within the farm boundaries," wrote Jesuit Fr. Joseph V. Owens, who also lives in Progreso, in a July letter to Chiquita Brands International Chairman Carl H. Lindner.
Three other communities reached provisional aggreements with Tela, according to Owens, but the Tacamiche families want to remain on the approximately 40 acres that many of them have inhabited for decades.
Owens described the communities as "small villages ... with schools, churches, clinics and a complex social organization going back generations." Many people, he wrote, have lived there 40 or 50 years, "and many of the younger folk have lived there all their lives."
Communities like Tacamiche, Falla said in a telephone interview from Progreso, "are encrusted within the land where the bananas are cultivated," land owned by the company. This system, he added, "was set up years ago by companies like the United Fruit Co. to attract workers to the banana lands and to have -- and I mean to have -- labor nearby."
Tensions mounted in Tacamiche after Honduran police and military occupied the farm under an eviction order on July 26. According to Falla, the security forces entered "firing tear gas and shots into the air, and they pressured the people to sign an agreement that they would leave in two months."
That deadline is fast approaching, and the order for eviction as well as arrest warrants for 36 members of the community still stand.
But, according to the Jesuits, although they are fearful, the Tacamiche residents do not want to leave their community. The Jesuits and other missionaries from the area are urging company representatives to negotiate a land transfer to avoid violence that might result if the security forces attempt eviction again on Sept. 26.
The banana workers, meanwhile, have sought support from human rights and peasant groups in Honduras, and they have expanded their demands to include several hundred acres more of farmland not presently under cultivation.
Bishops address crisis
In an Aug. 28 pastoral letter, the Honduran conference of bishops ad the Tacamiche crisis. The conference, led by Archbishop Oscar Rodriguez, who was elected president of the Latin American bishops' council, CELAM, in May, urged both the company and the workers to "yield a portion of their rights in the interest of the common good, social tranquillity and the legal security that we need in order to progress."
But the banana company, the bishops said, "possesses great riches proceeding from its joint labor with our laboters." The bishops emphasized "the social responsibility that should exist in the heart of company directors who depend on the labor of poorer persons."
The bishops went all to remind the faithful that "private property has a social character," according to a translation of the bishops' statement provided by the Jesuit community.
In his encyclical Laborem Exercens, the bishops said, Pope John Paul Il emphasized the radicality of the value of human labor and the supremacy of labor over every other factor, including capital."
Owens made an even more direct appeal to Chiquita.
"Of all the thousands of acres that the company has, it certainly would not suffer by yielding those lands -- indeed it would be recognized as a magnanimous gesture by the people of Honduras," he wrote in his July letter to Lindner.
Poverty and wealth
According to Inside Honduras, from the Albuquerque, N.M.,-based Resource Center Press, half of Honduras' rural inhabitants are landless, "and many of those who do own land inhabit plots too small or with such poor soils that they are unable to meet even subsistence needs."
Fifty-five percent of farmers own less than five acres with individual incomes of less than $70 a year, the study says.
Falla and Owens said banana workers, most of whom are landless, earn on the average between $4 and $6 a day. Honduras shares with Nicaragua the rank of the second-poorest country in Latin America, after Haiti.
According to the 1995 edition of Hoover's Handbook of American Business, annual sales for Chiquita Brands International totaled $2.5 billion in 1993, down from a 1991 high of $4.6 billion. A drop in world prices, the imposition of a quota system by the European Economic Community and "restructuring costs" are cited as contributing to this decline.
The 1995 Hoover's quoted the salary of Chiquita Brands International President Keith E. Lindner, 35, at $1.9 million.
The 1992 Hoover's states "the term `banana republic' originates from United Fruit's involvement in establishing Central American regimes friendly to its operations."
American Financial Corp., owned by financier Carl Lindner, took control of United Brands, formerly the United Fruit Co., in 1987 and renamed it Chiquita Brands International in 1990. The 1992 Hoover's described American Financial as the eighth-largest private company in the United States.
The public relations department at Chiquita Brands International's Cincinnati office, when questioned by NCR on the Tacamiche dispute, referred to an earlier written statement by Lindner.
In an Aug. 18 letter answering queries from Jesuit Benjamin Urmson at Cincinnati's Xavier University, Lindner stated that "considerable misinformation about the facts and circumstances surrounding the (Tacamiche) problem" exist.
Lindner claimed the closing of the four farms in northeastern Honduras was a result of "extensive and irreversible" damages from the 1994 summer strike. Owens, meanwhile, said the workers waged the strike because, in light of 30 percent annual inflation, Tela was offering a mere 3 percent wage hike.
Lindner claimed that when production was terminated on the four farms, all of the workers affected were offered "the option of either transferring to other jobs within the company, or accepting a severance payment with the termination of employment." Severance, his letter states, was a minimum of one month of salary for every year of service.
"A small group of workers," he wrote, were given severance pay, but they "refused to respect Tela's legal rights as legal owner of the Tacamiche farm and decided to illegally remain there as squatters. This very small group of former Tela employees was later illegally joined by other outsiders whose actions have been described by the local press as those of professional squatters."
Lindner stressed that Chiquita's "constitutional right to private property is in serious jeopardy, as well as the lives of our executives and our families." The company, he said, has "thoroughly exhausted all means of lawful redress under Honduran law."
Domino effect feared
Falla said he believes the company's primary concern is not the contested land but rather the precedent that would exist were the plot to be surrendered to the workers.
"This case could affect the future of 35 or 40 other plots, of land. This is probably why the company is resisting, not because of the 40 or so acres from the Tacamiche hamlet," he said.
Comments in Lindner's Aug. 18 letter give credence to Falla's analysis.
"The Honduran government, the business community and many other sectors, have expressed serious concern about the potential threat of further land invasions if the Tacamiche situation were to continue," Lindner wrote,
Historically, conflicts in Honduran banana plantations have influenced the rest of the country. For example, a 1954 strike against United Fruit spread throughout Honduras, eventually paralyzing 60 percent of the country's economic activity.
Mike Gable, a university professor of Catholic social ethics and liberation theology in Cincinnati and a former lay missionary to Honduras, said more than just banana lands are at stake in Tacamiche. Pressures, he indicated, may be coming from far beyond Cincinnati,
Gable said he believes the "progressive government of (Honduran president) Carlos Reina would like to be on the side of the peasants." But, he said, the international financial community under the auspices of the Paris Club is presently considering a $700 million loan reprieve package for Honduras.
"If the Reina government is perceived as being antibusiness, it won't get that package," Gable said. Bananas rake in 42.7 percent of Honduras' export revenues, and the country is the world's third most important producer of the fruit.…