The story behind the box

 

Home ownership in Honduras can transform shanty towns into suburbs, and the legal system allows unused land to be farmed and bought. So why is the government so determined to stop people buying property, to the extent that the army is deployed to move people from their homes, and murder is commonplace? ANNE ENRIGHTtravelled to Honduras with Trócaire to find out, and to meet the girl on this year’s Lenten collection box

ARMEN ENAMORADO HAD a dream last night – she even told the neighbours. She dreamt a great crowd of people would visit her house, and here we are: “Alleluia!”

Enamorado is a cleaner and washerwoman, handsome and loud, with a big laugh and beautiful teeth. She lives, with three of her children and many grandchildren, in a shack that is regularly flooded by contaminated water. Her own vest is a little ragged, but the infant she holds in her arms is quiet and pristine, with diamante earrings and shiny little sandals on her yet-to-be-walked-on feet. Enamorado works for foreigners in the city of San Pedro Sula, and all the English she knows – she shouts it out and laughs – is “Iron?” “Clean?” “Wash?” One of her clients had a stroke and lost her job: Carmen helps her out now for free because that, evidently, is the kind of person she is. Her husband is a security guard. In order to buy her dwelling – which she has the legal right to buy – she must find $10,000: this in a country where the average annual wage is $800.

Up the dirt track, in a better part of the barrio, the landlord who wants $10,000 for Carmen’s shack has built a fence. The fence surrounds a water tower that was built, with international aid, to supply his tenants with clean water. He does not want them to have clean water. Why? It is hard to say.

This is the culture of the “mas fuerte” says Mario Barahona; it is important to show who is the most strong. It is also a country where the rich seem pitched against the poor (there is hardly any middle class) as the poor insist upon their rights. One of these rights, established in the 1960s and underwritten by judgments in the international courts, is the renter’s right to buy and the squatter’s right to farm unused land.

The benefits of ownership are easy to see; it turns a a shanty town into a suburb. Gloria Oreillana’s house, where the housing committee of Colonia Pineda meets, has a proper oven, taps with more or less reliable water, a computer, and one of the best bathrooms I have ever seen: there are crocheted covers on every fitting and fixture, including the cistern of the toilet, and all of them not just freshly washed but also starched. The computer is used to help the neighbours through the 177 separate bureaucratic steps that need to be taken to fix a purchase price and secure their title deeds. Somehow, implacably, through difficulty, corruption and setbacks, they get through each step, one by one. They are driving the landlords – many of whom have specious deeds – crazy. The man who fenced in the water tower earns, according to Mario Barahona’s quick tot, about $5 million dollars from this neighbourhood every year. Even allowing for the wildest exaggeration, this man has a shedload of money, and yet, when he wanted to threaten Mario Barahona, he waved the gun himself.

Guns are always being brandished in Honduras. You might get tired of hearing about it, except for the fact that people get killed, all the time. The country has one of the highest murder rates in the world but, like everywhere else, there’s murder and there’s murder. Much of the crime is concentrated along the cocaine route, north to the US. Less predictably, 10 journalists have been killed since the 2009 coup. In 2010, 16 targeted assassinations have been linked to community land claims, and many more people have been shot in disputed fields.

People here are afraid of the military, but they are much more frightened of the plantation owners’ private guards, who are spreading a name for kidnap and terror throughout the countryside. It is said that they speak different languages, that they come from all over the world.

I might have been frightened of all this, as we headed into the heart of the agrarian conflict, in the Aguan Valley, but I was marginally more frightened of Trócaire’s Sally O’Neill, who knows the difference between one murder and another, and lets neither of them interfere with her 16-hour working day. (The most endearing thing about Sally O’Neill, who hails from Dungannon, is the way she thinks that what she does is perfectly normal.) So we went, in a perfectly normal way, to the farmer’s camp at La Confianza that was shot up by the military in April 2010, and raided at the end of November – on which occasion a gun was put to the lovely little neck of Digna Portilla Amador.

Digna is the girl on this year’s Trócaire Box. She is tiny, and smart, and a little overwhelmed to be the centre of much foreign attention. How could she know what a thrill it was for me to meet her – how it brings back the smell of school desks and big, sweaty pennies; the fabulous weight of the cardboard box, shaken every day and set back on the mantelpiece? I don’t burden her with all this; she is a little sprite with a big smile. Digna is six, but I can lift her as high over my head as an Irish child of three.

Her older brother, Umberto Jose, is not doing so well. He trembles, and his voices catches in his throat when he speaks. He is sure they will all be killed by the soldiers who surrounded their camp for nearly a year to keep them from the land they used to farm. Three years ago an “irregularity” was discovered in their collective deeds, and the land was taken from them in order to swell the palm-oil plantations of “the second richest man in Latin America”, Miguel Facussé.

Evicted, the 300 or 400 families at La Confianza have put up sturdy, clean little shacks under the palm trees. Food is cooked in communal kitchens in ovens made of moulded clay. The men look either young or old – middle age is a brief event in their hardworking, outdoor life – and the women do much of the talking. The children, here as elsewhere in Honduras, are clearly their parents’ greatest treasure.

I should not be sentimental about these people, but what can you do? In a small bothy, suspended in a hammock over the muck of recent floods, a beautiful young man called Roger Andrades writes in his notebook. There are no other possessions in sight. What is he writing?

“Nothing,” he says. “Thoughts.”

“Are they poems?”

“Yes, they are poems.”

“On what theme?”

“On the theme of love,” he says.

Outside, over his head, and stretching for miles along every road, the palm trees grow. There’s a boom in palm-oil production in Honduras. America needs biofuels. The government has made it tax free. So you might think that the campesinos of the Aguan valley – cute as they are, on the side of the charity box – are just the victims of a global economic shift; they are just “in the way” of the kind of forces that push us all around. But, half an hour down the road, I meet a widow too sunk in herself to speak for long, and when she names the man she holds responsible for the murder of her husband, it is hard to see things in a global light.

On November 15th, 2010, five men were shot in El Tumbador on land that Miguel Facussé wanted to own. Their widows took refuge in Guadalupe Carney, a thriving community where 60 per cent of householders have legal title. Here, at a crossroads, are little shops with no bars on the windows, the cars that drive through are not narco limousines, people have bicycles and motorbikes, chickens scratch in the yards, and the dogs don’t shiver. The land they farm used to be a major American military base, which may have made title simpler to secure: in the little houses, the deeds are framed and set on the wall. “When they get their hands on that paper,” says the crusading lawyer Gilda Espinal, “it is as though they are holding their mother or their child.”

Fifty kilometres to the east, Blanca Portillo sits like Patience on a Monument and recites her history. Feet set on the ground, her hands resting squarely on her thighs, she looks into the middle distance, goes through it year by year: the court case, the eviction, the second court case which they won, a third case taken against them, deemed vexatious by the judge, their final victory – she has seen their deeds, waiting to be signed – and, two days ago, a setback, for them and for everyone like them, in the Supreme Court. She knows it off by heart, every detail. I suspect she cannot read.

The women of Jardin Clonal took over an unused plot of land in the desperate months after Hurricane Mitch and were granted the right to farm it by the government Institute of Agrarian Reform. The absentee owners appealed and, in 2003, more than 200 soldiers put them out on the side of the road. After their plight attracted international interest, they were invited to meet the president of Honduras. For this, Blanca says, they had to take a day off work and pay their own busfare to the capital – and all they got for their pains was the smile and the handshake. At one point, Trócaire provided them with a lawyer. They also, she says, have received the Global Gift of Chickens, the Global Gift of Seeds and Tools, and the Global Gift of Trees. I realise, with a shock, that I have just eaten someone’s Christmas card, boiled up into a (delicious) soup. Always nice to get something back, I find. And besides, I could hardly refuse. Blanca Portillo reminds of the other poor farmers, or campesinos I have met in the last few days, each of whom recited a legal history like it was the Táin Bó Cúailnge. They keep going. They are like ivy: tenacious, unstoppable, hard to uproot.

All they need is that little patch of soil.

Anne Enright travelled to Honduras with Trócaire