Standing on a white sand beach on the Honduran coast I took a deep breath as I dipped my toes in the warm waters of the Caribbean, soaking up the beauty of my surroundings. A call from the nearby jeep brought me to my senses and I grabbed my sandals before running barefoot to the vehicle which would take me to deep into the plains of the Aguán Valley. Despite that moment of serenity, it was impossible to forget that only a few hours previously I had stood under that same sweltering sun, surrounded by mounds of rubbish and swarms of flies, speaking to men, women and children about the injustice and poverty in their lives.
In April 2015 I travelled to Honduras to write about land disputes and human rights abuses in this small Latin American nation. In 2011 I had travelled as a backpacker through Central America, stopping off briefly in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa. During that trip I was given a glimpse of the country’s stark inequality and inherent corruption. However, what I learned on that short trip four years ago was only a taster of the persecution suffered by so many in Latin America in their pursuit for recognition of their basic human rights.
The roots of the land conflict in Honduras stretch back to the 1970s and 1980s, when the government introduced a process of agrarian reform through collective land ownership. The land reform began to be reversed in 1992, after the introduction of a law that reduced restrictions on the sale of collectively owned land and promoted privatisation. This allowed wealthy landowners, such as the millionaire industrialist Miguel Facussé who is chief executive of Dinant Corporation, to buy the vast majority of arable land in the Lower Aguán Valley for the production of African palm oil, one the world’s cheapest edible oils and a key ingredient in many foodstuffs and cosmetics. Local farmers claim that many of the sales were the result of bribery, threats and coercion, and say that they are still the rightful owners of the land. They also say that the large-scale cultivation of palm oil has led to impoverishment and hunger. With 79 murders per 100,000 people, Honduras is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world (The Republic of Ireland has 1.2 murders per 100,000 people).
This culture of violence and impunity has also spread to rural areas like the Aguán Valley where I visited the village of Guadalupe Carney, not far from the white sand beach we had passed through en route to the valley. Guadalupe Gallerda can still remember the sound of gunfire echoing through her village when, in November 2010, five farmers, including her husband, were shot dead while attempting to occupy a local African-palm plantation belonging to Facussé. “We want justice for the people who killed our family and friends. This is our land,” Gallerda told me as she sheltered from the midday sun in her sparse stone kitchen. “We need this land to look after our families. How many children must be left without fathers before we can reclaim the land that legally belongs to us?”
Gallerda’s 48-year-old husband, Raúl Castillo, left his home in the early hours of the morning to join nearly 160 local farmers, members of the Peasant Movement of the Aguán, and reoccupy the El Tumbador plantation. As the group approached El Tumbador, they say, they were fired on by security guards hired by Dinant and members of the Honduran military. Survivors say the farmers carried only machetes; Dinant claims the local men were heavily armed and initiated the gunfire. Rigores, another community in the Aguán, suffers from a lack of food security, in large part because of an eviction four years ago. In June 2011 police and soldiers threw its people off the land they had called home for more than a decade. Residents were given two hours to collect their belongings before their homes were set alight. Bulldozers destroyed many buildings in the village, including a school and two churches. As he showed me around the remnants of the village, Santiago Maldonado described the pain of watching helplessly as his home and crops were destroyed. After they burned their homes, he said, the authorities scattered poison over the fields. “As a small farming community we couldn’t do anything, just stand by and endure the destruction.” Before traveling to the Aguán Valley, I spent a few days in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second city which made headlines in 2013 when it was named the most violent city in the world outside the Middle East and other war zones, with more than 1,200 killings a year.
Aside from having one of the highest murder rates in the world, Honduras is rapidly becoming one of the most dangerous places on earth for women with a sharp increase over the past decade in domestic and sexual violence and gender-based murder, a phenomenon known as femicide. In a small, stuffy office in downtown San Pedro Sula I met with more than a dozen women who have put their lives at risk by campaigning for women’s rights. Dicsa Bulnes, who comes from the marginalised Afro-Caribbean Garífuna community, explained in detail how even after her partner tried to kill her, the authorities wouldn’t help. “As a woman I feel trapped,” Bulnes said. “I am a prisoner in my own home, there’s nowhere for me to go. I have no freedom.” “I’ve tried reporting him but the authorities won’t do anything. It feels like they are forcing women to buy their own coffins, to return to the attacker and suffer through the violence.” The women at the meeting nodded in agreement as Carolina Sierra, spokeswoman for the Foro de Mujeres por la Vida (Women’s Forum for Life) explained how the increased militarization of Honduras meant the government’s focus is now on weapons and the military. “It’s almost like there’s a carte blanche for the assassination of women,” said Sierra. “Anyone can murder a woman in Honduras and nothing will happen. “With this lack of accountability, women’s bodies are being used to send a message of fear and hate to the rest of the population. Men are killing women with rage, fury and cruelty. We’re forced to live in a culture of violent machismo which has become a natural, accepted part of Honduran society.”
Before leaving Honduras, I spent an afternoon with a group of teenage girls from the bustling food markets of the capital city, Tegucigalpa. I was immediately drawn in by the enthusiasm of these young girls who without a moment’s hesitation, launched into a candid discussion of the violent abuse so many women suffer in a world where the maras youth gangs rule the streets. Sarai (19) said many of her friends became pregnant when they were only 12 or 13 after meeting gang members in the marketplace. She said gangs “own the barrios” of Tegucigalpa, controlling how women walk, talk and dress. “They walk around the area monitoring everyone who comes in and out. They know exactly what’s going on and every single detail of our lives.” Wendy (14) says women and girls are the first to suffer under this brutal culture of drugs, extortion and violence. “All I can see around me is violence; there never seems to be any light. Freedom of speech in this country is a crime. Women don’t have the freedom to walk down the street without worrying about being attacked. The men rule and the women must follow. “Some young women are raped by their own families,” she added quietly. “They’re raped by their uncles and fathers.”
Before leaving I pulled out my iPhone and asked the girls if I could take a picture. The teenagers immediately bundled together, fixing their hair and throwing their arms around each other. Before me sat six beautiful young women, full of optimism, excitement and infectious teenage energy who due to circumstance of birth live in a country where they face persecution because of their gender. But like all young women around the world, they dream of a happy future filled with adventure. “I try to reflect on what I really want from life,” Sarai told me as the girls packed up their belongings to leave for school. “My friends have become young mothers but they didn’t really want that. They were never given the chance to ask about what they really wanted. “I want to finish my studies and travel around my country. Honduras is such a beautiful country. And then finally, only finally, I might get married.
Sorcha Pollak, a journalist with The Irish Times, travelled to Honduras with the support of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund last April. Her article and video report about Honduras featured on The Irish Times website on the 9th of May.