San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Campesinos Still in Capital

IT could be months before the 120 campesinosliving in the Metropolitan Cathedral in downtownSan José trade their bedrolls and protest signs forwork gloves and machetes.The campesinos, including families, had highhopes of returning to their farming community lastSaturday, when they had planned to kiss goodbyethe statue of the Virgin Mary that has watched overthem for more than two months (TT, July 2).But instead of finding respite from the land disputethat brought them to the nation’s capital, their situationappears to have become even bleaker. Somehave even threatened to go on a hunger strike.EFFORTS by the Ministry of the Presidencyand the Catholic Church this week to find a homeoutside the cathedral for the campesinos have beendismissed as “a charade.”The campesinos say they have been treatedunfairly by the judicial system and the governmentregarding their land dispute with Standard FruitCompany, a subsidiary of Dole.The parties are fighting over rights to the ElBambuzal farm in Río Frío de Sarapiquí de Heredia,northeast of San José near the border of Limónprovince.STANDARD Fruit officials say they haveowned and used the property since 1968 (TT, May21) for composting and growing bamboo – hencethe name Bambuzal. The campesinos insist theyhave property rights since occupying the farm offand on for more than three years. The court battlesbetween the two have been going on nearly thatlong.The campesinos championed a recent decisionby an Heredia court to lift an order prohibiting them from going within 10 kilometers of theBambuzal farm. Their legal representativeHéctor Monestel said last week that thedecision allowed them to return to the disputed800 hectares (3 square miles).But while they can get near, thecampesinos are still prohibited from enteringthe Bambuzal farm, according toStandard Fruit manager of external andlegal affairs, Juan Rojas.“WE feel really sorry that a group ofleaders is lying to a large group ofcampesinos and giving them hope,” hesaid. “For ideological motives, they areagainst a multinational company that hasinvested a lot of money in this country. Butthe truth is, they have no reason for hope.Without a doubt, we own this land.”Rojas said that last Friday a judge clarifieda decision from July 2003 that prohibitedthe campesinos from squatting the land.Monestel called the clarification a 24-hour decision made at the request ofStandard.“It is not normal for things to happenso fast in Costa Rica’s judicial system,” hesaid. “They have left us with no defense.”Monestel’s hope now lies in an agrariantrail to settle the dispute. The trial is stillin its initial stages, however.VICE-MINISTER of the PresidencyRandall Quirós, Ombudsman José MiguelEchandi and officials from the CatholicChurch met with campesino leadersTuesday at the Casa Presidencial to offeralternatives to their refuge in the cathedral.Outside the Casa Presidencial, morethan 70 children and adults sang songs andwaved green flags marked with red drops –representing the green of the earth and theblood of fellow campesinos spilled in violentconfrontations provoked by the landdispute.In July 2003, when police attempted tofollow the court order to expel the squatters,violence broke out. One squatter waskilled by officers, who said they acted inself-defense (TT, July 18, 2003).On Tuesday, after meeting for morethan two hours, the campesinos wereoffered help finding temporary sheltercloser to their Río Frío home and financialassistance from the Mixed Institute forSocial Aid (IMAS) for the next two tothree months, according to Quirós.Campesino leader Iliana Sánchezcalled the meeting “a mockery,” particularlysince no representatives from the judicialbranch or Standard participated.Monestel called the offer of ¢50,000($115) a month per family “an offense.”This help comes only if the campesinosagree to leave the cathedral, where theyhave lived since April 25.WITH red eyes and tear-stainedcheeks, some of the men, women and childrenslumped over in church pewsSaturday looked as if they didn’t havemuch fight in them for the indefinite staythey have now committed themselves to atthe church. Only 12 hours earlier theythought they would be heading home.“It has been very hard for us to go fromliving in the country, farming the land, toliving in a church,” said 26-year-oldKenneth Guerrero. “I come from a poorcampesina family. On the farm I was livingfrom my parcel … I had papaya, yuca,pineapple, cilantro, avocado. I had enoughto eat and sell.”In the church, the campesinos are nourishedwith rice, beans and other foodsdonated by local unions, University ofCosta Rica (UCR) students and others,according to Sánchez. Six UCR studentshave filmed a documentary on thecampesinos’ plight (TT, June 25).“People have been very good to us. Andit is nice in the church. We go to mass andwe pray for justice. But it is very differentfrom the country. The children can’t play.One doesn’t have any freedom. We have topay ¢150 ($0.34) to bathe, which is a lot forus,” said Gloria Guzmán, who has been stayingin the church with her three children.An unsaid number have committed to ahunger strike.“They are waiting to see what happensthis week. But they still stand by their decisionand are just waiting for the opportunity,”Monestel said.SOME of the campesinos have in thepast been offered government assistanceand relocation to other parcels of land,according to the Agricultural DevelopmentInstitute (IDA).In 2003, 66 families were awardedland, but half rejected the help. Other familieswere denied IDA benefits becausethey did not qualify as farmers or had previouslybeen given land but for variousreasons sold or abandoned the property.More than 250 families began livingand working the land at Bambuzal in 2001.Late that year, police attempted to expelthe squatters but were unsuccessful.Several court battles followed.Judicial authorities first ruled thecampesinos could stay, because they hadresided on the land unchallenged for morethan a year. Later, that ruling was overturnedwhen a judge ruled it had not been aconsecutive year.After being expelled in July 2003, thecampesinos attempted to retake the landApril 22, but were quickly arrested. Threedays later they arrived at the San Josécathedral (TT, April 30).

Comments are closed.