History of land possession
The system of landownership in Guatemala has its roots in the Spanish conquest, when land was expropriated from indigenous populations and given as compensation to the new colonizers. After independence in 1821, land ownership remained highly unequal. Producers of crops for export such as sugarcane forced indigenous people off their lands toward higher altitudes, where cold climates were inadequate for the traditional cultivation of milpa (a mix between corn and beans).
Still today the rural population of Guatemala suffers from one of the most unjust systems of land concentration in the world. According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Cattle, and Food, 0.15% of all producers control 70% of all arable land, producing only for export; meanwhile, 96% of all producers occupy barely 20% of all lands. In the countryside, 90% of the inhabitants live in poverty and more than 500,000 families live below the subsistence level. At the same time, the country historically has one of the largest rural populations in Latin America, comprising 69% of the total population. More than 50% of all workers are involved in agriculture.
Diverse analyses suggest that crop lands in Guatemala have become more concentrated as time goes on. Between 1964 and 1979, the number of agricultural lands with less than 3.5 hectares duplicated and the average size of those lands smaller than 7 hectares dropped from 2.4 hectares to
1.8 hectares per land area between 1950 and 1979. Analyzing the data of the Agricultural Census of 1979, we can verify that there was an extremely unequal distribution of land: 88% of all properties possessed an area smaller than 7 hectares for family subsistence, accounting for 16% of all arable lands, while barely more than 2% of all farms maintained ownership of 65% of all arable lands.
More than thirty years of intervention in the countryside by different governments have not affected the concentrated and exclusive agrarian structure: the pattern of land ownership has continued, as well as the dualism between the agro-export model and internal consumption.
The majority of land is concentrated in few hands and the large landowners dominate areas where the land is most fertile, located in the southern part of the country, on the Pacific coast. This region is known for its concentration of sugarcane production controlled by large businesses and plantations.
The National Coordination of Indigenous and Farm Workers Communities (CONIC) has denounced that, in the mountain districts, the problem of large landowners has become endemic, and a large percentage of the indigenous population has migrated, due to the small availability of arable lands. It is estimated that more than 60% of the rural population that is economically active in the mountain districts migrates in search of employment during some period of the year.
The concentration of land ownership, a result of the historic expropriation of indigenous lands, has serious consequences for sustainable land use, the self-sufficiency of small farmers, and for food sovereignty. What’s more, the deformed agrarian regime results in a disproportionate channeling of public resources towards the agro-export sector, to the detriment of food production for the internal market.
Juan José Arévalo became president in 1945, promoting a new constitution that established “social property” and the eradication of large farms. At the time, the 22 largest landowners possessed more lands than close to 250 peasant families. The Supplemental Land Title Law was approved, determining the concessions of land titles to those landholders who had cultivated the land for more than ten years.
Arévalo’s legislation and the growing prominence of worker and peasant organizations during the period between 1944-1954 constituted the base of the reform programs of Jacobo Arbenz, elected president in 1951. Faced with a land distribution in which 88% of agricultural production areas occupied 14% of all lands and large landowners cultivated, on average, only 19% of their properties, on June 17, 1952 the Guatemalan Congress approved the Law for Agrarian Reform. Its main objectives were to eliminate the feudal conditions and all forms of slavery in labor, to provide land to landless workers or those with little land, and to distribute credit and technical assistance to smallholder landowners. It is estimated that 180 thousand families benefited from the law, representing close to 10% of the total population of Guatemala at the time.
Opposition to agrarian reform was swift and decisive. On June 27, 1954, Arbenz was deposed by Coronel Castillo Armas. Agrarian reform in Guatemala became virtually a “taboo” and Arbenz’ program was stopped in 1954.
Pressure from the United States government to “repeal the communist threat” and to protect interests of North American companies, principally United Fruit Company, helped facilitate the coup d’etat supported by the CIA, and reverted Arbenz’ attempt at agrarian transformation. In the first six months after the coup d’etat, the majority of land expropriations were annulled and the lands were returned to their previous owners.
No land expropriation occurred in Guatemala after 1954, strengthening the unjust system of land distribution that persists to this date. The three decade-long dictatorship that followed caused the deaths of more than 300,000 people. The Guatemalan army massacred peasants, unionists, leaders of social organizations, and also invaded lands of various communities. Many union members were massacred, producing a general sense of fear in workers that still remains. Such is the case with sugarcane workers, who suffer from the fear of repression if they organize.
The support of the United States gave incentives for agricultural export to the external market, helping large sugarcane producers and consolidating repression of workers as a “warning” against future redistributions of land.
In the 1990s, two points dominated political debate within Guatemala: the pressure from international institutions to implement neoliberal policies of structural adjustment, and the implementation of the peace process, which sought to negotiate an end to the civil war.
The Peace Accords
On May 6th, 1996, the Guatemalan government, the General Command of the National Revolutionary Guatemalan Front, and a representative of the United Nations signed the “Accord on Socioeconomic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation,” as part of the overarching “Peace Accords” that officially ended 36 years of civil war. The negotiations symbolized a frame in the attempt to redirect conflicts over the historical problem of land in the country.
Two other components of the peace treaty, the “Accord on Rights and Identity of Indigenous Peoples,” and the “Accord on Resettlement of Forcibly Relocated Populations,” also referred to the agrarian problem and rural development. The first accord emphasized the duty of the state to provide land to indigenous peoples, to eliminate gender discrimination, and to legalize communal land holdings. The second referred to the commitment of the government to resolve land disputes generated during the civil war and to identify areas for resettlement. However, to this day, the majority of the clauses in the Peace Accords of 1996 have gone unfulfilled; the problems of rural poverty and access to land still persist.
The terms of agreement of the Accords resulted in prolonged negotiations between various groups. The National Coordination of Peasant Organizations (CNOC) demanded a guarantee for poor families’ land holdings, financial and technical support, respect for Mayan worldviews, and the reform of the constitution and state institutions. The CNOC also reintroduced the idea of “social property” as a way to defend the recuperation and protection of communal lands belonging to peasants and indigenous peoples.
Currently, the evaluation of rural social movements in the country is that the hunger and poverty facing Guatemalans has worsened since the end of the civil war, as during the civil war, popular pressure to maintain workers’ rights was stronger.
The situation of sugarcane workers in Guatemala
According to the evaluation of CNOC, after the Peace Accords there was an increase in temporary workers and a degradation of rural workers’ rights. The working season is only three months long. Workers are not directly contracted by the companies. In this way, companies avoid the responsibility of respecting labor rights. The agreement is negotiated through intermediaries, who receive a percentage of the workers’ salaries.
There are no public policies to guarantee the rights of sugarcane workers. During the Jacobo Arbenz government, the Guatemalan Institute for Social Security was created to guarantee basic rights and rural retirement. Currently, this institution is threatened by the process of privatization of public resources occurring in the country.
A large part of the manual labor in the sugarcane industry is migratory, formed by peasants from the mountainous regions of the country. The working conditions are extremely precarious. Sugarcane workers live in sheds with no sanitary installations. To bear their forced labor, they receive chemical stimulants. In the case that they suffer from an accident, which occurs frequently, they receive no medical treatment. There are no public health services offered on behalf of the companies for the workers.
Demands of the peasant organizations
For the National Coordination of Peasant Organizations (CLOC), the main principle of rural development is access to land, supported by investment in infrastructure and services to facilitate the means of a sustainable livelihood. The social movements propose an end to the agro-export model, the democratization of land, and the diversification of the economy. Their demands include:
a) The recuperation of public, unproductive, and communal lands. The democratization of land ownership is based on the following criteria: “land ownership for those who cultivate it; property must have a social function; and recognition of historic land demands.”
b) Rights and social security: Women and historically marginalized communities should be prioritized.
c) To apply a tariff on unused lands that obliges their owners to create jobs or hand over the lands to landless workers.
d) Carry out land expropriation of unused or little-used lands, and recuperate lands that were taken over during the civil war.
e) Limit the extension of lands.
f) Access to subsidies, infrastructure, technical assistance, credit, and appropriate technology for agricultural peasants, in the sense that they guarantee food sovereignty and diversification of crops.
This file « Agroenergy: Myths and Impacts in Latin America » is the result of a seminar about the expansion of sugarcane plantations in Latin America, which took place in São Paulo, Brazil, from February 26-28, 2007.
Julian Xacult, Seminário sobre a Expansão da Indústria da Cana na América Latina, 26 a 28 de fevereiro em São Paulo.
Acordo de Paz e Fundo de Terras na Guatemala, Laura Saldivar Tanaka e Hannah Wittma, pesquisadoras do Instituto Food First.