Staking a Claim. In the face of adversity, Honduran homesteaders build their futures on unused land. This is the first of a five-part series showing how people in `have-not nations' are banding together using self-help techniques, and only a little outside aid, to improve their lives.

YOU won't find Buen Ejemplo on the map. If you're looking for a village, you won't even know you've reached the place when you come to a clearing in the cornfields at the edge of the vast sugar plantation, between the swirling brown river and the milky, fetid waters of the irrigation ditch.

The setting is spectacular. Jagged mountains covered with emerald grasses and patches of jungle rise against a brilliant blue sky. Yet all this beauty only makes the immediate scene more squalid and forlorn. Buen Ejemplo looks like a ramshackle refugee camp, hardly fit for human habitation.

But the 45 families who moved here in September 1983 to occupy the unused land of a local landowner had such high hopes that they named the place ``Good Example.'' It looks so battered now: Soldiers came last May and pushed down 40 houses with tractors, plowed up the newly planted fields, and arrested 27 of the men.

Luciano Miranda; his wife, Roberta Garc'ia; and their four children came from the province of Lempira, in southwestern Honduras, in December 1987. A month later, during a period of harassment by local soldiers, Mrs. Garc'ia took refuge in a hut high in the hills to give birth to her fifth child. Only her husband was present to help with the birth.

Despite such hardships, the Mirandas are sure they were right to leave Lempira. ``For us life is better here,'' says Mr. Miranda with a rueful smile. ``Here we eat and there we didn't.''

Buen Ejemplo is an example of a growing phenomenon in the third world - grass-roots development. People are taking the initiative, setting their own priorities, and, often, confronting formidable obstacles to provide a better life for their families.

The hurdles the peasants of Buen Ejemplo face are endemic to the very structures of Honduran society - indeed, of many societies in the developing world. For millions of peasants worldwide, the first development priority is access to land, and the primary obstacle to development is unequal land distribution.

Like most other Honduran peasants, the people of Buen Ejemplo have worked all their lives on other people's land, for near-starvation wages. Most have never had adequate housing, ready access to clean water, sanitation, or health care. Almost all are illiterate; none have had more than a few years of school.

Yet these people describe themselves, with quiet pride, as being ``organized.'' They have joined a 27,000-member peasants' union, the National Congress of Rural Workers, known by its Spanish initials as CNTC. In a country where 1.5 million peasants are landless, CNTC and similar organizations are working to ``speed up'' the process of land redistribution set in motion by a land reform law in 1975, which allows peasants to claim land that is not in use.

Few members of the governing National Assembly are interested in advancing the process of land reform. ``Most deputies are landowners, and the military are, too,'' says Gautama Fonseca, author of the land reform law. ``That's why the peasants' situation is so difficult.''

THOUGH they have been forcibly moved off this land 10 times since 1983, the people of Buen Ejemplo have scored a victory. Last May, a local judge ruled that 49 acres be officially granted to them for cultivation (but only 26 of those acres are arable). This first guarantee of land is an official acknowledgment that they are entitled to stay here and farm.

Each player in the drama of Buen Ejemplo has his own prescription for making development work, including Antonio Madrid, owner of the land that is being ``recovered'' and manager of the nearby sugar plantation.

``We need to protect our investments, protect the citizens who really produce, and keep the peasants in line,'' Mr. Madrid says. ``Peasants can be a big source of production. The problem is, we don't develop them, we don't oblige them to work.''

He had planned to use the land the peasants have taken over for a tobacco crop. ``We were going to employ many people - men, women, and children,'' he says, ``but the peasants invaded and sowed corn and beans and we lost all our investment. Tobacco is an export crop and more lucrative.''

In his view, the spirit of the land reform law is ``ideological ... a manipulation by the left,'' and a threat to the stability of the country. A 1982 law allows landowners to charge peasants who ``recover'' unused land with ``terrorism'' and ``subversion.''

But Mr. Fonseca, a former minister of labor, says the 1975 land reform law was designed to foster effective development, not ideology.

``The country is not developing, and it's because of the present landowners,'' he says. ``The real motive of land reform is not to give the land of those who have it to those who don't, but to make the land productive. We expect that peasants will be more productive for the country than the landowners, provided they receive technical assistance.''

The people of Buen Ejemplo agree. Orlando Teruel, father of six, put technical assistance at the top of his list of development needs, followed by ``health care, land - that's the main thing - then clean water, and schools for the children.''

What Mr. Teruel wants is credit. At present, it takes a man 16 days to prepare one manzana of land (1.6 acres) to plant corn. Credit would enable peasants to rent or buy draft animals - maybe even a tractor.

``The banks refuse us credit because we don't have anything to put up as collateral,'' Teruel says. ``If we could get credit to rent a tractor, we could plant rice and things that bring in more, like bananas. Or we could get a loan to buy cattle. Dairy cattle are a good investment.''

A woman from the settlement says there is often nothing to eat in Buen Ejemplo but corn tortillas and salt, and many children show signs of malnutrition. To combat this, the women will plant leafy vegetables, tomatoes, carrots, and potatoes near their homes.

``And we need clean water to drink,'' says Roberta Garc'ia, as her seven-year-old, Emerita, staggers home with a bucket of muddy water from the river. Mrs. Garc'ia says the children sometimes get diarrhea from drinking polluted water. (Dehydration from diarrhea is the main cause of death among small children in ``developing'' countries.) Garc'ia is one of only three women here who boil their drinking water.

CLEAN water for Buen Ejemplo is on its way. A church-affiliated Swiss development agency has provided funds to lay pipe from a new cistern in the hills. Men from Buen Ejemplo are working with local small-scale farmers to lay the pipe.

Reflecting CNTC's nationwide literacy campaign, the school is the only real building in Buen Ejemplo and so far it has only three walls. The walls are of cement blocks with no mortar between them. The roof is corrugated tin held down by stones, the floor is hard-packed earth, with cement blocks for chairs.

About 5 p.m. every day, some 30 men and women sit on these blocks with notebooks and pencils in hand. The women may have babies at their breasts and children playing at their feet. Slowly, patiently, the citizens of Buen Ejemplo are learning to read.

CNTC is proud of its literacy program. According to program director Patricia Ahern (an American), it evolved out of a specific request from the peasants themselves, 85 percent of whom are illiterate. They understood that the organization could function as a true democracy only if every member were able to participate.

``They saw that [as illiterates] it would be very difficult to form cooperatives and local organizations, because the two or three literate ones would always be elected, and they would end up controlling everything,'' Mrs. Ahern says.

In 1985, CNTC approached the Honduran Rural Development Institute with a detailed plan for two year-long courses the peasants had drawn up. The plan was approved, and CNTC began having textbooks printed and training teachers from the peasant communities. Requests to replicate the program have come from Mexico, Chile, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The Honduran Ministry of Natural Resources recently ordered 1,200 copies of the textbook.

Under this system, adults learn to read and write in about five months, then study arithmetic, nutrition, health care, water purification, agricultural techniques, and the principles of democratic organization.

Jes'us Sarabia, father of seven, sits hunched over a well-thumbed notebook. He has copied down the key word for the day and is repeating each syllable slowly with the rest of the class, ``Cam ... pe ... si ... no'' (peasant).

Daylight is fading, and soon the teacher will light the kerosene lamp. Women who have spent the day grinding cornmeal, collecting and chopping firewood, and washing clothes in the river listen intently. Men who have been clearing underbrush with machetes, or dropping beans into the earth in neat rows, one by one, or plowing by the strength of their backs alone, copy letters painstakingly, awkwardly, into their notebooks. Hands used to machetes adapt slowly to pencils.

Looking up from his notebook, Mr. Sarabia says quietly, ``By learning to read, we're waking up. We need to understand things before we can have a better life.''

Next Wednesday: Brazilian rubber tappers battle to save the rain forest.


Honduras's economy, primarily agriculture (bananas, coffee, beef), grew rapidly in the 1970s but has stalled in recent years because of regional political instability, severe trade imbalances, and mounting budget deficits. Living conditions have worsened, in part because of an influx of refugees from the fighting in neighboring Nicaragua. Area in square miles: 43,280 (size of Pennsylvania). Total pop.: 4.8 million. People/square mile: 111 (US: 68). Per capita GNP: $740 (US: $17,500). Under 5 years mortality rate: 111/1,000 (US: 13/1,000). Fertility rate: 5.5 children/woman (US: 1.8). Percentage of infants with low birth weight: 20 (US: 7). Percentage of children with malnutrition: 25. Percentage of literate adults males/females: 61/58. Life expectancy at birth: 65 years (US: 76 years). Percentage of population urbanized: 41 (US: 74).

Sources: The Population Reference Bureau; UNICEF; Political Handbook of the World (1987).

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