There is a crisis facing campesinos in rural Guatemala, as tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled to the United States over the last year in search of work. Yet the same forces that have driven many onto the migrant trail have led to the emergence of a movement of young campesinos organizing to stay on their land, and not be forced to migrate to the cities or the United States. In the process, they hope to recuperate the ancestral Mayan forms of agriculture, and combat hunger and poverty in their communities.
According to statistics from the U.S. Homeland Security the number of Guatemalans arriving at the border had been steadily falling as the country returned to peace after the 36-year-long internal armed conflict. But this trend abruptly changed with the signing of Central America Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, in 2006. Today, rural communities in Guatemala are hemorrhaging people.
Campesinos, or rural farmers, are vital for any country. In Guatemala, roughly 1.3 million families are involved in the production of food. They produce 70 percent of the food consumed in the country and support 40 percent of the population economically. Despite their critical contribution to the country, small farmers across Central America are in trouble. Increasingly, they have lost the ability to produce. And as opportunity in the field declines, campesinos are forced to seek new opportunities in the cities and along the migrant trail.
Land has historically been inadequately distributed in Guatemala, with roughly 2 percent of the population owning 73 percent of the land at the end of the internal armed conflict in 1996. However, in the years since the signing of the peace accords, the situation facing farmers has worsened, with an estimated 3.2 percent of the population owning 84 percent of the land 2014.
The neoliberal project has done more to contribute to the violence in communities in Central America than any other factor. It has intensified the conflict between poor rural farmers and the state and businesses. Since 2006, campesinos have seen not only the increase in competition created by cheap, subsidized corn imports from the United States, but the expansion and accumulation of land holdings for the production of African palm oil and sugar cane.
Forced relocation and displacement
The community of La Benedicion has faced an uphill battle since its founding at the end of the war. It was made up by indigenous families from Huehuetenango and San Marcos who had been displaced by the war.
In 2000, the Guatemalan Land Fund, a government organization that was tasked with assisting the landless farmers, resettled displaced families on an abandoned coffee farm in Esquintla, on the southern coast. They were charged 7.7 million Quetzales ($1 million) for 5,500 acres — well above what the land was actually worth.
“The land was valued and zoned incorrectly,” said Oscar Barrios, the sitting president of the community association of La Benediction. “We were told it was land zoned for agriculture, but it is actually agro-forestry. But we were obliged to take the debt.”
The community was taken advantage of throughout the entire process of purchasing the land.
“We were also told there were three rivers on the land,” Barrios said. “But this wasn’t true. There was only a single stream on the land.”
This wasn’t the only challenge the community faced on their new land. The displaced campesinos found that there were strong winds that blew through the area, devastating crops. “We couldn’t plant,” Barrios remembered. “The wind would blow and damage crops.”
At this point families began to leave, to seek other opportunities in the city and along the migrant trail to the United States. Within the first year the number of families was reduced from 170 to 53.
But in the years since, campesinos — young and old — have organized to develop an agricultural system that allows them to stay on the land and produce.
“Our goal is not to have to migrate,” Barrios said about their project to develop a sustainable agriculture system in the community.
Oswaldo Mauritius is a 25-years-old farmer. He was born in the municipality of Nuevo Progreso in the state of San Marcos, but moved to La Benediction with his family when he was 10 years old. Today he is one of the key architects of the community’s projects.
“Our project began in 2013,” Mauritius said. “We began with growing pineapples, with the aim of improving our food security in the community. But at the same time, we want to bring economic benefit to our community, so we don’t have to move to the city or migrate.”The youth of the community have played an important part in this project to develop a sustainable agriculture that will allow them to stay on their land.
Mauritius began the project with six other youths from the community, and in the two years since they began, pineapple production has expanded rapidly, from 5,000 when they began, to more than 35,000 in 2014. They expect the production to increase each year.
The youth’s projects have also included the production of honey and other crops that can be sold easily at the market. By bringing economic resources to the community, they are able to pay down the substantial debt the community has as a result of the purchase of the land.
“We live in a climate where we can grow almost everything we need,” Mauritius said. “We shouldn’t have to buy anything from outside the community. Our goal is self-sufficiency.”
Between palm oil and the migrant trail
The Guatemalan state of Alta Verapaz has been at the heart of the conflict over land in the country. The rich soils have been key to the rapid expansion of the production of African palm oil by interests connected to international capital. As monoculture production spreads, small farmers have been pushed from their land and on to the migrant trail.
“The production of African palm oil has reproduced like flies,” said Fernando Solis of the Observer, a Guatemalan investigative journal. “So too has the violence.”
Statistics from the Guatemalan Institute of National Statistics reflect this explosion of production of African palm oil. Since 2003, the use of land for exports has risen 113 percent — or put another way, 1,400 acres of land that was previously used for the production of staple foods were lost to the production of sugar cane and palm oil.
Today, the regions that have been affected by the expansion of African palm and sugar cane have seen some of the greatest increases in conflicts over land. According to the Union of Organized Campesinos of the Verapazes, of the 1,300 land conflicts happening in Guatemala, over 400 are in the states of Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, and Izabal.
Campesinos in the region have faced an assault by those interested in purchasing or even stealing land for the production of the valuable crop. And the companies have utilized every tool to expand their interests in the region, including the assassination of leaders and farmers that refuse to sell land.
It is in this environment that communities such as Chisec have taken steps to recuperate their ancestral forms of agriculture. The youth hope that by utilizing a system based on a return to the permaculture of their ancestors, they can combat both hunger and challenge the monoculture that has forced so many to migrate.
“There is a form of agriculture that we didn’t know before,” said Rax Kok, a young Q’eqchi’ Mayan campesino from Chisec. “Before we only farmed maize, beans and cardamom. But for 12 years we heard about a different form of agriculture, a form of organic agriculture, one that is self-sufficient.”
Today Kok produces more than 47 varieties of plants on his land. The permanent crops are for his family to consume. “The goal is to not have to buy food,” Kok said. “After years of practicing agriculture, you shouldn’t have to purchase food.”
There are crops that Kok — and campesinos like him — produce that are taken to market. But they do so not just to earn extra income for their families.
“This isn’t about making money,” Kok said. “It is about sharing what we produce with the community.”
The form of agriculture that Kok is speaking of is what they refer to as “organic.” But more than organic, the system is a return of the ancestral Q’eqchi’ Mayan connection with the earth.
Kok and other young campesinos challenge what agro-sciences teach in the universities of Guatemala, especially when it comes to the use of fertilizers. In their eyes, the use of fertilizers further ties the farmer to multinational companies. But for the farmers, it is about recuperating the agriculture of their ancestors.
“It is the logic of life,” Kok said. “I may not have a car, but I can’t live if I don’t have food. The majority of people’s lives are spent searching for money.”
By recuperating the old systems of agriculture, Kok and other youths hope to not only challenge the loss of land to export crops and the forces of migration, but to combat malnutrition in their communities.
“In our municipality, we have the second highest levels of malnutrition,” Kok said. “This is troubling, because families may have land, but they don’t produce on their land. We can grow 86 varieties, but they choose to produce crops for export. That is why there is malnutrition.”
Demanding laws that support farmers
On a national level, the young campesinos have found support from a number of grassroots organizations, including the Coordinator of NGOs and Cooperatives, the United Campesino Committee and the Campesino Committee of the Plateau. Since 2009, these organizations have campaigned for laws that will allow farmers to stay on their land. One of these laws is Law 40-84, or the Rural Integral Development law.
“This law would oblige the state of Guatemala to assist the people living in rural areas,” Mauritius said. “It would ensure that the local market is supported.”
Since the law was first proposed in 2009, there have been regular protests demanding that the law be passed. Yet with each attempt, and each protest, the law is blocked by a coalition of right-wing parties.
Organizers have hoped to overcome the blockage through an awareness campaign entitled “I support 40-84,” which targets urban populations, trying to bring awareness of the importance of farmers to those who live in the city. The campaign has utilized videos and other materials to build support among civil society.
The campesinos have continued to keep the pressure on the government to provide a solution by holding regular protests, blocking highways, and occupying space in Guatemala City, demanding that the government pass the law.
In September and November 2014, farmers shut down major highways throughout Guatemala. And on April 17, over 400 families from the states of Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz and Izabal, traveled from their homes to occupy different parts of Guatemala City to demand a solution to the hundreds of conflicts over land in their states and that the Congress pass 40-84.
“We are going to be here until the government of Guatemala meets our demands,” said Jose Chic of the Campesino Committee of the Plateau. “We’ve set up medical services, kitchens and even schools for the children. The reality is that the social services here are better than the services that these families have in their communities.”
But despite the campaigns and protests, progress has been slow.
The small farmers have received help from other organizations, such as Utz Che, or “Good Tree” in the Mayan language Kaqchikel, which have worked alongside the campesinos to assist them in renegotiation of debts. For the community of La Benediction, this has led to the lowering of the debt that is owed from the purchase of the land to 342,000 Quetzales.
“Utz Che has been assisting the community,” said Barrios. “The situation still remains critical, but we are organized.”