Land rights and reform (or rather the lack of)

What follows is an essay on the issue of land rights in Guatemala. It’s a compilation of my thoughts from what I have seen, heard and read about so far. It’s a bit long, but I hope it’s interesting nevertheless.

In rural Guatemala, poor mostly indigenous farmers scrape a living on poor soil, while wealthy land owners occupy the best land. These large plantations, or fincas, grow cash crops for export – often exploiting the land and labour resource.

Guatemala has one of the most inequitable land distribution patterns in Latin America. I found a stat from 2004 that roughly 2% of the population owns 70% of all productive farmland. This has led to fierce conflicts between campesinos (peasant farmers) and a powerful elite that maintains close ties with the government.

Historical context

The system of land distribution dates back to the Spanish conquest in 1524, when land seized from indigenous populations was granted to colonizers. The Spanish usurped the nation’s richest soils and exploited the indigenous labour force to grow export crops for Europe. Indigenous farmers were relocated to the most unproductive farmlands where they struggled to survive.

Independence from Spain in 1821 brought few rewards to Guatemala’s indigenous population. The emerging class of wealthy ladinos (non-indigenous, Guatemalan born) gained increasing control over land and labour. From 1871, coffee became the nation’s largest export, and a powerful elite of coffee growers forced farmers to abandon their lands. As communal land tenure disappeared and export crop growers forced indigenous villagers to relocate to less productive highland areas, many campesinos were compelled to migrate to coastal plantations in search of work and a wage. There were even dubious laws introduced that effectively forced campesinos to work on the plantations in conditions not much better than slavery.

In 1952 (during Guatemala’s short-lived ‘ democratic Spring’), President Arbenz initiated an Agrarian Reform Law. This called for the expropriation of mostly idle lands from large plantation owners to be redistributed to poor farmers. The reform, which benefited an estimated 100,000 families, threatened the holdings of large landowners and powerful foreign companies, principally the United Fruit Company of the USA. The United Fruit Company had many ties to the US government, and owned an obscene amount of land in Guatemala – around 40% of productive land at this time. The company was nicknamed ‘the octopus’ – a reflection of how its power and influence spread throughout the country.

So, enter Uncle Sam. Under the guise of combating communism, the US government ordered a CIA-orchestrated coup to oust Arbenz in 1954. The democratically-elected president was replaced by a US-backed general who annulled most of the land expropriations, returning the territory to the previous owners.

During the years of the Civil War (1960-96) much of the remaining good land was rewarded to military officers and rich landowners. Systematic burning of campesino lands and villages was a terrifying tool used by the military to weaken support for the leftist guerillas, and to repress the population.

Land ownership was one of the most controversial components of the 1996 Peace Accords, which charged the state with the task of providing land to peasant farmers. The stipulations of the accords, however, have yet to be implemented, and Guatemala still suffers the same problems of inequality and poverty that have plagued the country since the Spanish conquest.

The agrarian situation today

Today, Guatemala has one of the largest rural populations in Central America – around 60% of its inhabitants depend on agriculture to survive. Yet available land is shrinking as rural families grow and plantations expand to satisfy the export market. In the Western Highlands, where most subsistence farms are located, intensive land cultivation has led to soil degradation. Malnutrition is a problem, and more than half of all families lack running water and electricity.

Rural poverty has led to an increase in migration. Many farmers must supplement their harvest by working as seasonal labourers on large coffee, banana and sugar plantations on the southern coast – as has been the case for the past 100+ years. Others migrate to the city. Others migrate to the USA, and funds sent home from these workers are many families’ only means of survival. This has its own problems however. Many women are left effectively widowed by men who leave for the USA and never return, and never send money.

In order to combat rural poverty the peace accords established a government land fund to facilitate poor farmers’ access to land. The fund offered credit to campesinos to buy idle state lands or private fincas on the market, also providing technological assistance to its beneficiaries to make acquired lands productive. For many campesinos the machete and the hoe were the principle tools for cultivation. They were therefore ill equipped to manage large plantations and needed assistance.

The system has been largely ineffective, and lands have not been redistributed. This was due in part to large landowners’ tendency to sell low quality land at inflated prices. Campesinos incurred crippling debt that they could not repay. All the income earned was used to pay back debt, so investment to improve the farm was impossible. Many campesinos have been forced to return the land, or have been evicted.

The fund also suffered from a severe lack of finances. Its budget too small to operate effectively and meet its objectives. Also, as campesinos defaulted on the debt the funds were not regenerated. However, without the help of the fund it is practically impossible for campesinos to enter the land market.

In recent years, the land crisis has been exacerbated by a global ‘coffee crisis’ which began in 2000. Coffee prices in Central America plummeted when Asian countries (in particular Vietnam) entered the market, producing at a lower price. Coffee plantations throughout Guatemala halted production, resulting in unemployment, greater poverty and eviction from the land.

The last resort is to retake the land. Desperate farmers have taken to occupying idle lands or refusing to vacate plots which they have traditionally cultivated. In most cases, campesinos are pressuring for the payment of wages or the right to cultivate the terrain from which they were evicted. They are often forcibly removed by the police, landowners or private security.

Currently there are ongoing clashes in the north of Guatemala, where there are land claims by thousands of poor farmers. Many campesinos have occupied private farms that lie abandoned and the government has been forcibly trying to evict them. Roadblocks and demonstrations are common. Land claims by the dispossessed has been a constant source of conflict in Guatemala over the past 50 years that no government has resolved. Indeed in this year’s election not one of the candidates for presidency mention anything about land rights in their campaigns. It’s simply too hot to handle. The landowning elite is inextricably tied to the political elite – there is no desire to disrupt the status quo.

Hope for the future?

In response, campesino, indigenous, religious and human rights organisations across Guatemala formed the Plataforma Agraria to propose sweeping reforms to the land system. Central to the coalition is a condemnation of the centuries of exploitation that the poor majority has endured.

The Agrarian Platform proposes to reform the market-based land distribution system to make land accessible to poor farmers. Expropriation of land taken illegally during the armed conflict and taxing idle land to obligate landowners to create jobs or give the property to landless campesinos are some of their goals. The group also wants the government to provide technical assistance, credit and market information to small farmers to enable them to participate in the economy, rather than cultivate solely for subsistence. A fully functioning land registry to ensure that land ownership is fully documented in the event of dispute is also on the list.

It remains to be seen whether some of these goals can be accomplished. Unfortunately for the near future the situation looks bleak for the majority of landless campesinos.

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