The difficulties faced by rural communities prior to the COVID-19 health crisis were already alarming. However, with the arrival of this global pandemic, smallholder farmers have seen their problems multiply. Under a state of emergency, where basic rights like access to health and food are limited, the helplessness of many families is concerning. This comes in addition to the intensified militarisation of the countryside under Decree PCM-052-2019, published in October 2019.
The total lockdown of Honduras since 20 March, and the subsequent suspension of constitutional guarantees, has forced Honduran families to confine themselves in their homes. Meanwhile, there is an increased police and military presence in cities, on motorways, and in rural communities. Because of this, smallholders who work the land and rely on their crops to feed their families are forced to leave their homes, but are not permitted to do so by government decrees. The National Union of Rural Workers (CNTC) explains that this implies a conflict. “The lands we farm are far away, and when we go out to work or harvest our crops we are stopped by roadblocks, where they force us to go home or even threaten us with arrest,” explains Nora Ramírez, coordinator for the CNTC’s El Progreso Regional Board.
Peasant communities are generally located far from urban centres, and are seriously affected by this restrictive situation. It is practically impossible for them to travel to work, to go to the bank, or to obtain food or medicines, as transit routes are monitored, traveling is not permitted, and there is no public transport. “I rely on my daughter’s minimum wage. However, we cannot withdraw those funds because there is no access to banks. It takes 45 minutes to travel from the village where we live to El Progreso, and there’s no transport at the moment,” Nora Ramírez explains. Because of this, there are many smallholder families that do not have money, medicines, or supplies. Although the government has announced the delivery of thousands of 'Solidarity Bags', the CNTC believes that the President will be very selective in distributing these food supplies, and that those who will benefit most will be political allies.
Economic, social, health and humanitarian crisis
The health system, which is absolutely vital during this crisis, has been continuously dismantled over the past ten years. With the arrival of COVID-19, the health system will become totally constrained, and could possibly collapse entirely, which would drive up the virus’s mortality, according to the Coalition Against Impunity Honduras. Moreover, during this crisis, soldiers are receiving personal protective equipment, while many health centres are closed completely3. Those that remain open do not have sufficient preventative medical equipment. Facing this situation, many smallholder families have seen limitations placed on their right to health.
The CNTC goes into more detail, and explains that this situation will lead to an economic, social, health and humanitarian crisis, which multinational corporations and landowners will exploit to occupy more land. “With the new food production law approved by the government through PCM-030-2020, businesspeople will be the ones in charge of food production, not small producers or peasant farmers", explains Franklin Almendares, CNTC national coordinator. “The most serious element is the inventory and registry of all national lands to bring them under this scheme. In other words, this will deliver these lands into the hands of businesspeople. This will lead to the escalation of indigenous and smallholder activism, and an increase in evictions and criminalisations”, he adds, recalling violent military actions that have taken place in communities throughout the country, like in the Atlántida department, where several smallholder groups have been evicted.
However, the militarisation of the countryside did not emerge with the COVID-19 crisis, but is rather a phenomenon that smallholder organisations have been denouncing for many years. In November last year, the government approved the Agricultural Development Programme of Honduras (PDAH), whose main aim is to “improve agricultural productivity and profitability”. However, it also gives a leading role to the armed forces in managing the agricultural sector, granting them the power to administer agricultural programmes as well as over 1 billion lempiras. The programme, moreover, is not an isolated measure. Over the past six years, Honduras has seen its budget for state security and defence increase by 112%.
This measure gravely affects the smallholder farmers of Honduras, a country in which agriculture represents 14% of GDP, generates 36% of employment, and accounts for 72% of exports, as of 2019. It also adds to issues related to land ownership, the expansion of the extractivist model in the country, and the proliferation of criminalisation that smallholders across Honduras face every day.
This exceptional situation demonstrates just how necessary the people who work towards human rights, land activism, and food sovereignty and security are. However, this is also a time when the space for defending human rights is closing, and militarisation appears to be increasing. Because of this, now is the time when we must be most vigilant and present with those who defend fundamental rights.