Development & Aid, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: The War Over Land

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Sep 12 2011 (IPS) - The violent eviction of 91 rural families in northern Guatemala was the latest incident in the ageold conflict over land in a country where the army is frequently called in to force peasant farmers off their land.

“This has been the government with the most violent stance against the campesino (peasant) struggle. It has carried out 115 evictions since 2007 because of its ties to strong economic groups, which mean its actions have been in line with the interests of local and transnational companies,” Israel Macario, with the Agrarian Platform, a coalition of 21 groups pressing for land reform, told IPS.

“Campesinos, who have a right to land in order to engage in community-based rural economic activities to produce their own food, have been abandoned,” the activist said.

In the last few months, there have been a number of evictions of campesino families in this impoverished Central American country.

The most recent occurred on Aug. 23, when a group of soldiers descended on the village of Nueva Esperanza in the northern province of Petén and razed and set fire to the homes of 91 campesino families. A total of 286 people were forced off the land, including 60 children and 30 elderly persons.

They were accused by government forces of having ties to drug traffickers.

The families, carrying just clothing and a few cooking utensils, fled across the border that day to the town of Nuevo Progreso in Tenosique, in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco, where they were given assistance by Mexican authorities, the U.N. refugee agency, and NGOs.

The Guatemalan government has now engaged in talks with the families, to find a solution that would allow them to return to Guatemala.

In this country, where roughly half of the population is rural, nearly 80 percent of farmland is in the hands of a mere five percent of the population. Meanwhile, half of the population of 14 million people is poor and 17 percent live in extreme poverty, according to U.N. figures.

This makes Guatemala one of the most unequal countries in the world, where land, indispensable for survival in rural areas, is fiercely disputed, especially by agribusiness interests keen on expanding export crops like sugar cane and African oil palm.

“This country needs a law on rural development to regulate land use, an agrarian code, and an agrarian prosecutor’s office and courts,” Elmer Velásquez, the coordinator of CONGCOOP, a network of Guatemalan NGOs and cooperatives, told IPS.

The activist said this legal framework was provided for by the 1996 peace agreement that put an end to the 36-year civil war between left-wing guerrillas and government forces in which some 250,000 people – mainly rural Maya Indians – were killed and forcibly disappeared, according to official figures.

Officially, 40 percent of the Guatemalan population is indigenous, although NGOs such as Refugees International and the U.N. refugee agency put the proportion as high as 65 percent.

An agrarian code would formally recognise customary property held for generations in rural communities, and an agrarian prosecutor’s office would provide legal advice on land tenure to campesinos, Velásquez said.

“But in general terms, the state has decided once again to respond to the demands of campesinos with repression,” he lamented.

As of April, just under 3,000 square kilometres of land in Guatemala were caught up in land conflicts involving more than one million people in 1,360 separate disputes, according to a report by the government’s Secretariat of Agrarian Affairs.

In 68.5 percent of the disputes, two or more people claim to own the land; in 19.7 percent, the land in question has been illegally occupied; and the rest of the cases involve land boundary disputes or demands for formal recognition of traditional indigenous lands.

Carlos Sarti, director of Propaz, an NGO dedicated to conflict mediation and resolution, told IPS that land “is Guatemala’s major historical problem.”

He complained that “the governments haven’t taken fundamental decisions, when the underlying problems must be addressed through a national pact based on agreement on what kind of agrarian development we want for the future.”

Sarti preferred not to discuss legal questions, but said that based on his experience, dialogue was the “only alternative” for reaching agreements on this “thorny issue.”

“The government is acting as both judge and plaintiff. In the indigenous world view, land is a gift from nature, while business interests see it as merchandise to be bought and sold. They are completely different visions,” he said.

Meanwhile, land conflicts continue to leave campesinos uprooted, injured and even dead.

In the middle of the night on Mar. 15, more than 1,000 police and soldiers evicted over 3,000 Q’eqchi Maya Indians living on land claimed by an agribusiness firm in the Polochic Valley in the northern province of Alta Verapaz.

The security forces burnt or bulldozed the families’ humble shacks and destroyed their subsistence crops with machetes and tractors.

In that eviction and later incidents, 18 people have been injured and three have been killed in clashes with government forces and private security guards, such as the ones protecting the Chabil Utzaj sugar mill, the Committee of Campesino Unity reported.

In August, a campesino was killed during the police eviction of more than 250 families from land in the southwest province of Retalhuleu that will reportedly be used for the large-scale production of sugar cane.

Camilo Salvadó, a researcher with the non-governmental Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences (AVANCSO), told IPS that the evictions form part of a market-based logic aimed at expanding export-oriented production of sugar cane, palm oil, and other products.

In first place, the expert said, the government should put a stop to the evictions, in order to give campesinos access to land on which to grow food, and thus prevent a worsening of the food crisis.

In addition, a national rural development policy is urgently needed, he said, along with legislation recognising communally owned indigenous land and agrarian courts to settle land disputes.

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