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HONDURAS: The fragility and limits of agrarian reforms

The antecedents

Honduras is the archetypal banana republic due to the importance of its foreign-owned mines and plantations. The interests of the nation’s dominant social strata have been focused in the North, particularly on the plantations where there has been a very high level of ‘proletarianisation’. Successive military regimes have been in power until recent times.

The colonial history of Honduras is similar to that of Nicaragua. However, it was not until after World War II that the mestizo 1 farmers silently started growing coffee by investing their own labour. Due to the weight of the mining and banana enclaves, this coffee production did not stir violent conflict with the dominant class, as was the case in Nicaragua.

Honduran agrarian reform

This began in 1962, a few years after the Cuban revolution, with the support of the Alliance for Progress. The first aim was to avoid the contagion of revolution.

After the 1954 general strike, conflicts over farmland multiplied in the North where the labour unions were powerful. Mass layoffs had forced workers to switch to small farming, which implied the need to obtain land most often in the hands of the big cattle breeders. This is the context in which the first federative farmers’ organisation 2 came into being. It organised the first invasions on land belonging to multinational banana corporations. It was never accorded legal status and, accused of being communist, it suffered violent repression.

In order to carry out a moderate agrarian reform, the government needed farmers’ organisations that it could control. ANACH 3 was founded in this aim and it was the start, via successive divisions, of a large number of farmers’ organisations working with the reformed sector.

The first agrarian reform law (Decree #2 of 29/09/62) provided for the redistribution of individual plots of land subject to different legal statuses (national, communal and private) that were assigned because they were either untilled or had been occupied illegally. This initial attempt did not give any results due to its slowness and the fact that the peasant movement was repressed.

During this period, a collective organisation model was successfully tested by the Guanchías cooperative, made up of former banana plantation workers, who cultivated the land abandoned by Tela RR Co. Decree #8, which was passed in 1972, led to the distribution of national and communal land, while supporting this collective option. The peasant movement demanded the acceleration of the agrarian reform process, which had been organised by ANACH and was often repressed. This led to the adoption of a second agrarian reform bill in January 1975 under the reformist regime of General López Arellano. This time, priority was given to the redistribution of land to collective work units, either cooperatives or businesses.

The arguments used were economic (the need to modernise farming, to use inputs and machines) and moral (the fight against selfishness and individualism). The documents used to train the farmers’ leaders seem at first sight to be modernist and progressive; however, they displayed a total misunderstanding of small family farming and a deep-rooted disdain for the peasant population, which was considered backward and uncouth 4. In these documents, there is a mix of the Israeli kibbutz approach and the aspirations of “socialist” intellectuals and activists 5. The State systematically played an ambiguous role: depending on the circumstances, either it backed those who promoted the agrarian reform or it accused them of being communists.

Theoretical aims of the Honduran agrarian reform law of 1975

  • limit sales of national land to private persons (200 ha)

  • limit the extension of farmland (100 to 2,000 ha according to the zone).

  • no legalisation of ownership of any plot less than 5 ha in order to “eradicate the minifundio »

  • ban on renting and sharecropping land.

The farmers’ organisations 6 restricted themselves to the role of promoting the cooperatives and associative companies set up as part of the Agrarian Reform, which was intended to put an end to the obscurantism and technological lag of individual workers, allowing them to attain the mythical ideal of the entrepreneur. Since the agrarian reform institutions endorsed the majority of the farmers’ organisations, often by funding them under the pretext of training programs, the farmers’ movement became increasingly more dependent on State Institutions. This in turn has engendered real corruption problems.

Although the 1975 law established the possibility for the agrarian reform to affect private properties whose use did not conform to its “social function”, the agrarian reform process basically boiled down to the reclamation of national land on the new frontier that had been seized illegally by big cattle breeders 7. The law failed to eliminate forms of share-cropping and created additional constraints for small farmers.

The struggle for land is monopolised by farmers’ organisations involved in the management of the agrarian reform. In order to have land access, it is necessary to join a group of landless farmers at the “grassroots” level of an organisation, participate in taking over land, get the National Agrarian Institute to authorise the use of this land and then wait a long while for legislation concerning collective ownership.

Although “ownership” and formal rights in land remained at the collective level in all cases, farming in grassroots groups was far from being wholly collective, even on the Atlantic coastal plains 8. The farmers preferred having individual plots rather than working cooperatively. Furthermore, working on individual plots appealed to farmers producing for export (bananas), or when the surface area per cooperative worker was large 9.

More than thirty years of agrarian reform programmes have not allowed Honduras to solve the problem of unequal land distribution. In 1993, the number of farmers that were landless or possessed less than one hectare was estimated at over 200,000, i.e. 44% of rural families. Overall, the Honduran agrarian reform has led to the redistribution of about 380,000 ha, that is to say 14% of all cultivated land, or 4% of the country’s territory 10.

The 1990s: calling the traditional systems of agrarian reform into question

The law for the modernisation and development of the agricultural sector (1992)11 is the keystone of a system that uses new foundations to review the whole of the country’s agricultural development, as part of the implementation of structural adjustment policies. Defined with the help of international evaluators 12, it modified previous laws in many areas, giving them a blatant neo-conservative ideological slant.

The law intends to accelerate the process of formally transferring State properties to private persons. The minimum amount of time a person must occupy national land in order to qualify for a title deed has been reduced to three years. The law also aims to reincorporate land used by the reformed sector in the general property registration system through issuing title deeds and recording properties more quickly. Regarding the agrarian reform, the law calls into question the precedence given to collective ownership. The beneficiaries can now opt for the assignment of individual plots and members of the cooperatives and community companies have been issued equity security, which represents their share of the total capital. Furthermore, the law decreases the minimum legal farm surface area from 5 ha to 1 ha, thereby legalising smaller minifundia. Lastly, it authorises the sale of land by the beneficiaries of the agrarian reform, provided that the plots in question have been legalised.

At the same time, the law erases the legal means for continuing a genuine agrarian reform, which would redistribute land evenly:

  • it permits the existence of properties exceeding the limits set by the 1975 law as long as they have been the subject of major investment projects;

  • it does away with the idea that tenant farming is a type of occupancy that calls for an agrarian reform;

  • uncultivated land remains theoretically liable to be expropriated . . . unless it is woodland.

The modernisation law grants tree ownership to the holders of title deeds to land 13. It seeks to spread market practices, as well as to promote land rentals and joint investment in farm production.

Furthermore, the modernisation law sets up mechanisms intended to help small farmers become more competitive via:

  • special financial assistance for settling in aimed at beneficiaries of both the agrarian reform and programmes that issue title deeds,

  • the establishment of a network of savings and rural credit banks that are to work with farmers’ organisations

  • putting mechanisms into place that increase the number of farmers who gain land access by means of the land market 14

The implementation of the law was less complete than foreseen. None of the three proposals for the increased market integration of farmers, for the settling aid and land funds, were put into effect in the least bit.

The « privatisation » of forests created some serious problems. It revived old title deeds issued during the colonial period or after independence, which are held by joint owners who have never legally divided their lands (sitios proindivisos). Since small farmers without title deeds have been occupying these lands for generations in most cases, their owners had stopped using them entirely. Instead of making land tenure more secure, this law increased the precariousness of the tenure situation for usufructuary producers who did not already have title deeds.

Lastly, and this is undoubtedly one of the most significant elements, the law led to a boom in the sale of lands coming from cooperatives and employee-owned companies.

The process of selling off lands belonging to the reformed sector began even before this law was publicised, when the members of the flagship collective company “Isletas” sold it to the Standard Fruit Company in 1990 for an estimated quarter of its worth. Although this sale was theoretically illegal on account of the agrarian reform, the National Agrarian Institute overlooked it. Land sales, especially for fertile land on which bananas or palm trees could be grown, multiplied after the law was publicised. Given the devaluation of Honduran currency and the expanding banana market, an enticing investment opportunity presented itself here to multinational corporations and a few big Honduran entrepreneurs.

In May 1994, just two years after the law was passed, the farmers’ groups of the reformed sector had sold more than 30,000 ha of land, i.e. just over 7% of all reformed land. The impact on the sector is greater in certain regions with strong agricultural potential, such as the Northern coast where more than 80% of these sales have occurred.

The magnitude of the phenomenon is a clear sign of the fragility of many employee-owned companies and cooperatives founded by the agrarian reform, since they often face financial hard hardships and are wrought with corruption. This process has continued afterwards in every case where the reformed land was of good quality and well located, though we do not have the most recent figures on this subject.

Other trends such as renting land to farmers or companies, or the establishment of joint-ventures with national or foreign capitalists have also developed in the reformed sector. The conditions of these contracts vary, but the growers generally lose control of the production process. They become labourers who continue to assume part of the risk even though they are no longer capable of working on the land they bring to the table.

The farmers’ organisations have had great trouble designing a common strategy allying them for the defence and promotion of their kind of farming 15. The main organisation representing individual people unites small- and medium-sized coffee growers 16. However, its activities remain closely linked to the product, and although it is now present almost everywhere in the country, this organisation is not much involved in land politics.

Under these conditions, it has taken only a few years to seriously undermine the effects of land redistribution through agrarian reform. New struggles for land access, along with violence and repression, are beginning to come about, particularly in the North.

1 Mestizo, meaning of mixed stock in Spanish, is a term used to refer to a person of mixed ethnic background, usually for persons of both European and Native American ancestry.

2 the Central Committee of Unificación Campesina, that was transformed into FENACH [Féderación Nacional de Campesinos de Honduras] in 1962.

3 Associación Nacional de Campesinos de Honduras

4 Cf. « Teoría de la organización », C. Santos de Moraís.

5 In a country where the “modern” plantations managed by multinational corporations operate alongside that of poor Indian and mestizo populations that had never been recognised by the Spanish colonisers, and where the most combative farmers have often been salaried workers over long periods, it is easy to understand the strength of such language.

6 Even the most radical among them were often heavily repressed by successive governments.

7 In the 60s and 70, a large part of Honduran territory was still covered by forest. According to Honduran legislation, land for which no title deed has been issued is considered as « national ». The frontier farming process, which comprises the movement of poor peasants and the installation of large farms practising extensive grazing does not give rise to the issue of title deeds.

8 In 1989, in the North of Honduras, only 9% of the agrarian reform groups organised collectively almost all farming activities. 44% of these groups had individual plots but maintained at least one parcel in common. 47% of them had divided the whole land into individual plots. Among those, 17% maintained some cooperative organisation for services and 30% worked only as individual producers.

9 The added value per ha was very often much less (e.g. with single crops) than what it would have been with peasant farming methods, i.e. different crops and livestock.

10 70% of the land, which is covered by forest or designated for forestry, belongs to the “public domain ».

11 Voted under the government of R. Callejas.

12 Mainly USAID.

13 Since the 70s until 1992, the forests of Honduras belonged to the government, even though the soil belonged to the private sector.

14 Specific additional laws were voted including that concerning the « fondo de tierras ».

15 Some of them, gathered in COCOCH and traditionally mostly linked to agrarian reform, are very active at national and international level, with VIA CAMPESINA.

16AHPROCAFE. This sector has benefited from very different support from that contributed to the agrarian reform, with the constitution of a coffee institute, a Coffee Bank and a farmers union, all financed by the farmers from levies on exports. The sector has become one of the pillars of the national economy.


Merlet, Michel. Réformes agraires, marchés fonciers, organisations paysannes: échecs et défis. Les cas du Nicaragua et du Honduras. Communication au Séminaire International Transitions foncières et changement social. CIESAS - IRD. Mexico. Mars 1999.

IRAM [MERLET M., POMMIER D. et al.] Estudios sobre la tenencia de la tierra. OTR. Banco Mundial. Septiembre 2000.

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