Landlessness, Hunger and Social Change in Guatemala

Maya Q'eqchi elder evicted from his home. Photo credit to: Tum Tul

Written by Camron McDonald

On March 15, 2011 more than 1,000 police and soldiers showed up in the Polochic Valley of Northern Guatemala.

They were there to evict more than 3,000 Q’eqchi Maya Indians living on land claimed by a Guatemalan agribusiness firm.  Many of these families have been living on and tending to this land for thirty years.

According to Danilo Valladares, writer for the Inter Press Service, security forces burnt or bulldozed the peasants’ shacks and destroyed their subsistence crops with machetes and tractors. One young man was killed in the scuffle and many others were injured.

Now, close to 800 families have been left homeless and without access to the land they need to grow food to eat.

Neither the government nor the sugar mill that claimed ownership of the land have made provisions for these families elsewhere. This event has outraged human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Via Campesina.

“The evictions in Valle del Polochic have so far been carried out without adequate consultation, adequate notice or the provision of adequate alternative housing and they must stop immediately,” according to Amnesty’s website. “Thousands of people have lost their homes and livelihoods. Without shelter, food or water they are vulnerable to further abuses and must be protected by the authorities.”

At this point, you might be asking, how did it come to this? Unfortunately, this tragedy is only one of hundreds of cases similar it that have taken place throughout Guatemala’s history.

Repeated calls for land reform over the years have been met with little real change. Today, the wealthiest 5 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land. A lack of political will and a lack of clear laws regarding land tenure often lead to long drawn out disputes that usually end in favor of the wealthy and powerful.

Meanwhile, landlessness has been identified as one of the leading causes of the wide-scale poverty and hunger that continues to plague the country.

As a student of social change, I am always looking for those hidden opportunities to shift the structures of power that keep the status quo in place. One thing I have witnessed repeatedly is that fighting “against” something is often a recipe for disappointment. Fighting seems to add fuel to the resistance of the other side.

Even if the underdog “wins” the fight, if the “losers” are not brought on board with the cause, conflict will inevitably rise up between the two in the future.

Case in point: In the 1960’s, socialist President Jose Arbenz seized land from the wealthy owners and re-distributed it to peasants. The brief success ended in a coup, a bloodbath and more deeply entrenched racism.

The fight over land in Guatemala has been going on for so long I can’t help but think about how “the struggle” can be re-framed:

What would it take to bring the two sides together? Is it possible for peasants to hear and understand the fears of the land owners? Is it possible for the land owners to see the legitimacy of indigenous land claims? How can a common humanity shine through the centuries of conflict, resentment and fear?

Back in the Polochic Valley, hundreds of evicted families are trying to make their way in the world. With no where else to go, many have set up encampments of the side of a nearby highway. They ask for handouts from those driving by.

To hear Daniel Pascual,  leader of the Guatemalan Peasant Unity Committee, address this issue in an interview with Real World Radio, please click here.

Please feel free to contribute your thoughts and opinions below. We’d love to hear your point of view.

For more information or to take action, visit the following links:

http://www.amnestyusa.org/document.php?id=ENGUSA20110323006&lang=e
http://www.globalissues.org/news/2011/03/29/9081
http://usaidlandtenure.net/usaidltprproducts/country-profiles/guatemala
http://ionglobaltrends.blogspot.com/2011/03/guatemala-corced-evictions-peasant.html
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