Rebecca MacDonald is a current Breaking the Silence intern with the Highlands Small Farmer's Committee (CCDA) in Colonia Santa Cruz Quixaya, in Guatemala.
During my time so far with the CCDA, I have had the great privilege of participating in various CCDA workshops, hearing from campesinos and campesinas about the day to day struggles of life in Guatemala. One woman spoke of the devastation of Agatha in June 2010, lamenting the fact that many people's homes are still without roofs. Numerous families were left without homes as a result of this storm, or tormenta as it is called here; of the people who are lucky enough to own a piece of land to plant on, the majority of their crops were washed away. This has already affected food prices around the country, particularly here in the region where I am living. As we go further into the dry season, which runs from late November to April, food scarcity will become a major issue; indeed already the price of the basic food basket (a grouping of the most basic foodstuffs, clothes and consumer goods per month necessary to survive) has begun to rise.
One of the most disheartening factors with this issue is the fact that many campesino families do not have land to plant on in the first place. It is the same issue that has plagued Guatemala since the Spanish invasion centuries ago; during the 1870s, the government began expropriating Mayan communal lands and selling them off to foreign investors, eager to cash in on the growing global coffee industry. This accumulation of vast tracts of land in the hands of the few is also known as the latifundia system; in Latin America in the 1960s, latifundistas (large landowners) made up about 5 percent of the population and held 80 percent of land. Minifundistas (small landowners) made up about 80 percent of the population but only owned about 5 percent of land. Around one third of the agricultural labour force was landless in this period, and the majority of minifundistas and the landless worked in latifundia as permanent or seasonal workers (1).
This is only one of the multitude of factors that has led to and maintained the huge gap in land ownership in this country: the latifundia (finca) system, the armed conflict, and structural issues built into past and current government systems have all helped to maintain the majority of the land in Guatemala in very few hands. According to the Land Research Action Network, less than 1% of landowners hold 75% of the best agricultural land (2). This land is mainly used in the latifundia system - huge tracts of land which are used to cultivate a single crop, such as sugar cane. You can drive for hours near the west coast and see nothing but vast fields of sugar cane, and these crops are mainly for export. This all maintains a status quo, allowing the dominant land-owning minority of the population to maintain their status while, according to the United Nations Development Program report released last month, 50% of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition (3). The introduction of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), signed in 2005, has only aggravated the issue of malnutrition, driving the price of basic grains up and in doing so affecting food security; Guatemala was once known as the "granary of Central America", but now, because of reductions in tariffs, the market has been flooded with subsidized food crops from the north and cheaper imports. This has led to a significant increase in the price of corn, a staple in the diet of the majority of Guatemalans (4). Furthermore, it has concreted the power of large landowners through facilitating exports of large-scale crops (5), excluding from the process small producers.
One of the major factors that led to the 36 year civil war in Guatemala was the issue of land ownership. Many Guatemalans remember fondly the "ten years of spring", from 1944 to 1954, during which the government of Jacobo Arbenz set in motion major land reforms aimed at decreasing the gap in land ownership in Guatemala. Elected in 1951, he redistributed land to 100,000 peasant families within 18 months of his inauguration (6). As Indigenous peoples and peasants had been forced off of their lands en masse since the Spanish invasion, increasing the land ownership gap, these land reforms were urgently needed. But Arbenz became a threat to the latifundistas, and in 1954 a US-supported military coup removed Arbenz from rule, sending him into exile and forcing the recipients of expropriated land off of what had become the beginning of a livelihood, reinstating the latifundia system, and effectively sending the country spiralling into a civil war that would last 36 years. At the beginning of the civil war, when peasants and indigenous peoples who owned land tried to defend it, they were faced with tremendous oppression. Hundreds of thousands of mainly indigenous peoples were tortured, killed, or disappeared for defending their lands, or simply for being a part of an indigenous community during this war.
In 1996, when the Peace Accords were finally signed, two separate accords, the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Agreement on Social and Economic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation put responsibility on the government to either restore or pay compensation for land taken from indigenous peoples, as well as to provide land access to small-scale farmers. Sadly, almost 15 years later, the issue of land ownership has not been properly addressed, and the gap in land ownership has not decreased by any significant amount.
Although this powerful landowning minority holds sway over many government decisions (evident in the power held by CACIF, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Comercial, Industrial and Financial Associations), the CCDA, along with a number of other peasant organizations, have been working diligently for ten years to address this land gap with proposed Bill 40-84, the Integral Rural Development Law. This law has as its main subjects rural populations living in poverty and extreme poverty, indigenous and peasant peoples with little or no land, indigenous and peasant women, day labourers, small producers and small business owners. Some of the major reforms outlined in the policies of this bill are the reform of land ownership and land use, guarantees for technical and financial assistance to increase rural production, guarantees of basic social services, the assurance of labor benefits, iniciatives to combat malnutrition by means of food sovereignty iniciatives, and actions to protect and improve the environment. These are a few of many iniciatives contained in the law, but even these few points would make a huge difference to the 43 percent of children under 5 who suffer from malnutrition, or the 70 percent of indigenous labourers who are paid under minimum wage (7).
The current government clearly favours the corporate citizens of the country, exporters of coffee, sugar and fruit, for example. These companies have bulging profit margins, as the entire system of production is based on wage slavery. In a country where the minimum wage doesn't even cover the basic food basket, those working for under minimum wage have few options; the government does nothing to monitor wage standards, and anyone speaking up for their labour rights is sure to find out just how expendable they are to the finca owner. The government hides from these problems of labour and hunger behind Mi Familia Progresa, a program that provides "solidarity bags" of food, "solidarity foodbanks" and scholarships to children in poor families. What this program does not address is the underlying problem of land ownership and unchecked labour violations, attempting to put a bandaid on a grave flesh wound. Furthermore, the president's wife is the coordinator of the program, and it is widely seen as a tactic to get her elected in the upcoming presidential elections.
Attacking the structural issues of endemic poverty, malnourishment, labour issues and rampant violence within the country cannot be accomplished within a government corrupted by business interests; what is needed is a redistribution of land, as mandated in Bill 4084; despite the fact that the majority of Guatemalans practice subsistence agriculture on little or inadecuate land, they still produce 80 percent of the food consumed in the country, and even with what they are able to produce the majority are barely surviving (8). The sad truth is that without land it is impossible to produce - with fair land distribution, the structural problems of hunger would begin to improve, and the surplus of the harvests to come would begin to put and end to the cycles of poverty, slavery, and malnourishment, perhaps allowing for a child to attend school, instead of working with their parents in the finca to help feed the rest of the family.
(1) Griffin, Khan and Ickowitz. "Poverty and the Distribution of Land". Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 2 No. 3, July 2002, p. 295.
(4) Guatemalan Human Rights Commission Factsheet on Neoliberalism. http://www.ghrc-usa.org/Programs/Immigration_Trade/factsheet_neoliberalism.pdf
(5) "CAFTA Impacts Year Two" - Stop CAFTA Coaliton Report - DR-CAFTA's Impact on the Guatemalan Agricultural and Food Sector, Susan Gauster, 2007
(6) Gleijeses. "The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz". Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 21 No 3, Oct. 1989, p. 453.
(8) "El Comercio Justo Plus: Un Aporte a la Economia Campesina en Resistencia al T.L.C", CCDA, October 2008