Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fast Food, Transnational Supermarkets & Agrarian Conflict in Honduras

By Luis Aguilar

At present, Honduras has become an important battle ground for control sought by foreign Capital and State domination by the local elites in the context of a XXI century fashioned Coup d’Etat that occurred in June 2009. Anti-popular uprising forces in the continent are channeling their political bargaining power towards both the elites of the global North and the local oligarchies in the nations to stop a turn to the left in the politics of the region, which is in turn, trying to promote distribution of wealth and to reverse the anti-poor neoliberal policies of the last three decades. This theory (1) however, has recently been questioned by James Petras in an article explaining that the sub continent is actually running towards a XXI century form of capitalism; I think that the policies of capitalist domination may be advancing in the region because reformism takes time and most of the nations are now in a process of democratic shift from oligarchic domination to rather participatory democratic models. Food systems in Central America are at the core of this capitalist cultural and economical invasion. In the meantime, 83 political killings have occurred amongst activists and union members (not counting peasants), in 2010 alone 9 journalists (2) have being murdered at the hands of Death Squads (3) and political persecution occurs frequently at all levels.
In this context, the dilemma between peasant oriented food production systems vs. corporate agri-food systems should be a central element in Honduras because of two reasons: first, the country remains the most rural society in the western hemisphere (52% of pop. lives in centers of less than 2,000 people) (4) and second because the politics of food consumption, availability and accessibility in Central America still contain a strong drive governing peoples livelihoods and survival, thus remaining a central element in the political discourse amongst working classes.
In the construction process of an authentic broad-based and popular Resistance movement in Honduras,
 ten familieswere identified to have been direct sponsors and ideological supporters of the coup d’Etát, the richest of which have had direct involvement in land corporation grabbing. This grabbing in turn, includes evictions of campesinos that act based on a legal framework that allow them to make official claims over unproductive lands according to the Honduran constitution (Decree No. 8 in the Law of Agrarian Reform). Likewise, during the dawn of the neoliberal period some of these families franchised the fast food industry reaching levels of surprising economical success but not without controlling the laws and with lots of irregularities reported everywhere: they managed to be exempted from paying taxes to the State, spreading thus nationwide as a result. Multiple violations of labor rights (oleada de despidos,prestaciones no pagadasincumplimiento pago salario minimo) and other irregularities (no pago de RAP) have been documented not to mention of course the impossibility for employees to unionize. The damage that these franchised foods cause should be well documented and researched because not only a cultural implication is involved, but also due to the economical contradictions it represents in urban centers and the perception it causes among the population of how food should be delivered and consumed. For now, the political threat they carry out is evident for thousands of Hondurans because they witnessed the franchises direct support to the coup: the industry is currently suffering a boycott by the resistance (5). These are the most visible activities being undertaken by these wealthy families to the eyes of the public opinion in Honduras, but there is more.
On the other hand, the globalization of food retailers during the last decades has also invaded Honduras as part of a neoliberal package dictated from Washington. Recently, Wal-Mart acquired some of the most important supermarkets chains in Honduras having presence in a crosscutting scale of market sectors that can be classified by purchasing power and life styles of the regular costumers. According to Thomas Reardon in 2002 already 71 % of stakes in the supermarket investment sector was in the hands of foreign companies mainly by Dutch retailer Royal Ahold NV (through the Central America Retail Holding Company; CARHCO) from which in 2005 Wal-Mart obtained 33% of shares and 51% in 2006 leading to Wal-Mart Centroamérica being officially created owning 54 retail units in Honduras by 2010. Later in that year Wal-Mart Mexico absorbed the Central American branch to become Wal-Mart Mexico and Central America; we are talking about the biggest food trader in the Mesoamerican region. The degree of involvement and corruption by the local oligarchy and its political puppets in this process is still to be determined. In the meantime, Wal-Mart still does not dare to display its logo to be visible for costumers anywhere inside its retailing units.
Controlling most of the distribution and consumption of food in the urban areas, or at least the most visible ones (and this by leaving all the middle classes with no choice), the corporations try to get rid of any kind of family farming models in the rural milieu that are up to now the most common ones in terms of numbers but certainly not a priority in terms of support by public policy. Instead, they privilege agri-food corporative investors or landlords’ any kind of entrepreneurial activity. Farmers markets are a rarity and there are usually only one or two in every city.
In order to counterattack the rise of these foreign-owned corporative business networks, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty and Agrarian Reform (SARA) was created, mainly comprised by pro – peasant, pro - ecological agriculture social movements, the non-profit sectors, human rights organizations, La Via Campesina and peasant unions. This organization advocated for public policy and had, by 2008, a decree on agrarian reform policy that was approved by the national congress during the Zelaya administration which also contained anti GMOs statements. Similar platforms in other countries were suddenly emerging partly encouraged and organically supported by the called made from Porto Alegre by the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development which was sponsored by the governments of Brazil and The Philippines. This event had a replica in Honduras attended by the then president of the republic and the major stakeholders working in the improvement of the rural world; the Foro Nacional por una Reforma Agraria Integral y el Desarrollo Rural. SARA has continue to strengthen its work and has acquired major importance for policy making; in fact the alliance represents the last chapter of peasant organizing of higher degree in Honduras agrarian history. However its demands for land distribution were partially stained by tens, if not hundreds, of land legal disputes between land owners and the peasants nationwide, this of course by bribing the lawyers in the communities and the courts at national level. The 18-2008 decree to resolve land conflicts for the peasants took the whole Zelaya administration to be passed and faced many obstacles to be implemented. On the other hand, the fight against GMOs is held up by an enormous control from Monsanto and the other super agro-industrial corporations, deeply rooted corruption in implementing legal frameworks but also by a so far lack of interest from public opinion in this regard.
Furthermore, all this efforts were reversed by the 2009 coup and the pro local food resistance movement became affected by the overwhelming sociopolitical earthquake that it represented. In spite of the chaos, and simultaneously felt by the organizations and individuals, this sui generis political event in the recent history of Latin America has provoked an important shift in that it unveiled to the eyes of the majority of Hondurans the fake democracy as understood up to then. Now the struggles for land by poor landless peasants taking place in the Aguan Valley with theMUCA movement are certainly not ignored by everyone as it use to be in the past, however violence outbreaks have being occurring frequently. Being that these peasants groups are indeed the most vulnerable target during the post-coup State repression scheme in Honduras, massive support has being shown from public opinion either by word or action. Hence, this is a clear example that despite an imminent current focus over the major structure of resistance, the FNRP (The National Front of Popular Resistance), the social movements have also maintained their organic structures and are still pursuing what their demands from years of resistance have brought to them. In this sense, the FNRP is used as a unifying element for any kind of organizations and individuals that advocate for constitutional changes, is based on volunteer work and is defined by its self nominated members as a broad-based social movement; it is this crossroads of resistance paths that are decidedly clear about its objectives and political ways of acting that is driving the attention to Honduras.
Therefore, at this particular moment the food issues affecting Honduran society must be regarded simultaneously because only from this framework all citizens in resistance see themselves affected in one way or another, in either urban or rural settings, in their everyday lives and as cultural beings and will be able to associate the peasants in resistance from Valle Aguan with their everyday price constrains at a local market or at the Despensa Familiar now owned by Wal-Mart. The time of social movements performing significantly together with the people is currently happening in Honduras and an opportunity to socialize demands is implicitly being taken as granted already.
At this moment, as well, due to the political turmoil and the many human rights violations, the agenda is being focusing on the political issues affecting the emergence of the Resistance, through the FNRP, while at the same time, as I argue above, it crowns itself as the dominant platform of democratic representation in opposition to a bipartisanship model of traditional politics that dominated the last century. However, if neoliberalism is be fought against and reversed, food production, distribution and consumption will have to eventually be at the core of the problems to tackle for social movements and its allies because, after all, producing and consuming food are political acts that shape every economical and cultural activity, especially in the Honduras conditions.
Attention has to be drawn, by these movements, to the fact that the dismantling of rural well being is at the core of the neoliberal and fascist projects of the local oligarchy and imperialism for it provoked, and still provokes, massive flows of rural immigrants in the forms of available labor not only to be able to reduce wages in semi industrial peripheral zones, as is the case of Valle de Sula, but also to prevent the creation of a unionizing culture in those centers due to an excessive amount of labor availability and much lesser demand (6): that is why we never saw the appearance of unions in the Maquila or other intensive production industries. Once anti-rural policies destroyed any kind of form of well being in the country side, to the point of detaching new generations from any desire to work the land, urban working classes lost most of their few privileges, even more, the excessive amounts of people coming from rural areas went to hospitality sector jobs in tourist areas for the women and security and construction for the men, while the gates of “illegal immigration” were opened in the global north for urban migrants coming from the global south. That is why we find former Valle Aguan cooperative (7) families members working in hotels in Roatan living under deplorable conditions in slums of recent creation, like in Balfate, just one mile away from luxury West End, or young men from Juticalpa working in semi slavery conditions as migratory plantation workers all over the United States. Simultaneously, the depopulation of the rural scenario cleared the way for the landowners to allow a new colonization of the still abundant natural resources by transnational mining, water and timber companies.
As I argued before, Honduras is a rural society and as such all its current problems have an origin there. But hopefully, if changes are to come in the form of liberating forces and freedom winds carried out by a politicized union between old and new generations of patriots from the left, their opportunities to drive the country into a new form of socialism are also there.
This article was written by L. Aguilar to contact the author please write to AT
(1) Arturo Escobar, Benjamin Arditi
(2) Another journalist killed in Honduras
(3) According to the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists there has being 3 confirmed and 5 to confirm the motive of the assassination, locally the number escalates to 10 and in terms of population Honduras is certainly the country in the world were most journalist have being killed in 2010 in what constitutes perhaps the reality that most needs to be hidden by western media. (4) Not only in terms of percentages of population living in rural settlements of less than 2,000 inhabitants (52%) but also due to the distribution of middle size cities throughout the territory and the lack of a definitive center of urban development unlike the other central American nations. The dispute between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa has given the opportunity of vibrancy to other urban centers like Comayagua or Siguatepeque, La Ceiba or Choluteca.
(5) To the point that Fast food industry coalitions had to invest on national campaigns to justify their existence, the fact of not paying taxes and to try to improve their image after the Coup d’Etat. This boycott is not official or hasn’t being promoted by any organization is just a word of mouth phenomenon, further work should be done.
(6) This is an adaptation made by the author extracted from theories by Philip McMichael, development sociologist at Cornell University.
(7) A Cooperative membership is a form of welfare.

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