On the International Day of Struggle Against Monoculture Tree Plantations, activist Sandra Escobar tells us a story of pain and joy, as peoples in Honduras struggle against the expansion of oil palm plantations and build alternatives together.
Approximately 198,000 hectares of Honduras are planted with oil palm crops, representing almost 2% of the country’s land. Annually, it produces 2.4 million tons of fruit and 480,000 tons of crude oil, used for products such as butter, vegetable oil, margarine, soaps and biodiesel. The country is the eighth biggest producer of palm oil in the world.
Yet, getting access to good quality water in Honduras is not easy. Proliferation of monoculture crops and overuse of synthetic fertiliser and pesticides (agrotoxics), as well as widespread mining activities, has caused a decline in biodiversity and the quality and availability of water. Agrotoxics cause profound changes in the nutritiousness of foods and medicinal plants, which has a damaging effect on community health. Widespread drug trafficking activities and iron oxide mining both consume huge amounts of water.
The country’s commitment to palm agribusiness, model cities and tourism, all concentrated in the northern departments of Colón, Cortes, Atlántida and Yoro, has brought serious consequences. Communities are facing invasion of their ancestral territories, displacement, armed gangs hired by business leaders, harassment and murders, especially of peasants and indigenous people.
There are also the factors of tourist emporiums, drug trafficking, organised crime, the creation of protected areas without consultation. According to information from Movimiento Madre Tierra (Friends of the Earth Honduras), mining extractivism has damaged water basins and the source of the main rivers in these areas, as well as the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in the department of Gracias a Dios. Peasant and indigenous communities, including the Garifuna, Miskito, Tawahka and Pech peoples, have faced evictions and murders of their community leaders.
There is a strong concentration of military and police in these areas, including the Naval Force, the Preventive Police, and the Caratasca U.S. Military Base in Gracias a Dios. Leaders from the Plataforma Agraria network, the peasant organisation of Guapinol and COPA (the Coordination of Popular Organisations of Aguán) face systematic persecution and imprisonment.
Dozens of the nearly 50 Garifuna communities living on the Atlanic coast of Honduras are gathered in an organisation called OFRANEH, the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras. These communities are surrounded by palm monocultures.
Sandra Escobar, Blanca Serrano and Iris Gomes, leaders of Madre Tierra, work together with OFRANEH to resist oil palm agribusiness, as well as hydroelectric and mining projects. Besides them, there are dozens of women in both organisations working together to denounce the role of Honduran companies and transnational corporations from Canada, the United States and Brazil.
Through activities such as media outreach, street marches, tours, meetings and sit-in protests, Madre Tierra and OFRANEH publicly warn about the negative impacts of the industrial monoculture model. They also build and promote alternatives, through sharing experience in growing food and medicinal plants in an agroecological manner, and carrying out actions of mutual solidarity. They are supported by actions of national and internationalist solidarity from other environmental, human rights and feminist organisations.
Sandra Escobar is the Executive Coordinator of Movimiento Madre Tierra. To mark the International Day of Struggle Against Monoculture Tree Plantations, we spoke to Sandra to learn more about their work.
A model for destruction: the serious consequences of oil palm
Sandra explained that the “agrocommodities” model in Honduras has robbed local communities of their territories, contaminated water sources and ruined soils. “The right to life, the right to food, the right to sow crops, the right to land tenure are all affected,” she added.
Women suffer in particular. “It affects us since it is we women who are in the territory, who take care of the homes, the children, the land. We are the ones who plant, carry firewood, carry water.” Sandra adds that, despite all the pollution by transnational corporations and living “in a very chauvinistic country,” women “take care of our environment, we continue to sow as our ancestors have taught us, looking after the economy, seeking to eat healthy food.”
In a report published last year by Friends of the Earth Latin America and the Caribbean on the growing power of transnational corporations, Madre Tierra highlighted that the accessible data on land ownership in the country was “alarming and showed the willingness of the Honduran government to favour land grabbing.” According to the study, in recent years, 5% of the farms had extended their control to 61% of the areas that are apt for cultivation. However, 71% of the farms occupied only 9% of the area.
The country’s commitment to oil palm monocultures has generated serious social consequences, where forced disappearances, threats, persecution and murders of peasants and indigenous people are just the tip of the iceberg. The move towards model of land tenure that benefits entrepreneurs picked up speed after the 2009 coup d’état, which overthrew President José Manuel Zelaya. Since then, human rights violations in Honduras have been commonplace, and businessmen like Miguel Facussé have become sadly notorious.
In July 2020, OFRANEH denounced the kidnapping and disappearance of leader Sneider Centeno, president of the Patronato de Triunfo de la Cruz and active member of the Garifuna organisation, along with three other young people. To this day nothing is known, and the State still has not properly addressed the case.
The town of Triunfo de la Cruz is located about 220km from the capital city Tegucigalpa. Since the 1990s, several companies have been interested in occupying these territories to develop tourism and exploit natural resources.
In 2015, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of the Garifuna community of Triunfo de la Cruz, forcing the State of Honduras to grant the community “a title of collective property” over the territories they inhabit. A similar ruling by the Court favoured the Garifuna community of Punta Piedra, in the municipality of Trujillo, department of Colón.
The Court concluded that the State of Honduras had violated the right to collective ownership of ancestral territory, and the right to prior, free and informed consent. “Seven years have passed and the State refuses to comply with the sentences and, on the contrary, violence and hostility in the Garifuna territories have increased drastically,” warned OFRANEH.
In the past, the Garifuna community of Nueva Armenia in Atlántida, was also forcibly displaced by the banana boom, and much of their land has been invaded by palm trees. The only thing the indigenous people ask is that the State restore their ancestral territory to them. Instead, they have suffered various attacks and repression.
The serious violations of the rights of the peoples in Honduras have driven Friends of the Earth International to intensify its work of internationalist solidarity with these peoples. In August 2022, Friends of the Earth Latin America and the Caribbean also released a report in support of the Honduran people.
A model for life: small-scale production, reforestation, natural medicine, environmental protection
Friendship, solidarity and conviction about the need to resist and defend the territory, land and water, according to Sandra, are the pillars that sustain the work of Madre Tierra in alliance with OFRANEH. For her, the experience is “very beautiful”. ”We like the same thing; we sow, we exchange knowledge, we work with vegetables. We have changed the monoculture that those big transnationals have introduced with that African palm. We are changing it for coconut, watermelon, cassava, fruit trees, making our vegetables and medicinal gardens. In the few lands that have been recovered, which had been taken away from the Garifunas, the situation is changing.”
One example is in the Garifuna community of Vallecito, 75km from the nearest city, Trujillo, in Colón department. Here approximately 1,200 hectares were recovered from big landowners and organised crime.
Sandra told us more about how Madre Tierra and OFRANEH are building alternative models for life: “Our practice is what our ancestors taught us, sowing with harmony, taking care of the environment and the territory, sowing with the moon, reforesting with fruit trees, sowing our vegetables, our medicinal gardens.”
They harvest, among other things, radish, carrot, potato and sweet potato. This means that local people have quick access to healthy food in areas where, if not for that local production, they would have to walk several hectares. ” It’s a pleasure to see these previous plantations now cultivated without chemicals; they are vegetables that are born and are harvested with the hands of Madre Tierra and the Garifunas, all natural. It’s good to know that we are not polluting the land; on the contrary, we are protecting it.”
Madre Tierra organises training workshops for children, young people and older adults, from different communities. “The meetings are very beautiful: the knowledge we exchange with them, the joy seen in their faces when we are sowing. It’s not just sowing, but also knowing how to take care of our native seeds, since we don’t want genetically-modified seeds in Honduras,” Sandra says.
As in so many parts of Latin America and the global South, family, peasant and indigenous agriculture and small-scale food production were crucial during the worst moments of the pandemic.
“We couldn’t go out, we couldn’t go shopping, the streets were desolate,” Sandra recalls. “It was so important to have our edible and medicinal gardens within our homes and plots of land. We did not starve because, thank God, we know how to sow, we know how to cultivate.”
The Honduran activist told us about the importance of bartering and the local economy during Covid-19 lockdowns, as well as the role of natural medicine. She highlighted the role played by Dr. Juan Almendares, the national and international advisor for Madre Tierra and a historical leader. He encourages his colleagues to sow aloe vera, rosemary, yanten (plaintain), turmeric, ginger, and trains them in the use of medicinal plants. Also important are oregano, yerba buena and mint. “If we have the knowledge of these medicinal plants and know how to use them, we can save many lives. It’s also less costly,” Sandra declared.
During the pandemic, OFRANEH also created health care centres, which now are called ‘ancestral health homes’. “We are waging war on pharmaceutical companies, in practice,” says the organisation’s general coordinator, Miriam Miranda. “We tell them, you have to drink the tea, not take the pill.”
Another activity led by Madre Tierra and OFRANEH is the community management of forests, reforestation with ornamental and fruit trees, caring for biodiversity, fauna and flora.
Organisation and alliances: the key to implementing alternatives
In addition to the community work in Triunfo de la Cruz, Vallecito and Reitoca, a municipality in the department of Francisco Morazán, Madre Tierra also works in the capital city Tegucigalpa to denounce the agrocommodities model and promote alternatives.
“We are about 26 to 28 coordinators. Each one, based in their neighbourhoods and colonies, gives health workshops and sovereignty workshops. We teach about soil and caring for seeds. We show them the importance of having an edible, medicinal garden in their homes,” Sandra explains.
Madre Tierra’s work to train groups of women, young people and children in the capital is remarkable. Women from the organisation go in to schools, kindergartens and parks to lead reforestation activities and river clean-ups. Word of their work spreads fast, and they are often called to come and support in other places.Another key player in the building of alternatives is the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), where Dr. Almendares was Rector from 1979 to 1982. Sandra explained how agronomists from the University come in to communities to share seeds and knowledge. “It’s nice to work alongside them; they learn from us and we learn from them,” she added. Though she then claimed that “the university we have attended is life itself, the one that has taught us to get ahead, because the more we learn, the more we want to know and the more we want to share.”
In August 2022, at a protest in Tegucigalpa city, OFRANEH stated: ”We come from territories where life, dignity and well-being are fought for and built, with the encouragement of those who have preceded us in our rebellious history.”