Thursday, February 19, 2009

Reflection by BTS Intern Becky McMillan‏

"The seed is life, it is a gift from mother earth, and is sacred, for that reason there are ceremonies and there we share with our neighbours, so that mother earth gives us abundance, for that reason there are many practices and rituals for the seed. As much for corn as for the other seeds that are sown in the milpa."

Delfina Asig (translation)

It has been suggested that in regions where the diversity in nature is the highest so too is cultural diversity. This makes sense. As humans evolved a spectrum of plant and animal life would have nurtured the body and inspired the imagination. In turn, humans shaped their surroundings, helping to create complex agroforestry systems. Nowhere is this relationship more clearly demonstrated, perhaps, than in the tiny country of Guatemala which is at once home to three different climate regions with their own characteristic vegetation and over 20 different indigenous Mayan groups. But today just as many of Guatemala´s Mayan traditions are being lost; its rich genetic heritage is under threat…

I always struggle to explain concisely what it is I do in my internship when asked. Or perhaps more accurately what the organizations I am working with – Ijat'z and IMAP (the Mesoamerican Institute of Permaculture) − do, for I sometimes feel my role is more as an active observer than a productive employee. The truth is I spend a lot of time puttering around the seed bank in IMAP and weeding and planting things in Ijat´z but I don´t think that is a very satisfying answer for either party.

Traveling with Colin recently we confronted this predicament frequently and quickly developed prepared standard answers if fellow tourists probed for information on what we were doing in Guate. "Human rights" he would say and I would inarticulately mutter something about plants or farming. Baffled, one traveler asked me how it was that the same organization worked in human rights and agriculture.

To me the link seemed obvious. After all, shouldn't the right to food be one of if not the most basic human right? The statistics would seem to suggest otherwise. One in every six people on the planet suffers permanently from malnutrition and the recent hikes in food prices have condemned some 100 million more people to hunger. For me up until September when I came to Guatemala those people were just numbers on a page. Now, not a day goes by that I don´t hear about how the prices of everything from frijol to fertilizers are going up and the money just doesn´t alcanza.

If people are hungry it must mean that there isn´t enough food for everyone, right? Wrong, as it turns out. According to United Nations estimates, 12 million people – twice the current world's population – could be fed adequately if access to food was regulated in a civilized manner. Hunger, then, is a question of political will, a crime against humanity led by big agribusiness and the governments that protect their interests.

One of the major problems, accounting for some 40-50% of increases in food prices, is agricultural speculation. Basically what happens is investors stockpile agricultural goods, stimulating demand and thus prices, in order to receive better profits. Similarly, excesses of cheap subsidized food in the north have been used to destabilize local production in developing countries (¨dumping¨). Governments worldwide have cut rural development programs as part of structural adjustment policies (conditions imposed on loans which promote the privatization of state institutions) leaving little support for the campesino economy. Meanwhile they have adopted policies in favour of large agroexport companies.

Let's look a little more closely at the case of Guatemala. Thirty years ago Guatemala was a country self sufficient in corn production for human consumption. As anyone who has traveled to Guatemala knows, corn is a dietary staple, especially in rural areas where tortillas are served up los tres tiempos. Corn was an integral part of the traditional Mayan milpa systems (mixed cropping systems widely used before being disrupted by Spanish colonialism – they included the highly nutritious amaranth, Erin´s favourite) and is central to the Mayan cosmovision. According to the Popul Wuh, the Mayan spiritual text, the ancestors were made of corn of different colours.

Today, a dependency on imports of corn and other goods has developed with the adoption of free trade agreements and other neoliberal policies. In June of 2008, for example, in the midst of the "food crisis", Alvaro Colom, president of Guatemala, announced the elimination of import tariffs on a range of basic products to supposedly make products more affordable. Among these goods are yellow corn and corn flour though not sugar which is produced by Guatemala's powerful families, despite the fact that the world price is almost three times lower than the domestic price.

Another type of policy, oddly enough, has been affecting food security worldwide. Climate change regulations in the US and EU have stimulated a market for biofuels, and in many countries, including Guatemala, fertile lands are being converted from food production to the production of plant based energy sources, such as the inefficient corn ethanol. Thus the poor man's food (a Guatemalan minister indicated 10 years ago that planting corn was planting poverty) has become fool's gold.

For me, the most frightening of all, though, is that with the increase of hybrid and genetically modified seeds sold by such multinational corporations as Cargill, Bayer and Monsanto the varieties of corn and other traditional food crops selected over generations by campesinos are at risk.

Hybrid seeds are the result of crosses between two pure varieties in order to strengthen certain characteristics and to improve production. Although these varieties produce high yields in the first season (usually with substantial chemical inputs) due to a phenomenon known as hybrid vigour, seeds saved from hybrid crops will either be sterile or produce plants that are dissimilar to the first generation.

Genetically modified (GM) seeds are seeds which have been enhanced in a laboratory using genes from other species, including animals. The effects of these varieties on human health are not well understood and for this reason they have been banned by some countries. While the seeds saved from GM plants are not (yet) sterile like with hybrid crops, GM varieties can cross-pollinate with heritage varieties nearby, essentially ruining the production of seeds from the heritage crop and forcing producers to buy seeds from the companies that have patented the GM varieties. Apparently, when buying GM seeds a producer has to sign a contract promising that they will not save the seeds.

It is in this context that organizations like Ijat´z and IMAP, are working through native and heritage seed saving, education, and political activism to ensure not just food security (i.e. knowing where the next meal is coming from) but food sovereignty: sustainable, independent, locally controlled and culturally appropriate food production.

And it is in this context that ¨planting stuff¨ can become a powerful political act.

Update by BTS Intern Colin Gusikoski‏

This update will outline both the factual and legal aspects of some of the most pertenant cases the Bufete is working on. The most important aspect of the Bufete's work includes the 2 massive cases pending before the Inter-American Commission. These cases include 228 individuals who tragically lost their lives during the civil armed conflict in Guatemala. Due to the evidentiary requirements, the sheer volume of factual evidence accumulated in support of these petitions is enormous. It is hard to believe one small legal clinic with a lawyer and two auxiliary staff could have accomplished such a feat.

Current Cases

As the petitions before the Iner-American Commission make up the lion's share of the Bufete's current legal work, I will start with these cases. The most recently submitted case affects various massacres in eight separate communities as well as extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances in other places throughout the department of Rabinal. This single petition encompasses 17 separate incidents which resulted in 188 victims. These cases were packaged together as they were part of a coordinated offensive against the Achi indigenous communities in the department of Rabinal, initiated in March of 1982. Moreover, a single petition is in the interests of judicial expedience and procedural economy.

The second case pending before the Commission concerns the Chichupac massacre, submitted to the Inter-American Commission on December 13, 2007. This petition names specific atrocities which were committed in a tighter geographic location around the communities Chichupac and Caserio Xeabaj, both in the municipality of Rabinal. The said atrocities include 33 victims of a massacre in Chichupac committed on January 8, 1982 and 27 forced disappearance or extrajudicial executions committed between the dates August 23, 1981 and December 15, 1984.

Currently the Bufete is also starting preliminary discussions with 256 residents of a large finca (large farm), the rightful owners of which were displaced during the civil war. The current owners of this land were originally from Rabinal and Quiche and purchased a large area of land which amounts to around 40 square kilometres for 639.46 pesos. The displaced community had legal tenure of the same finca since as early as 1906. However, the government resold this land once the original owners had fled the violence and threats to their safety. As both communities are indigenous and indigent, the ideal outcome is for a negotiated settlement of some sort.

Legal Aspects

I thought it would also be helpful to include some of the legal aspects of the petitions before the Inter-American system. There are five stages set out in the American Convention of human rights which any case before the Commission must go through. These stages, in chronological order, are: admissibility; factual investigation (including information provided by both parties); friendly settlement; submission of a provisional report; and, the transmission of the case before the Inter-American Court. Both of the petitions have yet to make it through the admissibility phase of the Commission's procedures. As cases have historically taken an average of three to four years to get to the Court and another three to four years beyond that, justice is still a few years away.

The first petition (Chichupac) was filed with the Commission on December 13, 2007. The government of Guatemala has since contested this application on two main legal grounds. First, the government is objecting to the fact that the petitioners have failed to exhaust domestic remedies as the case is under renewed investigation by the relevant authorities. Second, the government is also contesting the petitioner's decision to try the merits of the cases as a bundle. Despite these objections it is very unlikely that the case will not be admitted by the Commission.

As for the second petition, because it was only submitted in early December there will be some time before it can move forward. The Commission must first redact the security-sensitive information and submit it to the government. The state of Guatemala then has two months to respond, with an ability to request up to three months extension. Given the state's historical treatment of these petitions we can expect that they will again contest this case.

Personal Challenges and Rewards

My experience working with the Bufete has been exceedingly challenging and at the same time intensely rewarding. The most challenging aspect has been dealing with a completely different legal system in a completely different language. Initially, my work seemed impossible as I was dealing with both complexities at the same time. This also made me feel burdensome to my organization as I was not very productive nor helpful. Bit by bit however, I have been able to construct an adequate understanding the case law and I am starting to feel more comfortable with my Spanish. As most cases are reported in English I am able to conduct all my research efficiently and effectively but I also have to convey this information. Perhaps the most challenging part of my job at this stage is condensing my research in an accessible form (ie Spanish memos) for Maria Dolores.

The same elements of my work which give me the most difficulty also give me the most enjoyment. First, it has been extraordinarily stimulating learning about the inter-American system. The variant procedures before the Commission and the Court as well as the jurisdiction and jurisprudence of each are all very fascinating. Second, I enjoy learning another language especially while immersed in a different linguistic and cultural environment. It is fun to be constantly challenged and have such a rewarding learning curve.

In regards to the village I have been placed at, working and living in Rabinal has been nothing but a pleasure. The people here are exceptionally kind and the town itself is surrounded by a beautiful mountainous landscape. There have been challenges related to making friends who are from the area but I am able to interact with them during my many visits to the market and through my involvement in two soccer leagues.

In all, my internship has been a rich and rewarding learning experience. Not only have I deepened my understanding of international human rights, Spanish and Guatemala, I also have a firmer knowledge about myself, humanity and my bearings in the world.

Intern Reflections and Random Guatemala Thoughts...‏

Friends of BTS,

It's hard to believe February is coming to a quick close. Before long, the four Tatamagouche Centre Interns for 2008-2009 will be returning to Nova Scotia after six months of struggling, challenging and rewarding times. We have already had the chance to come together twice with this year's four interns (Becky McMillan - Ija'tz and IMAP San Lucas Toliman; Erin Wolfson - New Hope Foundation Rabinal; Colin Gusikoski Community Legal Clinic Rabinal and Pat Chasse Kaqchikel Presbytery Chimaltenango) during reflection weekends to help explore the role of interns in Guatemala, to better understand the current socio-political context and to share in the frustrations and joys of having the opportunity and privilege of working along side Guatemalans who also find themselves in often precarious times and circumstances. Guatemala continues to be a place of great challenge and great resistance; systems of oppression and discrimination that conjure great injustice face a deep strength and resistence of the indigenous communities that confront these systems in light of the many global (Canadian!) and national factors that relentlessly beg for defeat. Interns struggle with the questions of what is just? For me? My community? And the world? What is my role here? What is development? Community participation? How can I listen and participate in true solidarity?

As the last remaining weeks wind down and the interns prepare for their return to Canada on March 20, we remain unaware if this CIDA funded program will continue in the years to come, though we remain hopefull that this opportunity to deepen understanding and relationships will continue in the ways possible in the time to come. In the meantime, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Kathryn for her vision and sincerity, Caren Weisbart for her support here in Guatemala with the interns (and my own reflections!) and all the past interns who have also struggled, been confused, spoken out, kept silent (when necessary) and experienced the pure joy and humble honour of spending a day in the life of a Guatemalan. Thanks to you for helping lead the path for myself and the others who have come to share in this great learning.

I am looking forward to seeing many of you in Tatamagouche March 27-29! Until then, good care and enjoy the reading!

Abrazos desde Guate,