Interviews with Three Campesino Activists

September 25, 2007


Peasant organizations exist throughout Central America, and vary in size, composition, and goals. Three campesino activists speak of their experiences, successes, and failures within these organizations.

By Marc Edelman

Peasant organizations in Central America run the gamut from large national unions to small local cooperatives, from groups that include small, medium and occasionally even large producers to those with constituencies among the landless. Although the goals and orientations of these organizations vary greatly from country to country and within each country, several broad trends are present throughout the region. Many peasant organizations are seeking to distance themselves from political parties, arguing that the interests of small producers must be uppermost on their agendas. In addition, peasants in every country have had to confront and adapt to free-market economic policies that have usually favored large-scale, export-oriented agriculture and threatened hard-won agrarian reforms. A Central America-wide umbrella group, the Association of Central American Peasant Organizations for Cooperation and Development (ASOCODE), is attempting to unite organizations from different countries and to develop viable political and economic alternatives for small agriculturalists throughout the region. The campesino organizers interviewed here speak of both personal experiences and broader issues of social and political change. Their voices and viewpoints are diverse, but they reflect the emergence of an increasingly sophisticated and articulate leadership committed to finding strategies that go far beyond the next harvest.

LEONCIA SOLORZANO, born in 1953, is national coordinator of the Coordinating Council of Honduran Peasant Organizations (COCOCH). She speaks here of organizing campesinas on the north coast, of sexism and racism in the peasant movement, and of the difficulties of being a national leader.

I come from the department of Atlántida, from Corozal, a beautiful Garífuna community on the north coast, with 5,000 inhabitants. We have a telephone, a health center and a school. I have six children. In 1985 I formed a base organization in my community affiliated with CODIMCA, the Council for the Integral Development of Peasant Women.

A promoter came to our community and I learned about how CODIMCA supports peasant women’s efforts to improve their living standards and housing. I knew the community, so I invited about 20 women to a meeting. Of those, 16 stayed and a week later we formed our group.

We managed to obtain 20 manzanas [35 acres] of land. We’ve concentrated on small projects for our own consumption––vegetables, plantains and cassava––because we’ve never received any outside economic support. We’re trying to obtain funds for a cassava processing plant. Some day we’d like to expand our project and to be able to sell some of what we produce.

In 1986 the CODIMCA compaheras elected me to a national position, in charge of education. I spent two years in that. In our country, there’s still some racism. Some compañeras saw that this black woman was standing out, surpassing them in a few things. They tried to remove me from the coordinating committee and even from my base organization. The racism was clear, because some compañeras said, “this negra can’t continue in the national coordinating committee, because a black woman can’t coordinate a white people’s organization.” Because in CODIMCA the majority are white compañeras. We’re only a few blacks, only the compañeras from the north coast. They said to my face, “negra, inferior race.” Nevertheless, the CODIMCA regional organization had a serious talk with them. These things are very disturbing, but I’ve continued in the process because of my commitment to the people and the confidence that the majority has in me. I spent a year in my region and then they sought me out again for a national post, this time in health. And in November, 1993, I was elected national coordinator of COCOCH.

For our male compañeros, given the machista system, it’s difficult to have a woman as a leader. But men and women have to work side by side. We’ve had three-day gender workshops with men and women where we talk about women’s rights and why women must join the development process. So the compañeros have softened up, now they’re not so machista as one might think, although some still maintain that attitude. The majority of organized male compañeros don’t think it’s strange anymore that a woman is a leader, or that a woman shouldn’t participate just because she’s a woman.

My children stay in our community. My mamá is nearby and my husband works in Ceiba, 13 kilometers away. He leaves every morning and returns at night. A niece makes their meals. My older children are boys. They wash their school uniforms, but they’re so lazy-they don’t wash all the clothes, they always leave part of the laundry. Sometimes I’ll do it or I’ll pay someone to do it in order to be able to cover all my activities. And there are days when I have to leave COCOCH because they call me from CODIMCA for another activity. It’s difficult, very difficult. There are times when I’d like to be able to multiply myself, just to fulfil all my responsibilities.

WILSON CAMPOS, born in 1959, participated in the formation of the Peasant Union of Guatuso (UCADEGUA) in northern Costa Rica, in the early 1980s. Since 1991, he has been coordinator of ASOCODE, based in Nicaragua.

When I was little, I remember my papá telling us that to be somebody, to triumph, to have a better life, meant not being a campesino. This was very common in my community. I would hear it in school. People make fun of and discriminate against campesinos. In Costa Rica, they call us “polos.” It’s pejorative. “Don’t be a polo, you look like a polo.” My father suffered from that a lot. He worked on plantations––bananas, all kinds of farms––and he was always very poor. He said it’s better to work in a factory or with the government, anything but agriculture. He didn’t want us to be agriculturalists, because he came from a very painful experience of being a campesino and agricultural worker.

There was an idea that we were dumb, ignorant. The educational system, the whole culture told us that. It was always someone else, from outside, who knew: the priest, the mayor, above them legislative deputies, experts, technicians, professors. There was always a profound denial of our own knowledge, culture and experience.

When I was still very young, I was part of a group that wanted to be agriculturalists. We approached the leftist parties, hoping to transform our situation, but we rapidly saw that they didn’t have answers for us. They were city people talking about the countryside, but without any knowledge. So I said to myself: “if these are the ones who are supposed to know, then I really know.”

All the development models failed precisely because they hadn’t taken the campesino into account. They didn’t understand or know about our experience and belittled our culture of production, our organizational processes. They hoped to eradicate us and impose a modernizing view of culture.

Our movement isn’t only for development, but for the effective democratization of Central American societies. We can’t just seek economic improvements. We have to talk about the kind of society we want, and that’s profoundly political.

We’ve begun to organize ICIC––the Civil Initiative for Central American Integration–– with various social movements, unions, cooperatives, urban shantytown dwellers, NGOs, and small enterprise and women’s groups. Different sectors began to meet. The campesinos would arrive at a presidential summit and find union members. We’d ask them: “Why did you come?” “We came for these reasons...” “Good. Why don’t we join forces? Let’s talk and have a meeting.” So we’d meet and find areas of agreement, common themes. At another summit, we met the human rights groups and we found that many of their concerns are also ours. Alone we weren’t going to get very far, either nationally or at the Central American regional level.

ASOCODE was chosen by these movements to coordinate ICIC. I think this is very important, because historically the peasantry was seen as retrograde, conservative, non-progressive. Now it’s an advanced, leading sector, even in a process of coordinating non-peasant organizations. This goes against a lot of political theories.

We’ve come to summits with documents, with profound critiques of economic structural adjustment, but also with proposals. And we use the presidents’ own words: “As you said in Antigua when they called for the participation of civil society in the reconciliation process. We’ve forced them to recognize us as a legitimate force. But now, after two years, we’ve participated in four summits and over 20 regional forums. We’re seeing that they’ve made a lot of promises that they haven’t kept.

SINFORIANO CACERES, born in 1959, is a leader of the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG) in Nicaragua, and of the National Cooperative Federation (FENACOOP). Here he analyzes the “counter-reform” taking place in the Nicaraguan countryside.

The previous government tried to control the entire economy and the present government tends to privatize everything. But “to privatize” now means “to monopolize,” as has happened in banking, commerce and in those public posts that permit one to become rich fast.

Approximately 10% of the land area distributed by the Sandinista agrarian reform has been sold, and 40% of the land distributed by the present government has been sold. Seventy thousand hectares (173,000 acres) from the Sandinistas and 245,000 hectares (605,000 acres) from Doña Violeta’s government.

Who is taking over this land? The mechanism is simple and audacious. Influential people, such as Vice-Minister of Agriculture Jorge Granera, get banks to investigate which cooperatives have debts and can be legally dispossessed. The government then auctions the properties, and these people bid, assuming the cooperatives’ debts and obtaining new loans. Overnight poor functionaries become rich landlords with thousands of hectares. I’m talking about the army high command, cabinet ministers, public functionaries with family connections and high status.

The people who buy know it’s illegal. Sellers don’t always have titles, just great needs, and they have to sell cheaply. Economy Minister Paulo Pereira, for example, bought lands in Sébaco telling the campesinos, “I’ll buy the land and pay your debts. Leave the legal questions to me, I’ll give you cash,” The agriculture and economy ministers needed those lands because the Inter-American Development Bank financed onion and peanut projects there. They have the information and know the opportunities so they buy the lands in advance.

Credit has been fundamental in forcing small and medium peasants to return to their historical role of supplying cheap food and labor to the nearest hacienda. Most agrarian conflicts now aren’t in big landlords’ properties, but in cooperatives. The greatest beneficiaries of these conflicts are the large producers and this caste of nuevos ricos.

Among those who died in the struggle for land, you won’t find members of any important family. You’ll find names like Martínez, Pérez, García, González, but not Cuadra, Chamorro, Lacayo, or even Ortega. Nor anyone from the high levels of either side. Those people have settled with each other and the machinations of reunited elite families are behind the counter-reform. Everybody knows this, because Nicaragua has only a few family names.

Fortunately, people have come to identify themselves as proprietors. The strangest thing about Nicaraguan campesinos is that when they received the most land they had the least consciousness of being owners. Now with the danger of losing land to banks or in court, they’ve rapidly become conscious. Before you could easily make decisions about peasants’ land. “You have a lot of land and few people, give me this part so I can distribute it to someone else.” Now that doesn’t happen. Now cooperative directors and small producers are in with the police, they have lawyers, they’re on the property with the laws in hand. If they sell their land, they’ll have nothing, no way to support their families, no independence, no reason to exist.

Producers are recovering the values of their ancestors, becoming self-sufficient. Campesinos had become specialists in monoculture––the Sandinista development poles encouraged this by producing only rice, tomatoes, coffee, cotton, or livestock. Now the typical peasant farm is re-emerging, with avocados, pigs, bananas, tubers, oranges, rice and a cow. Peasants are returning to the model that allowed them to survive all these generations, in good and bad times, with good and bad governments.

This is important, because the war didn’t permit young peasants to develop a productive culture. They left when they were 15 or 16 years old, returned at 25, and never learned to farm. So many campesinos don’t understand campesino mentality, that pigs need to be fed to produce fertilizer for maize, that by selling some maize you can get shoes and notebooks so the children can study. That logic was lost, that capacity of the campesino to manage his micro-economy in spite of all the economists that surround him. Having passed from a paternalist state to being orphans––because that’s what we are now––made us return to our roots.

The people have great common sense. “The elites fight by day,” they say, “but they drink guaro together by night.” The most important thing is that people relate to each other as producers, not as politicians. In the countryside, if you put two people together who don’t know each other––one who was a Contra and the other from the army–– and they begin to talk about land, credit and production, they understand each other right away. But if you start them talking about politics, they’ll start shooting at each other again and killing. So in the cooperatives, in UNAG, in FENACOOP, we say, “in this house we talk about the problems of our sector and leave politics at the door.” It’s not that we’re philosophizing; it’s that otherwise blood could flow.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR The interviews excerpted here were conducted by Marc Edelman, professor of anthropology at Hunter College and NACLA board member, in June and July of this year as part of a research project on the internationalization of Central American peasant movements.

Marc Edelman acknowledges the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation (grant 5627), the National Science Foundation (SBR-9319905), and the National Endowment for Humanities (FA-32493).

Tags: peasant organizations, campesinos, interview, land

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