San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bambuzal Campesinos Return to Sarapiquí

WITH smiles on their faces and apparentoptimism, more than 120 campesinoswho had been camping out in theMetropolitan Cathedral in downtown SanJosé for the past three months on Saturdayreturned to the outskirts of El Bambuzalfarm, in a rural section of the province ofHeredia.They came to the capital seeking supportin their land dispute with StandardFruit Company, a subsidiary of Dole. Afterthree months, however, they grew weary ofthe city and decided to continue their fightin the countryside.Now, campesino leaders say they planto take their case to the Inter-AmericanHuman Rights Commission inWashington, D.C. next week.“This is a just cause, we are convinced,”Leonidas López said. “All thehumiliation we have suffered has onlyhelped make us stronger.”ON Saturday morning outside thecathedral, as the campesino men, womenand children prepared to board the twobuses that would carry them back towardthe land they insist is their home, the moodgrew festive and upbeat.Nowhere was the enthusiasm more visiblethan in the faces of the children who,after three months in the cathedral, wouldbe free to run and play.“Here we are. Let them see that wecontinue the fight,” said campesino MaxAcevedo, as he addressed group membersover a loudspeaker shortly before theyboarded the bus. “We’re returning toBambuzal ready to work. We hope ourchildren can return to school.“All the lands are being sold to transnationalcompanies like Standard,” he said.“The land belongs to Costa Ricans thatneed it, it belongs to us, the campesinos.”THEY were accompanied by 35 studentsof the University of Costa Rica whohave expressed solidarity with thecampesinos in their land dispute and alsowould serve as witnesses in the event therewas any conflict with authorities uponarrival.The activists waved green flags withred drops – representing the green of theearth and the blood of fellow campesinosspilled in past confrontations with police –out the windows of the buses.The buses arrived at El Tucán, a smallfarm in front of El Bambuzal – the disputedland – just before noon. El Tucán isowned by a family that sympathizes withthe campesinos.Upon arriving, the campesinos wentstraight to work, building temporary sheltersout of bamboo and plastic.Some pledged to return to El Bambuzalas soon as they see an opportunity.However, group leaders told The TicoTimes they have decided to wait until theyexhaust all their legal options.“ENTERING the farm is not animmediate priority,” said Héctor Monestel,legal representative for the group. “Wehave several legal actions pending on anational and international level. It is notprudent to take that action now.”The disputed land is located close toRío Frío de Sarapiquí, in the north centralpart of the country, close to the province ofHeredia’s border with Limón. Since 2001,the campesinos have claimed squatterrights to the land, which an agrarian courthas ruled belongs to exporter StandardFruit. The campesinos are appealing thisruling.Standard Fruit officials say they haveowned and used the 800-hectare (threesquare-mile) property since 1968 (TT, May21). The farm was originally used for compostingand growing bamboo – hence thename Bambuzal.The company is in the process of reforestingthe property and plans to beginplanting experimental crops, such asorganic plantains and yuca (an edible root),with the intent of exporting them in thefuture, according to Juan Carlos Rojas,director of legal and external affairs for thecompany.TO keep the squatters out, StandardFruit has contracted private security guardsto patrol the property. Rojas told The TicoTimes the firm currently has 30 guardspatrolling the property.“We have hired private security guards,who have been ordered to avoid any typeof confrontation,” Rojas said. “As long asthey don’t enter the property, there will beno problem.”However, Monestel, who accompaniedthe campesinos to Río Frío, claims thereare as many as 300 guards operating inthree daily shifts. Monestel accusedStandard Fruit of applying “paramilitarytactics” to intimidate the campesinos.Both sides accused the other ofattempting to provoke them.“There’s a group of them outside thefarm,” Rojas explained. “They constantlyinsult the guards. Fortunately, that’s all thathas happened so far. The guards have beenordered to be respectful, but firm indefense of the company’s property.”Monestel says the guards have attemptedto intimidate the campesinos with theirweapons and barking dogs. He claimedthat on 3 a.m. Sunday morning three securityvehicles on the edge of the farm beganplaying their radios at full blast with theintent of waking the sleeping campesinosand provoking them to violence.“We know these types of tactics willcontinue,” Monestel said. “We are willingto resist.”A return to the farm would violate acourt order, but police have said they willnot intervene or forcibly remove thecampesinos from the land, unless a judgeorders them to.“We have a small group of police offersin the zone,” said Commissioner WalterNavarro, chief of police, in a statement.“Their mission is to conduct vigilance andensure security. We have to wait to seewhat occurs. If the land is invaded again, itwill be up to Prosecutor’s Office and thelocal court to determine what steps must betaken.”Navarro denied claims that additionalpolice officers had been dispatched to thezone. He described the situation as “calmand orderly.”“The police force will not intervene atany moment,” he said. “What will happenwill be analyzed by prosecutors, judgesand the courts. We will follow the ordersthey, as judicial authorities, mandate. Atall times we will act with legality andcivility.”A clash with police in July 2003 resultedin the killing of one campesino bypolice officers, who said they acted in selfdefense(TT, July 18, 2003).DURING the months they spent in thecathedral, the campesinos had severalmeetings with Ombudsman José ManuelEchandí, officials from the CatholicChurch and government officials.However, these efforts were dismissedby the campesinos as “charades.” Thecampesinos insist they have been treatedunfairly by the judicial system and the governmentin their dispute against the multinationalcompany.While living in the church, thecampesinos ate rice, beans and other foodsdonated by local unions, UCR students andothers. Six UCR students filmed a documentaryabout the campesinos’ plight (TT,June 25).The campesinos originally planned toleave the cathedral one month ago. Theirplans were aborted when a last-minutecourt decision and warnings from thePublic Security Ministry threatened a safereturn to the farm (TT, July 9).The farmers say they are planning totake legal action to remove the agrarianjudge from the case, claiming he is biasedin favor of Standard Fruit and is incapableof giving them fair trial.“In general, there is a strong will tofight, which doesn’t mean we don’t understandthe adverse legal situation we areinvolved in,” Monestel said. “We are determinedto resist.”

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