Banana Lands Site of Conflict in Honduras; Peasants Face Eviction from Chiquita Farm

Article excerpt

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

Eviction imminent

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.

Plantation villages

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. …