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The Associated Press April 18, 2012, 7:59PM ET

Thousands of Honduran farmworkers occupy land

Thousands of farmworkers have occupied 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) of land around Honduras as part of a dispute with large landowners and the government, activists and officials said Wednesday.

Activists say the seized territory is arable public land that small farmers have the legal right to grow crops under Honduran law. The large landowners who have been farming the land say they bought it legally from the government. A land dispute between small farmers and landlords in the northern Aguan Valley has led to dozens of deaths among farmworkers in recent years.

Mabel Marquez, of the organization Via Campesina, said that the largest seizure had occurred on the country's Caribbean coast, where roughly 1,500 farmworkers had seized land held by a sugar plantation near the city of San Pedro Sula. The movement also took possession of several farms on the outskirts of the capital, Tegucigalpa, and in the provinces of Cortes, Yoro, Santa Barbara, Intibuca, Choluteca, Camayagua and Francisco Morazan.

"We want to avoid any type of confrontation," Marquez said, adding that the farmworkers were unarmed and used no force. Marquez said the farmworkers didn't rule out an official attempt to dislodge them from the fields.

Later Wednesday, police and soldiers read an eviction notice and the farmworkers peacefully left the San Manuel sugar plantation of 6,000 acres (2,500 hectares). The rest of the farms were still occupied late Wednesday.

Activists said they were seeking meetings with government officials to open a national dialogue on land disputes, make clear that the lands were public property and that the farmworkers shouldn't be dislodged. According to United Nations figures, 53 percent of Hondurans live in the countryside and, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America, the residents of 72 percent of rural homes are below the poverty line.

Cesar Ham, director of the National Agrarian Institute, said the land seizures were politically motivated and aimed at destabilizing the government.

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