Guatamala’s Indigenous People Continue to Fight For Land Rights

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This December, ten years will have passed since Peace
Accords were signed between the government of
Guatemala and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary
Unity (URNG). This document was the formal means to
ending 36 years of bloody civil war in the country between
guerilla fighters and the army, a war that resulted in the
“disappearance” or death of an estimated 200,000 people.
Internal conflict is far from resolved, as the poor and
mostly indigenous still fight with the wealthy to obtain the
land and resources they require for survival. Land distribution,
legal rights, and exclusion of the indigenous population
from political discourse and participation were key
causes of the civil war. These issues continue to plague
Guatemala. According to Amnesty International, indigenous
people represent 66% of the Guatemalan population,
as well as 87% of Guatemalans considered to be poor.
Rural families make up 87% of those considered poor, and
93% of those considered “extremely poor.”
Rural Guatemalans primarily live from the land,
through subsistence farming for their own families or
small-scale marketing of produce and goods. Land disputes
arose from the clear asymmetry of resource distribution.
At the time of the 1944 revolution discussed below,
only 10% of the land in Guatemala was available for 90%
of the population. Well under three percent of people
owned 70% of the land, much of which was unused. In
2000, the numbers were not much different: 62.5% of the
land in the hands of 1.5% of the population.
This small country has a rich history that dates back to
1500 BC with the first known inhabitants. Guatemala
boasts the legacy of Mayan methods of building, carving,
writing, and calendar development. There are 23 recognized
languages in
Guatemala today, most surviving
from Mayan cultures.
In 1523, the Spanish
arrived, bringing with them
a system of repartamientos,
or forced labor, to the
indigenous peoples. The
year 1847 brought independence
for the country; however,
elected officials continued
the use of forced
labor and devaluation of
indigenous rights through
the selling of land long settled
by these people to the
highest bidder.
Growing tired of constant repression by those in power,
the people revolted in 1944 and overthrew the government.
The following year brought the election of Jose
Arevalo by an 85% popular vote. Arevalo ushered in a system
of “spiritual socialism,” creating social and literacy
programs throughout the country. In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz
was elected, and he wasted little time before pushing for
the Law of Agrarian Reform in 1952. Also known as
Decree 900, the law redistributed land determined to be
idle among peasant families.
The Law of Agrarian Reform was a direct challenge to
landed interests in Guatemala, including U.S. interests. At
the beginning of the 20th century, United Fruit Company
(UFCO), a Boston-based corporation, moved into
Guatemala. UFCO began purchasing vast amounts of land
and dominating the communication and transportation
industries through the postal service, railways, ports, and
telegraph lines. When the Arbenz administration passed the
Law of Agrarian Reform, half of UFCO’s land was determined
idle and therefore faced redistribution. Beyond this,
the government paid for
the land according to
the declared worth of
properties, grossly
undervalued (for tax
purposes) by UFCO for
several years.
UFCO had some
powerful “lobbyists” to
fight for it in Washington.
Allen Dulles, head
of the CIA, was a former
member of the
board of directors. Secretary
of State John
Foster Dulles’, New York law firm had a history of representing
UFCO. President Eisenhower’s personal secretary
was the wife of UFCO’s top public relations officer. This
land redistribution in Guatemala was occurring at a key
period in American history when redistributive measures
labeled “communist” were immediately considered threatening
to the Unites States. Guatemala was frequently
called a “Soviet Beachhead” and a communist threat in the
U.S. media. In 1954, the CIA assisted in a military coup
that overthrew the Arbenz government, a fact acknowledged
in U.S. State Department documents and by independent
sources. Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was
installed in power; this new government rolled back the
reforms of the 10 year “Democratic Spring” in Guatemala
in favor of the former land owners, including wealthy
Guatemalans generally of European descent, and the
UFCO. Corruption increased, and political assassinations
of dissenters became prevalent. Guerilla groups formed
and actively resisted this repression.
From 1960 to the 1996 Peace Accords, the
Guatemalan Army attempted to root out guerilla resistance
through the systematic destruction of indigenous
communities and their livelihoods, primarily the land.
Internal unrest was worst in the late 1970s and early
1980s during the presidencies of Lucas Garcia and Efrain
Rios Montt, when the
Scorched Earth Campaign
was implemented in an
attempt to quash the guerilla
movement by killing the
people presumed to be feeding
their ranks: indigenous
Guatemalans. The various
undemocratic governments
with power in this period
also felt threatened by civic
organizing: union leaders,
teachers, lawyers, and students
disappeared. U.S. support
for the repression had
various guises during this
period. Supply of weaponry was officially terminated by
President Carter due to the abysmal human rights record
in Guatemala, however the U.S. continued training
Guatemalan officers at the School of the Americas (now
termed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security
Cooperation), who along with graduates from other Latin
American countries have committed well-documented
human rights violations in their own countries.
The language of the 1996 Peace Accords clearly acknowledges
the importance of land rights in the resolution of the
Guatemalan Civil War. The accords provided a framework
for helping peasants attain land legally; supplying legal assistance
to rural people; advancing judicial access for peasants;
promoting rural enforcement of labor laws that often led to
land disputes; and acknowledging root causes of rural
poverty, including lack of inclusion for Mayan peoples in the
political process and unequal land distribution. Importantly,
the accords relating to agrarian issues and indigenous rights
have not been implemented to this day.
As indigenous peasants face a continuing lack of access
to decent land and legal titles, they have organized into
multiple campesino, or peasant, groups.
When certain groups of campesinos feel their
land or labor rights have been ignored, they
choose to occupy areas of land in protest. The
occupation process typically includes
researching the area to be occupied, deciding
whether or not it is being used in a productive
way, if it has clear ownership, and if the occupiers
could petition the government in the
future for legal title. Over the many years that
the government has failed to offer protection
to campesinos in land issues, these organized
groups have determined it necessary for their
survival to occupy lands. The Guatemalan
government has answered these occupations
with a lack of due acknowledgement of peasant complaints.
Forced evictions have only increased under the
current presidency of Oscar Berger, which began in 2004.
According to Amnesty International, thousands of rural
workers and families have been evicted from their homes
during Berger’s presidency, often violently.
The two primary causes of land disputes in Guatemala
are labor issues and land ownership. National law provides
for “labor entitlements” that include a wage, holiday pay,
annual bonuses, and redundancy money for a terminated
position. The 1996 Peace Accords obligated the government
to improve the labor inspection process to verify that
these entitlements are fulfilled. However, with a lack of
necessary resources, the Labor Inspectorate is often unable
to get to some rural areas when complaints are made.
Amnesty International released a report that in April of
this year, 400 indigenous campesinos were evicted from
the San Jose La Moca coffee farm in Alta Verapaz,
Guatemala. The coffee workers had been in a labor dispute
with their employer since 2002. It was in that year that
coffee prices worldwide dropped, leading to the dismissal
of the majority of workers on the farm. The land allotted
to the workers for their own food crops was flooded during
Hurricane Stan in October of 2005. That November
the farm owner offered land in place of labor entitlements
not paid to the workers. When the owner failed to notify
the workers of the location or quantity of land being
offered, the community began occupying a main part of
the farm to press for a resolution of the dispute. The workers
were forcibly evicted in February 2006, but returned
the next day and set up new shelters where theirs had
been destroyed. Four community members were shot two
days later by the farm’s security guards while they were
collecting water. In April of 2006, 200 police officers and
80 soldiers evicted the 400 campesinos living on the farm
without violence. Afterward, the peasants were forced to
live in poor conditions without access to safe water, food,
or shelter. As Guatemala is part of the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR),
it is compelled to provide that “evictions should not
result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable
to the violation of other human rights.”
Often, land under occupation has disputed ownership,
perhaps due to unclear land boundaries or generations of
residence by campesinos who claim the land under communal
title, often without complete supporting documentation. A new Land Registry was passed through
the Guatemalan Congress in 2005, nine
years after being mandated by the Peace
Accords, to document land boundaries and
holdings. This registry may help in resolving
future land dispute cases.
Land ownership is the cause of an
eighteen year struggle by the residents of
Soledad Sayaxut community, also in Alta
Verapaz. Community members believed
the land they built on to be vacant and,
therefore, the property of the state of
Guatemala. In 1988, the community
began the process to receive official
recognition of their land. However,
landowners near Soledad Sayaxut have
also claimed ownership of the land. The
landowners have not presented satisfactory
evidence to confirm this claim. In April
of 2004, sixty police officers arrived at
the community to evict the thirty families
living there. Community members allege
that the officers used chainsaws to
destroy their houses, followed by men
hired by the landowners to set the houses
ablaze. Food stores, crops, and possessions
were destroyed. Most of the community
members still live nearby where
they do not have land to grow crops for
food or sale.
The roots of this battle sprouted decades
ago through conquest, repression, war, and
continued lack of recognition for indigenous
peoples and culture. Guatemalan
campesinos involved in this fight repeatedly
make the most basic of requests. They
demand decent land for growing food, protection
from greedy landowners and
employers, promised labor entitlements for
their work, and inclusion in the organization
and political structure of their country.
The Central American Free Trade Agreement
(CAFTA) is a recent development in
this history of disenfranchisement as
domestic, political and economic elite, in
cooperation with their global financial
sponsors, continue their attempt to concentrate
resources. As a result, access is denied
to poor and rural populations. Disparity in
the distribution of resources, including
land, will continue to increase without
attention and action by the international
community to pressure the Guatemalan
government, and U.S. interests that influence
it, for the recognition indigenous and
rural peoples need to meet their basic needs.

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