Chiquita, the Oppressor -- Part One

In 1936, the company that eventually became Chiquita Brands International bought a 3,000-acre plantation in a community called Tacamiche, near the Honduran town of La Lima. The land cost the American Fruit exporter exactly $1. Sixty years later, 123 poor Honduran families who have worked there for three generations have staked their own claim to that land using a very different currency -- their own flesh and blood.The dispute has resulted in the violent eviction of the Tacamiche residents, who, in February of this year, clashed with Honduran police. Faced with an eviction notice provided by Chiquita lawyers, the workers lost the homes many of them were born in on the plantation where many had lived their entire lives. A classic example of property rights at odds with human rights, the plight of the Tacamiche residents has been the subject of recent stories in the New York Times and reports by international human rights organizations and the Roman Catholic Bishops of Honduras. The situation has also thrown stark light on the impact of the business policies of multimillionaire Carl H. Lindner, Cincinnati's own top banana.DOUBLE HOUSES OR DOUBLE DEALING?After destroying the homes of 500 residents and former employees on the company's Tacamiche plantation on February 1, 1996, Chiquita promised in a letter sent to thousands of concerned persons around the globe that the evictees would be rehoused. The Honduran government also made a promise, entering into an agreement with the former residents to provide them with 120 houses, health and sports centers, and sewage and drinking water systems. Manuel Rodriguez, a Chiquita vice president and the company's spokesperson for its Honduran operation, swears that the replacement houses were built over two months ago, with working electricity and running water. Despite those claims, however, 123 families are still huddled in their bronchitis-infested camp, sustained only by the help of friends, the local Catholic parish, and a $5000 gift from the wife of Honduran president Carlos Roberto Reina.The former Tacamiche residents claim Chiquita has built only 46 houses so far, and that these more closely resemble shacks than homes. Michael Windfuhr, Executive Director of FIAN International, a human rights group based in Heidelberg, Germany, visited Honduras and examined the structures in August. He says the stairs he tested were rickety, the wood rotten, and the walls paper-thin. Electricity and water, says Windfuhr, are not yet available despite Chiquita's claim to the contrary. "No electrical conduits or plumbing is visible," he says.According to Windfuhr, the Honduran government originally called each structure a "double house." Each structure has a set of covered wooden stairs leading to two entrances. Two rooms per side each measure about ten feet by eight feet. The entire two-unit structure rests on eight cinder blocks.On the ground in front of each structure are what Windfuhr calls "huts," each containing a small kitchen divided from a single toilet by corrugated aluminum or half-inch plywood. In fact, Rodriguez confirms that building materials used for the replacement housing were salvaged from what remained of the old homes of the former residents. One man even found the painted number address of his former house on the outside of a new toilet "hut."Citing the poor construction quality and cramped space, the "Tacamiches" have refused to move into the replacement lodgings until enough housing is provided for all 123 families.The government is still not compliant with its own promises to rebuild the houses for the people," says Windfuhr, who also blames the Honduran government and Chiquita for other deprivations endured by the former banana workers. "For the past seven months, there is nothing that you can call a basic subsistence for the people, meaning food, clothes, or school books for the children," he says. "We think we need to start another international letter campaign, because it is very urgent to remedy the situation."BULLDOZING CHURCHESThe government has now rebuilt the health center and school, and Rodriguez says an additional 47 houses will be finished by the end of October. Chiquita also promised to rebuild the Tacamiche community's three churches that the company bulldozed while the residents who had worshipped in them looked on helplessly."I can tell you," says Rodriguez, "these churches are going to be much nicer, and much better, than what was there in Tacamiche." Rodriguez estimates Chiquita will pay up to $20,000 for each church, and $12,000 for each of the new houses. For the balance of Tacamiche families, Rodriguez also cites rumors that Mrs. Reina may ease government funding for another 30 homes.And, according to Rodriguez, building even 46 houses for the Tacamiches was going the extra mile.Though he admits he has no way of knowing for sure, Rodriguez estimates that fewer than a dozen of those involved in this dispute were regular employees of the company. He charges that the Tacamiches violated an agreement they had with the government when they refused to be surveyed by the National Institute for Agrarian Reform. That survey would have ascertained which of the Tacamiches were "legitimate" employees, and which were just temporary or "opportunistic" outsiders. When Chiquita first terminated the plantations, they offered all regular workers a choice between assignment to other plantations or a $500 severance payment. Rodriguez says 90 percent took the jobs on other plantations. He also claims those regular plantation workers who remain in the area today accepted the $500. They later refused offers by the government for relocation to far eastern Honduras, where jobs may be more available.Rodriguez disputes the validity of claims made by temporary workers, even those who lived in Tacamiche. Chiquita laid off 1,200 temporary workers without severance payments following a 1994 strike that produced violence injuring at least 30 people. Not so coincidentally, these former temporary Chiquita workers make up the bulk of the Tacamiches involved in the current dispute. As temporary workers, they were never offered severance pay or relocation. Chiquita simply demolished their housing and told them to vacate the plantation.Even if enough housing materializes, the question of employment for the 123 families remains unanswered. Asked what sort of jobs the Tacamiches would now get, Rodriguez says, "I don't know. I really can't answer that question." According to Windfuhr, with their Chiquita jobs terminated they will have few employment alternatives except as shoe-shiners, maids, and other low-paid laborers.Many of the disputants were born in Tacamiche, and several of the families have lived in the area since the 1920s, a decade before Chiquita's corporate ancestor, United Fruit, bought the land from Honduras for a buck. Jorge Antonio, a leader of the banana workers, highlighted the Tacamiches' emotional ties to the land when he told the New York Times: "For the company, Tacamiche is just a former banana plantation that, after having the juice sucked from it, has been abandoned without a thought for the fate of those who lived here. But for those of us from Tacamiche, this is our life, these are the cabins that watched as we were born and grew up."Above all, the Tacamiches want to be a self-reliant community. "The long-term solution must include access to resources which allows for them to feed themselves," says Windfuhr. "This would be nearby land or work." The provision of land to laid-off workers has precedence in company history. When pre-Chiquita United Brands laid off 3,000 workers at its Costa Rican plantation in 1983, 1,000 of them peacefully occupied 5,000 acres of company land. Two months later, the Costa Rican government promised 300 parcels of land to the workers. A similar gesture from Chiquita or Honduran authorities would almost certainly diffuse the current conflict.LAND GRABThe Tacamiche ordeal highlights a situation which has received wide attention in the Honduran press: access to land for the country's poor seems to be shrinking.A 1974 study found that 4 percent of the agricultural land holdings in Honduras encompassed 56 percent of the land, while the other 64 percent of the landholders accounted for only 9 percent of the land. Another 150,000 households were landless. In other words, almost 80 percent of all Hondurans are virtually landless and forced to sell their labor to large landowners like Chiquita.Land reform legislation during the 1970s and 1980s failed to make a significant dent in this maldistribution because it left most of the largest landowners untouched. Yet even these extremely modest land reforms are being attacked. In 1992, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed Honduras to pass its Law for the Modernization of the Agricultural Sector, which has severely weakened the country's agrarian reform laws. This measure takes away land distributed through the agrarian reform process (the reform sector) by designating it as national forest. Government experts in Germany estimate that 100,000 Honduran families will lose their land because of the law.Implementation of the 1992 law will also allow large export companies like Chiquita to buy reform sector land never meant for ownership by large foreign corporations. A similar withdrawal of protection from communal ejido lands in Mexico was an important grievance voiced by the Zapatistas in their 1994 rebellion.The 1992 "modernization" law will probably benefit both the buyer and seller of reform sector land, yield more profit to local elites and foreign agribusiness like Chiquita, and also garner more foreign exchange for Honduras to pay its debt to the IMF and the World Bank. But it will almost certainly lead to even more concentrated land ownership and, in the long run, may erode the relatively dependable and roughly egalitarian food-supply provided by small farmers. Because Honduras devotes much of its land to export agriculture, it also depends on food imports and is vulnerable to the wild market swings of agricultural produce. The drought in the United States this year, for example, will probably decrease the caloric intake of the average poor Honduran.A REVOLTING DEVELOPMENTThe Tacamiche "land revolt," as the New York Times referred to it, started in the early 1990s when Chiquita refused to keep the wages of plantation workers on a par with the country's crushing 30 percent inflation rate.Between 1987 and 1994, wages slid from eight dollars a day to less than three dollars. Six thousand Chiquita workers from several of Chiquita's 22 Honduran farms went on strike. Midway through that strike in June, 1994, Chiquita closed four farms, totaling 2,964 acres, including the one at Tacamiche. According to a published report by Jeff Harrington in The Cincinnati Enquirer, these closures cost the company $25 million. Chiquita told 800 permanent workers to choose between relocation or $500 severance pay, and laid off about 1,200 temporary workers. Such tactics coerced the union into settling the strike for a 9 percent pay increase, which, considering the country's inflation rate, meant a lower real wage than the previous year.Rodriguez says Chiquita closed those farms that already yielded a low profit. The "unusually severe strike," as it was described in the company's annual report to shareholders, resulted in dead trees and rotting of fruit. Because replanting would cost Chiquita millions of dollars, Rodriguez says, the company closed the plantations and asked the government for permission to sell the land. Many of the Tacamiches question Chiquita's stated reasons for the closure of the plantations. They suggest that a desire to break the strike, not low soil productivity, motivated Chiquita's closure of the farms. Honduran legislation specifically forbids the closure of a plantation in order to defeat a strike or unionization.Banana land near the north coast of Honduras has long been considered some of the most fertile in the world. The Tacamiches say that Chiquita leased much of this decomissioned land to its own executives, who are planting banana trees and sorghum. This probably generates only minimal rental income for Chiquita, but any kind of cultivation at least deters further land occupations and protects Chiquita's claim to the land. The continued cultivation, according to the Tacamiches, proves that the land is fertile.Rene Martinez, president of the banana workers' union, told the New York Times, "It's all a disguise to strip us of the gains we have made over 40 years."Windfuhr voices a similar sentiment. "A strong argument exists that Chiquita used this concept that the land is no longer productive to fire all the workers."Rodriguez counters by saying that while the company waits for permission to sell, it is leasing the land to "independent producers," who are mostly planting sorghum, though in isolated cases they may have planted limited numbers of banana trees. Rodriguez explains that such banana cultivation could be profitable on a small scale where it is not profitable at Chiquita.While the intentions of Chiquita executives in closing the farms may be open to question, the results of their actions are not. By closing the four plantations and threatening eviction, Chiquita used the ultimate union-fighting weapon --dispersal or eviction of entire communities. This tactic, combined with the company's uncompromising attitude during negotiations and closures, seems to have ended the strike and paid off in increased Chiquita productivity -- at least in the short term. Chiquita increased its production in Honduras from less than 12 million boxes in 1995 to a projected 22 to 25 million boxes in 1997. In early August, Chiquita reported increased second quarter earnings of over 23 percent (to $48.5 million). Part of this growth in productivity, Rodriguez confirms, is attributable to a more compliant labor force. "Since July of 1994, we have not had a strike in Honduras, and our labor relations are greatly improved, to the point that for the first time in many many years, we should be signing a collective bargaining agreement without a labor disruption."ANYONE FOR A ROUND OF GOLF AFTER THE REVOLUTION?Now that the plantations are closed, Chiquita must do something with the land after the leases expire. Rodriguez points out that part of the land may go to charitable organizations. He mentions ongoing negotiations with the Honduran government, which wants land for a low-income housing project. One deal, however, has particularly outraged the landless Tacamiches -- a plan to play golf on some of the disputed lands.Rodriguez confirms that Chiquita will use 15 hectares of its decommissioned San Juan plantation to enlarge the company golf course, used by Chiquita executives, "associates," and independent producers who do business with the company. Nine new holes are now under construction on the land. Informed of the Tacamiches' objection to the golf course expansion, Rodriguez is incredulous."They are making an issue of that also?" he asks. Most of the land, in fact, will not go to charity. According to Rodriguez, it will be sold at market rates as soon as the government grants permission. For decades, United Fruit/United Brands has been selling off its bananaland, concentrating instead on the less controversial and more lucrative shipping and marketing end of the business. Smaller local producers can often grow the bananas more cheaply, Rodriguez notes, because their labor expenses are lower than Chiquita's, whose workforce has unionized. Rodriguez says these producers may find banana production on the abandoned lands profitable, because they pay lower wages, provide fewer benefits, and work on a smaller scale.While in general this shift to independent producers seems to be the trend for Chiquita, in the case of the recently closed farms, some questions remain. The failure to sell any significant portion of the land, two years after the closures, calls into question Chiquita's true intentions. Some charge that Chiquita is going through the motions of putting the land up for sale in order to conceal that it is still capable of supporting large-scale productivity. Chiquita, such critics reason, could recall its leases when the media spotlight dims and bring the land back into production under the Chiquita label.In fact, Windfuhr says he didn't even hear about the prospect of a sale during his trip to Honduras and the Tacamiches say Chiquita declined to sell the land when they offered to buy it. "If the land is really no longer productive," says Windfuhr, "why have they not yet sold the land?" During a similar struggle in Costa Rica in 1983, Chiquita also rejected the option of selling the disputed land to occupiers. The Tacamiches also told Windfuhr that Chiquita itself is replanting bananas on the land from which they were evicted.Rodriguez, however, denies that Chiquita is planting any banana trees and says the Tacamiches never offered to buy."Remember," says the Chiquita executive, "Tacamiche was a situation where clearly you had outsiders who wanted that land for free, to use as a basis to engage in other nearby land invasions. They made no offers to buy the land, and the issue of a lease did not arise."Whether or not the Tacamiches offered to buy, and whether or not Chiquita actually wants to sell, Rodriguez confirms that evicting the former workers made economic sense for the company. Referring to the bulldozed housing at Tacamiche he says, "We are not going to sell our houses, which remember are in the middle of farms. If you sell them to outsiders, particularly people who have no relation to the company, it creates a problem in terms of your ability to do anything with those lands." In other words, Tacamiche houses would take up valuable land, and unemployed Tacamiches might illegally occupy vacant plantations.CHIQUITA SENDS IN THE TROOPSChiquita first tried to evict Tacamiche on July 26, 1995. Four hundred police and soldiers arrested 26 plantation residents, injured about 75 more with tear gas, rubber bullets and clubs, and destroyed 200 acres of corn and beans planted two months before. Rocks thrown by the Tacamiches injured "some" of the troops, according to La Nacion, and police retreated. Subsequently, the government agreed to give the Tacamiches until September 26, 1995 to vacate the property.The Tacamiches refused to vacate, and continued to occupy the land until February, 1996, when Chiquita finally convinced the Honduran judiciary and President Reina to approve a second eviction attempt. "We worked for months to satisfy the court requirements, because there was so much political and social concern about this eviction," says Rodriguez, who is himself an attorney. "Both the courts and the executive wanted to be absolutely sure that everything was being done according to the book." Once Chiquita had that book in order, the company threw it at the families of Tacamiche.This time, the police and military gave no advance notice that they were coming in. Caught by surprise, most Tacamiches lost everything except the clothes on their backs. An onslaught of bulldozers, 500 police and military troops, and over 400 Chiquita employees, not only destroyed the homes, a school, three churches, and a health post, but also kitchen utensils, books, bedding, tools, and radios. The police made more arrests (100) while causing fewer injuries than in their previous eviction attempt.Some of the tactics used in the eviction, however, seem to have been aimed at causing extensive economic damage to the impoverished Tacamiches. Bulldozers destroyed crops only a few weeks before harvest. Wilfredo Cabrera, a 34-year-old banana worker, told a New York Times reporter, "It was very painful to see all of our corn, peppers, tomatoes, carrots and melons being plowed over by bulldozers, not to mention what they did to the churches. We have been peasants all of our lives, making the land produce, so we can never forgive that kind of destruction." The Tacamiches have yet to receive any compensation for their personal effects or crops.Asked why no advance notice was given, Rodriguez offers the following insights regarding the tactics of the Honduran police and military: "Whenever they announce that an operation is going to be undertaken, it is like going to war. You don't announce the moment you are going to strike, because at that moment the police were convinced that these outsiders would bring in five or six thousand people. It would probably have led to rock throwing, which is what happened on July 26, maybe even people killed."Rodriguez also says the Honduran police believed that "outsiders" had brought a lot of firearms into the area La Nacion reported that, during the July 26 attempt, the Tacamiches possessed, but did not use, pistols, shotguns, and machetes]. Of the four Honduran plantations "terminated," as Rodriguez describes it, Chiquita has evicted only the Tacamiche residents. Communities at the plantations of San Juan, Copen, and La Curva still remain and, in the case of these three villages, Rodriguez says that Chiquita would not evict."We know there are hundreds of people there who are no longer related to the company," Rodriguez says, "and yet we have decided to let them stay there. Because these are just people who are out of a job, and they have no place to go. We don't want to exacerbate the social problem that Honduras right now has."Rodriguez denies that the human rights and media outcry over Tacamiche helped persuade Chiquita to grant clemency to the other three plantations. He says Chiquita insisted on the application of law in the case of Tacamiche because, led and joined by "opportunistic" outsiders, the former workers illegally occupied company land. "We had every intention from the beginning of just leaving the Tacamiche group there had it not been an issue of outsiders coming in and inciting a few people to engage in land invasions."Many of the Tacamiches did occupy part of the vacant plantation to sow corn and beans in June of 1994, after they lost their jobs. The Tacamiches also occupied 50 hectares on the Cop En plantation three weeks before the February eviction. But the Tacamiches and one Honduran human rights organization have charged that Chiquita does not in fact own the disputed lands. Honduran authorities have so far agreed with Chiquita, but history may tell a different story.

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