Farmers struggle for land in Guatemala

By Cecilia Niezen
Moises Morales, president of the Asociacion El Amanecer, says farmlands currently used for growing food crops are being converted to grow sugar for biofuels and export. Photo by Juan Manuel Barrero/Oxfam.

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Walking through farmers’ fields in El Astillero, Guatemala, you see, at first, stalks of corn and cassava towering over the weeds. But an aerial view would show, surrounding these small farms, vast expanses of sugarcane.

“The lands we have today for planting corn, sorghum, sesame seeds, and cassava will soon be converted to sugarcane to fuel cars or for export,” says Moisés Morales, with frustration in his voice.

Morales is the president of the local farmers’ association. He says that farmers, whose individual plots often average just a few acres, no longer have enough land to grow crops to feed their families and sell on the local market.

And their situation isn’t unique. In El Astillero and similar communities throughout Latin America, small-holder farmers and big agricultural companies are now competing for the same plots of fertile land. And whether they are being driven out by economic power, or by force, the farmers are losing.

When sugar isn’t so sweet

Guatemala is the second largest exporter of sugar in Latin America and the Caribbean, and number three in the world. Seventy percent of local production is for export, primarily to the United States and Asian markets.

Guatemala is seeking additional foreign investors in its export crops. As a result, sugarcane export companies—both national and international—are renting or buying massive amounts of land. The area planted with sugarcane in Guatemala increased from 3.4 per cent of the total agricultural area in 1980, to 14 per cent in 2008.

The solution for farmers involves finding financing to buy or rent new land, says Morales. His association, however, is competing for the same land sought by sugarcane and other agro-export projects with far superior economic resources.

Dispossessed by violence

Small-scale farmers in Guatemala are also at a disadvantage due to unclear property rights. When the government allocates land to large-scale enterprises, farmers without clear title can be pushed off their land.

The Polochic Valley region in the northwest of Guatemala is one of the areas the government has targeted for increased sugarcane cultivation. In 2005, a company got a $26 million loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration to move a sugar cane refinery there from the south coast. By 2008 the company had displaced hundreds of people and planted 5,000 hectares of sugar cane. The displaced farmers had few options but to seek refuge in the steep and infertile lands of the Sierra de las Minas mountains.

According to media articles, by 2010 the company’s land was put up for public auction. Families who had to leave the valley a few years earlier decided to return in late 2010 to occupy the land and grow food.

In March of 2011, 769 families were forcibly removed from the Polochic Valley. Their homes and crops were burned, and three campesinos died during the eviction by the security forces of the Guatemalan government and the company.

Although the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged the Guatemalan government in June 2011 to assist the families by providing food, security, health care, and housing, the government took no concrete action to comply, says Oxfam’s agriculture policy advisor Stephanie Burgos.

“The men and women farmers from the Polochic Valley do not want bags of food or fertilizer,” Burgos says. “They only want the land, where they have lived and grown their food for generations, returned.”

The Government of Guatemala recently announced it will provide land for 158 of the evicted families on September 14, 2013, following pressure from the Guatemalan organization Marcha Indígena Campesina y Popular. Oxfam’s GROW campaign also gave the government a petition, with 107,000 signatures from 55 countries, on April 22.

Solutions in law

Farmers are waiting for approval of the Integrated Rural Development Law, which was developed to address food security, guarantee access to natural resources (land and water), financing, promotion of the peasant economy, and economic empowerment of rural women.  The legislation, however, remains trapped in the Guatemalan congress where it is strongly opposed by agro-industry.

Raquel Vásquez, coordinator of the Alliance of Rural Women, says the law will stimulate the peasant and indigenous economy, and encouraging the role of women in food production. “Many people do not like the law, because they think we want to take their land” Vazquez says. “We want to recover our lands. It is unfair that land is being used today primarily for single crops for agro-exports while malnutrition is increasing in our country.”