Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

DEVELOPMENT-GUATEMALA: Agrarian Crisis a Time Bomb

Jorge Alberto Grochembake* - Tierramérica

GUATEMALA CITY, Dec 18 2003 (IPS) - Indians and peasant farmers in Guatemala have mobilised to demand land, which is out of reach for most in this country, where one percent of the population owns 86 percent of the cultivable territory.

"The land issue continues to be a time bomb," says Daniel Pascual, leader of the National Coordinator of Peasant Organisations (CNOC).

The organisation has staged "more than a dozen protests in the capital and in the country’s interior" this year, he told Tierramérica.

Ninety-six percent of Guatemala’s 11.2 million inhabitants hold just 14 percent of the land, and more than 500,000 peasant families live in extreme poverty because they do not have land to farm, according to official figures.

The government estimates there are six million farmers in need of land, credits, technical assistance and market access. Despite this reality, the Alvaro Portillo administration has not implemented an agrarian policy.

"The upshot is a government that lacks the political will to resolve our needs. It plays at a policy that the people supposedly want. It gives out fertiliser and other inexpensive inputs, but only to win votes," says Pascual.

According to CNOC figures, the governmental land fund, Fontierras, has handed over 162 farms since 1997, "which doesn’t even represent five percent of the more than 5,000 applications and requests that have been filed," he said.

The leader accuses President Portillo of a double standard: "He tells us that he will comply with the peace treaty’s terms on the agrarian issue, but in private he has another discourse, and in the end does nothing."

Pascual is referring to the 11 commitments included in the 1996 treaty that ended 36 years of civil war. The Economic and Agrarian Development Accord calls for the distribution of land, but has been shelved by the authorities and by the powerful and conservative Chamber of Agriculture, which is in the hands of large landowners.

"The solution is a bit complicated because it requires an enormous amount of resources as well as an integral development policy and legislative reform," Humberto Preti, former president of the Chamber of Agriculture, told Tierramérica.

"One of the problems is that the peasant farmer has set sights only on land. What is needed are development centres, and the promotion of agro-industry, mining and fishing, which would shift the concentration of capital towards the rural sector," says Preti, who remains among the leaders of the large landowners.

He also accused Fontierras of "buying unproductive and expensive farms, which eventually causes the recipient farmers to abandon them."

Minister of Agriculture and Livestock Carlos Set says current policies are part of a process "that takes time" and calls for input from the business community, peasant farmers and international financial support in seeking a solution.

"With integral participation, especially from the business sector, we could have access to productive lands, as demanded by the peace treaties, at cost – not market prices – because owners jack up prices by 300 to 500 percent," said Set.

But implementation of a new agrarian policy remains on the government’s list of pending tasks.

The fight for land was one of the central factors in the coup d’état that overthrew president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and in the civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996 and claimed an estimated 200,000 lives.

In 1952, millions of Guatemalan Indians and peasants were given a ray of hope with the reforms that Arbenz initiated.

But that effort came to an abrupt halt with the 1954 coup, organised and financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

"In two years, Decree 900 benefited 100,000 families. It was an integral project because its first phase included the distribution of land, credits and technical assistance," says sociologist Miguel Sandoval, leader of the Agrarian Platform movement.

The Arbenz decree "aimed to modernise the countryside and to develop rural capitalism," and if it had come to fruition the history of this country would be dramatically different, he said.

"Unfortunately, the Guatemalan revolution was seen as a bad example for its Central American neighbours and as a beach-head for communism," said Sandoval, in reference to U.S. intervention here during the Cold War era.

The counterrevolution confiscated the lands from the peasant farmers who had benefited from the short-lived agrarian reform.

"The ongoing problem of land ownership, which I could not resolve during my term in office, is one of the origins of the 36-year war," admits Portillo himself.

A 2001 report by the United Nations on Guatemala’s agricultural situation stated that 68.6 percent of the population lives in the countryside, with 80 percent of that population living in poverty and 69 percent considered indigent.

The indigenous population lives primarily in rural areas and has limited access to communications channels or to public services.

(* Jorge Alberto Grochembake is a Tierramérica contributor. Originally published Dec. 13 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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