/** labr.global: 325.0 **/
** Topic: Honduran Banana Workers Face Eviction **
** Written 10:28 PM Jul 23, 1996 by labornews in cdp:labr.global **
From: Institute for Global Communications <email@example.com>
Subject: Honduran Banana Workers Face Eviction
[L] A LIMA, Honduras -- From the moment American fruit producers installed themselves in northern Honduras a century ago, this has been the quintessential company town. The large Chiquita banana logo on the water tower here announces it, and the dusty streets are dominated by faded company posters promising "riches and progress for Honduras."
For most of that time, the company's word has been law. But now workers on banana plantations are resisting efforts by Chiquita Brands International, which says it needs to trim costs here in order to increase production and remain competitive in international markets, to evict residents from land they have worked for as long as three generations and to offer those holdings to ranchers and developers.
Troops, police, and government mediators have all, at various points, been called in to resolve a dispute that the Roman Catholic bishops of Honduras in a recent pastoral letter described as "the symbol of all agrarian conflicts." But that seems only to have fanned popular resentment of the corporation once known as the United Fruit Co., which still maintains its Honduran headquarters here.
"The company wants to show the government and Hondurans that they continue to be the power here," Oswaldo Martinez, news director of Radio Progreso, a local station, said of the efforts to dislodge the workers. "It's a caprice, a way of saying that they are still a state within a state and that Honduras, unfortunately, is still a banana republic."
The dispute began in July 1994, when families on the Tacamiche plantation here and on three others received letters saying the company had designated the land on which they lived and worked for "closing or final abandonment" because it was no longer fertile. Since many of the families have lived here since the 1920s, a decade before Honduras granted United Fruit title to more than 3,000 acres for $1, they were shocked and frightened at the order to leave.
"For the company, Tacamiche is just a former banana plantation that, after having the juice sucked from it, has been abandoned without a thought for the fate of those who lived here," said Jorge Antonio Reyes, a leader of one group of banana workers. "But for those of us from Tacamiche, this is our life, these are the cabins that watched as we were born and grew up."
Residents, convinced that the productivity of the fields was not the real issue, say they asked about acquiring the land so they could farm it themselves. Company officials contend that no such proposal was ever made and say they offered to relocate peasants to comparable parcels of land. The banana workers say that the quality of the land and housing they were offered was inferior and that the ownership titles are in dispute.
In the other three communities, each with about 400 people, residents remain on their land and they are still hoping that a special government commission can resolve the issue. But in February, army troops, the police, and Chiquita work crews marched into the Tacamiche settlement, evicting 123 families, uprooting their crops, making off with some of their belongings, and razing not only the wooden cabins in which they lived but also three churches where they had always worshiped.
"It was very painful to see all of our corn, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, and melons being plowed over by bulldozers, not to mention what they did to the churches," said Wilfredo Cabrera, a 34-year-old banana worker. "We have been peasants all of our lives, making the land produce, so we can never forgive that kind of destruction."
Both the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras and the Roman Catholic Church have denounced the February raid as a blatant violation of Honduran law. Though the government forces had a search warrant for some peasants accused of "encroachment," both groups said, no eviction order had been issued, and Chiquita had no authorization to demolish any buildings.
Arnoldo Palma, manager of Chiquita's holdings here, did not respond to telephone calls requesting comment, and a secretary rebuffed an effort to meet with him at his office here, saying that he was too busy for an interview. But officials based at Chiquita Brands International's headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, maintain that the action was both legal and justified.
"Our understanding is that all of the orders were proper for the actions that were taken," said Joseph W. Hagin, a company spokesman. "The company feels it acted honorably and bent over backwards to bring this thing to an amicable conclusion, but we were met with nothing but resistance from the very start."
Because of strikes and disease, said Manuel Rodriguez, a Chiquita lawyer and vice president, "Honduras has been a losing operation for our company for a number of years." The company's banana production here, he said, has dropped from 32.6 million 40-pound boxes in 1987 to 10.7 million boxes in 1994.
Over a comparable period, the minimum wage paid banana workers has slid from the equivalent of $8 a day to less than $3, and Chiquita's work force has been trimmed by more than half, to about 4,200 employees. To the Rev. Joseph Owens, a Jesuit priest who ministers to the banana workers, that is proof that Chiquita is pursuing "a progressive strategy to weaken the union and farm out production to non-union sources."
The banana workers' refusal to leave, he added, has become an impediment to those efforts, since the peasants continue to occupy land Chiquita wants to sell to real estate developers or to lease to "independent producers" not obliged to pay union wages, several of whom are former company executives.
"It's all a disguise to strip us of the gains we have made over 40 years," said Rene Martinez, president of the banana workers' union.
Since the eviction at Tacamiche, supposedly unproductive fields have been replanted with corn and sorghum, enraging the peasants, who are now living in a community center a few yards from the edge of the disputed property while their case slowly makes its way through Honduran courts. "Just because land is not productive for bananas does not mean it is unproductive for other crops," Rodriguez said when asked about the apparent inconsistency.
But even bananas have again been planted in some of the "infertile" fields, the peasants pointed out. "It might be economically viable for a small producer to do so but these aren't commercially exploitable quantities," Hagin said.