The story of the consequences of replacing farming with cattle raising couldn’t have a more tragic and devastating impact on the peasant farmers and the environment than it did in Honduras, especially in Southern Honduras where agriculture is the reigning source of livelihood.
The destruction based on human error is one of the most important narratives in the National Research Council book chapter: “Honduras: Population, Inequality and Resource Destruction.” Poor decisions were made throughout the entire process of transforming the farming agricultural culture into a cattle industry, which could have been prevented, but unfortunately, and as a result, according to the experts the damages are irreversible.
Reallocation of Land
Landowners cultivated cotton and grain, and peasant farmers cultivated their meager crops (e.g., maize, beans, sorghum) wherever they could mete out a piece of land. But landowners faced several events for which they had to make investment decisions: economically, agricultural commodity prices were not profitable enough; labor costs were proportionately too high; and rain was becoming scarce. However, they seized on the popularity of investing in livestock at the international and national levels and turned the fertile lands into pasture. Unfortunately, the farmers were cut off twice by the landowners: they lost their jobs as field workers, and their plots of land used to feed their families. Presumably, the big winners were the landowners for whom these livestock programs were like winning the lottery.
The World Bank for agriculture and rural development in Central America brought loan funds that expanded the cattle industry. Between 1960 and 1983, 57 percent of the loan funds went to the landowners for their cattle businesses, and at the same the devastation on the environment began to take its toll.
A Crack in the Delicate Balance
Southern Honduras has the most fertile land in the country and its inhabitants depend on agriculture, not only for putting food on their tables, but as the bread basket for the regions. Over 80 percent of the Honduras is mountainous and 70 percent of its population depend on agriculture. Thus, any change in the reallocation of the land has an immediate impact on the population and the country’s economy. In the 1970s, 68 percent of Honduras was owned by 20 percent of the population. The gap of social and economic inequality widened as the rich became wealthier and the poor remained in a debilitating suppression for which generations of families have never recovered.
Wealthy landowners took an aggressive stance against the peasant farmers and systematically forced them out of their lands, using unethical and even, illegal tactics, forcing the inhabitants to give up their ancestral landholdings. Then, peasant farmers had to submit to an onerous agreement whereby the owners would lease the land to them, pay an inordinate amount of rent each year, and when they couldn’t afford it, they were evicted. The farmers were forced to leave their lands as livestock production increased in the lowlands and the highlands. The Hondurans and Salvadorans became adversaries as they competed for the cultivable land that seemed to be gradually disappearing.
Shrimp Farming Opens Up More Social Wounds
Honduran investors added two more new export crops, cantaloupe and shrimp, to counter the decline in beef prices and its demand. But the big business in shrimp farming also means big problems. In the Golf of Fonseca, where the shrimp industry has grown exponentially since 1982, high levels of DDT pesticide have been detected in the shrimp larvae. Clearly, the runoff of pesticides is affecting not only drinking water but it threatens the health of many people, especially considering that the shrimp is an export product.
The areas where shrimp farms have expanded were once public lands where locals made their livelihood by fishing and hunting. Like the farmers that were displaced due to livestock production, the poor families along the waterways were similarly forced to leave their homes. The investors fenced out the locals, hired armed guards to keep them away, and designated beach areas as private property. Recently, community leaders have been assassinated in their attempts to fend off encroachment of wealthy investors that threaten their means of survival. One such leader was Berta Cáceres.
Berta Cáceres, a Honduran environmental activist and human rights defender, was assassinated in 2016 by persons associated with the development of hydroelectric projects that threatened the lives and livelihoods of inhabitants, mostly the indigenous communities. The case against her assassins and masterminds has not been completely resolved, but the movement that she led has been strengthened nationally and internationally, bringing attention to the corruption and greed of the Honduran government and foreign investors.
See next article: The Destructive Path of Oligopoly.