San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Campesinos Camped in Church: Fight Goes On

THE campesinos of Bambuzal areused to a tough fight. When they first startedsquatting on the northern zone farmthey contend is now theirs, they spent theinitial year fighting the land, working hardto prepare it for cultivation, sometimesuntil midnight.But this fight is different.There are no plantains to harvest orcorn to plant. Instead, there is mostlywaiting.For nearly a month the campesinoshave been sleeping in the MetropolitanCathedral in downtown San José. They arewaiting for a court order to be lifted theysay prevents them from returning to theirhomes in Río Frío de Sarapiquí, near ElBambuzal Farm.A hearing scheduled for Monday hasgiven the more than 100 men, women andchildren some hope. However, this will notaddress the court order directly, but ratherthe issue in general that has brought themto San José.The campesinos arrived in the capitalApril 25 seeking help from the church inresolving their land dispute over ElBambuzal Farm (TT, April 30). Theyhave occupied the farm on and off since2001 and say they have permanent rightsto the land, which is owned by bananaexporter Standard Fruit Company, a subsidiaryof Dole.Monday’s hearing is the beginning ofan agrarian trial to settle the issue in aGuápiles court. The hearing will likelyinvolve alternative conflict resolution,according to the campesinos’ legal advisor,Héctor Monestel. He is skeptical mediationwill be successful.MONESTEL’S immediate goal is toget the court order lifted so the campesinoscan leave the church. The order was issuedafter 75 squatters were arrested April 22for attempting to return to the land for thefirst time in nearly a year.The order states the campesinos cannotgo near the Bambuzal farm, but does notspecify a distance, according to JudicialBranch representative Sandra Castro.However, the campesinos maintainthey are prohibited from entering not onlythe farm to which they have a right, butalso their homes in Río Frío, which is some10 kilometers from the Bambuzal Farm.“They could be arrested just for goinghome,” Monestel said. “We will stay in thecathedral until there is absolutely no danger,no risk for them when they are in RíoFrío.”Monestel’s appeal to the court order iscurrently before a tribunal in Heredia, theprovince that pertains to Sarapiquí. It willnot be heard for at least a week, accordingto Castro.ALTHOUGH the campesinos sleepcomfortably every night on donated padsand rise every morning for mass, their economicsituation is becoming increasinglydifficult, according to Iliana Sánchez, presidentof the campesinos’ association.Rice, beans and other food have beendonated by local unions. But time hasreduced the quantities, and they are lucky toget one or two meals a day, Sánchez said.Far from complaining, Sánchez said thegroup has fared well with the help of others.Students from the University of Costa Ricacome to entertain the many children stuck atthe church all day. And while they must pay¢150 (US$0.35) to use showers in thechurch building, some have improvised,using hand mirrors to shave in the corner.“But it’s a tough fight, and we have hadso few responses to our questions anddemands,” Sánchez said.ACCORDING to Standard Fruit, theland dispute was settled last July, when theSarapiquí District Court ruled the squattersdid not have legal rights to the land.A violent outbreak followed this decision,when police attempted to remove thesquatters from the land (TT, July 18,2003). One campesino was killed and severalofficers injured.The court’s July decision came afterseveral previous court battles. Authoritiesfirst ruled the squatters could stay, becausethey had occupied the land for more than ayear. Later a judge changed the decisionafter determining the squatters had notlived at Bambuzal unchallenged for a consecutiveyear.UNDER Costa Rican law, if a group oflandless campesinos is making its livelihoodoff a piece of property for one year,the government is supposed to intervene tocreate an arrangement between the squattersand the landowners. The squatters areallowed to remain on the land, purchase itat a reasonable price or be appropriatelycompensated, according to real estatelawyer Thomas Burke, who was independentlycontacted by The Tico Times.However, such land disputes are usuallyvery complicated and certainly do notmean landowners must give up the property,said Burke, who is a member of theCosta Rican bar.The campesinos moved onto the propertyafter it had been abandoned byStandard for more than 10 years, accordingto Monestel.“That first year we worked hard. Weplanted yuca, we planted corn, we plantedeverything we needed. We worked by themoonlight to get ahead,” said 66-year-oldManuel Acuña. “Nobody bothered us. Wewere very content that first year, we neverhad to leave. That same parcel of land gaveus what we needed to eat, and a little moreto sell and buy clothes.”HOWEVER, the company’s managerof external affairs and legal relations, JuanRojas, maintains Standard has had operationson the land since it was acquired in1968 until the present.In addition to growing bamboo on theland – hence the name bambuzal – theproperty also houses a compost factory,Rojas said.However, Monestel allegedWednesday that Standard sold the land lastyear to two international banks, furthercomplicating the land dispute.Standard representatives were notavailable for comment after Monestelmade this complaint public.

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