Violence over land rights in northern Honduras challenges diocese

By Madeline Watkins, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A fertile region in northern Honduras has been gaining international attention because of human rights abuses and escalating violence over land reform.

"It has been very difficult for us," said Fr. Felipe Lopez, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Trujillo. Of the 10 parishes in the Diocese of Trujillo, St. John the Baptist is one of the closest to the conflict, centered in the disputed territory known as the Bajo Aguan.

"The violence has lessened in the last three to four weeks," Fr. Lopez told Catholic News Service in mid-July, "but June was very violent, almost as if we were in the midst of a war."

Most of the fighting is taking place on the large palm plantations in dispute. Fr. Lopez said at least 40 to 50 people have been killed in the conflict over land claimed by both peasant farmers and three wealthy landowners in the region.

"Sadly, those who are suffering the most are the very poor," Fr. Lopez said. The increased levels of violence have caused greater poverty in the region because most of the peasants work on the palm plantations in dispute, he said.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean said that, in 2006, nearly 82 percent of the rural population in Honduras lived in poverty, and 65 percent of the same group lived in extreme poverty.

The violence has mostly been among hired security guards of privately owned plantations, the Honduran military and members of two local peasant groups, many of whom have taken up arms.

"Weapons in this region are a grave problem," Bishop Luis Sole Fa of Trujillo said in a mid-July phone interview with CNS. "They are almost part of the local culture."

Bishop Sole said the conflict over land reform in the Bajo Aguan has been amplified by regional drug cartels that finance various groups in the land reform struggle, supplying illegal heavy artillery. For this reason the diocese has been cautious in addressing land reform publicly, he said.

Amid the violence and death, the church must remain neutral to avoid further polarizing the parties involved, Fr. Lopez said.

"For this reason we cannot speak about this situation publicly. It would be a risk to do so," he said.

Fr. Lopez also said the clergy are under close surveillance by various groups.

Bishop Sole confirmed that when priests travel to the plantations to celebrate Mass, they are closely watched by security guards for the plantation owners to make sure they do "little more" than celebrate the sacraments.

While no priests in the diocese have reported receiving death threats for speaking out about the conflict, Bishop Sole said some have been insulted and criticized on local radio.

"I am very grateful for the priests in the diocese and the way they are handling the situation," Bishop Sole said. "It is hard to work like this."

Though cautious in their public approach toward the situation, clergy have convened regularly to discuss the conflict and how best to address it. Diocesan officials have conducted two analyses -- the latest in June -- over the situation.

The Honduran bishops' conference was briefed by the Diocese of Trujillo and released its first public statement on the conflict in June, saying they viewed the situation "with the sorrow of a mother."

"We stand and will stand by those who defend their rights by the way of legality and dialogue," the bishops said. "As the Catholic church we stand for life, which should always be respected, and which in the case of the Bajo Aguan has been profaned with dozens of victims whose number will increase uncontrollably if a just decision is not soon reached."

Bishop Sole said the conflict is far from over. Though there are many parties in the conflict, Bishop Sole said he holds the government and department of agriculture primarily responsible.

"They have the elements to resolve this long conflict, and they still have yet to do it," he said.

"If we keep seeing what we have been seeing in politics, hearing the same politicians with the same effects, we won't be moving anywhere," Bishop Sole said. What the region needs is "a sense of the common good," he added.