Strange Fruit

Guatemalan peasants murdered on Del Monte banana plantation

 MORALES, GUATEMALA—Florinda Lollo Martínez lost her job so your bananas could stay cheap. And now she's so desperate to provide food for her family that she's risking her life to grow corn on a former banana plantation, even though thugs linked to her former employer, Fresh Del Monte Produce, have been accused of murdering eight of her fellow farmers in the past two years.

A single mother of two young children, Martínez worked for 12 years at the Del Monte packing plant here, where union workers earned up to $10 a day cutting green bananas into bunches, cleaning them, and packing them into cardboard boxes, for supermarkets in the eastern United States. That's good pay by Guatemalan standards, and along with it Del Monte, through its subsidiary BANDEGUA, provided subsidized housing in a local factory town called Tikal Sebol. The banana giant also let workers like Martínez grow corn and other vegetables on unused land.

But in 1999, Del Monte moved to cut costs in northeastern Guatemala, firing Martínez and 917 other members of the 4,000-strong Izabal Banana Workers Union. The unpopular move violated the company's contract with its laborers, and international outcry forced Del Monte to give some of the jobs back—but at lower wages, with fewer benefits, no housing, and no fields to plant food on for their families. Martínez and hundreds of others refused Del Monte's offer.

Perhaps 50 children live in the campesino settlement, attending school in this ransacked shell of a hut.
photo: Matt Pacenza
Perhaps 50 children live in the campesino settlement, attending school in this ransacked shell of a hut.

On October 11, 2001, with pressure to feed their families mounting, some of the former banana workers decided to occupy nearly 1,000 acres of Del Monte land, known as the Lankin farm.

"I had nowhere else to go, nothing to do," says Martínez when asked why she decided to join the illegal invasion. "My kids were hungry."

Next month will mark the second anniversary of their uprising, with Martínez and several hundred other campesinos still on the old Del Monte plantation, living in what remains of their Tikal Sebol homes and planting subsistence crops.

For Del Monte and BANDEGUA, the Lankin campesinos are more than just an irritant; standing by while peasants occupy valuable farmland sets a bad precedent. So the multinational corporation, based in Coral Gables, Florida, has moved swiftly to distance itself from the conflict—and to get rid of the peasants.

Soon after the occupation began, Del Monte sold the Lankin land for perhaps a tenth of its market value to a group of notorious local thugs. Called ganaderos, or cattle ranchers, these gunmen have often served to control dissent in the steamy Izabal region. Local advocates say what happened when Del Monte turned its back on its former workers was predictable: Since the occupation began, they claim, the ganaderos have shot and killed eight Lankin farmers—three in the last six months.

The campesinos can do little in their own country to seek justice. They can only hope their global allies will be able to pressure Del Monte in the United States. Lawyers with the International Labor Rights Fund are already trying, helping exiled union leaders sue the company in a Florida court under the 214-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act. They're accusing Del Monte of responsibility for violence in their 1999 effort to quash the union, known in Spanish as SITRABI.

Meanwhile, activists both from Guatemala and the U.S. are working in the community, investigating the Lankin murders.

Lankin farmers have been meeting with human rights organizers, seeking legal remedies for their plight.
photo: Matt Pacenza
Ask the banana workers why some 500 people remain here despite the killings, and the answer is always the same—if they didn't, they might starve. It's not just a rhetorical response. The World Food Program estimated last year that 60,000 Guatemalan children were suffering from acute malnutrition, with 6,000 close to death.

"There's no land and no place to work anywhere else," says Olga Esperanza León, 42, a former banana worker, explaining why she leaves her three children and elderly mother in a nearby village to work Lankin fields a few days every week.

The reward for braving the ranchers' wrath is significant. "This land's good for everything," says Roberto Méndez Miguel, the vice president of the campesino association. Just as bananas have flourished for a century, now corn, yuca, and plantains all thrive in the floodplains of the Río Motagua. The campesinos are currently planting about 700 acres.

The peasants survive here with no electricity or toilets. Water must be hauled by hand from wells. Disease-bearing mosquitoes and biting flies are everywhere; the only relief comes when the campesinos burn empty corn husks to smoke them out. The Lankin farmers are noticeably skinny, even for this impoverished region, where half the locals are poor, a third are illiterate, and a quarter lack running water.

Plantation families currently live in crude wooden huts, or in the few rickety wooden houses and metal trailers that remain in Tikal Sebol. After Del Monte forced its fired workers to abandon the village in 1999, looters stripped all the wiring, plumbing, roofing, and windows.

"They robbed everything," says Hugo Leonel Milian Duarte, the 32-year-old, rope-thin, intense president of the campesino leadership committee. What's left today is an eerie ghost town, its houses plundered to the beams and floors. The peasants dream of rebuilding Tikal Sebol, but with the future of the land uncertain, the nongovernmental organizations that help the poor in most of rural Guatemala won't invest in projects like creating access to potable water, building brick houses, or establishing a health post.

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