To understand the reasons for deforestation in Guatemala you need to know about how agriculture played a role in it. Deforestation in Central America is deeply
intertwined with the historical patterns of land ownership and the inability of
such systems to accommodate rural population growth. As capitalists understood the profits of export crops in Central America, commercial growth gained momentum. Foreign commericial produce distributers worked with gorvernment officials to obtain land where they could produce and harvest foods for world-wide distribution. Land confiscation from small farmers who provided for the local economy and owned land in prime farming areas
was the primary means of increasing production. This furthered land scarcity among
vast numbers of the peasant farmers who still needed to make a living to resort to deforestation of hills to survive in less optimum farmlands which in turn caused
soil erosion by clearing hillsides for their crops. In addition to the
exhaustion of marginal lands as a result of demographic pressures;
commercialization contributed directly to deforestation and soil erosion
through rapid conversions to cotton, sugar, and beef production.Some of the less vulnerable farmers were able to convert their harvest into what they thought would be a faster/higher yeild in their land through raising cattle, cotton, or sugar which depleted the soils even further. This model for export expansion increases
the total amount of land under export production without establishing
sustainable and efficient land tenure.
Influences on Land
Here is where it starts getting technical. When examining the issues of
land tenure in Guatemala, both prior to and after the agricultural reforms of the mid-twentieth century,
it is necessary to also consider the socio-political and economic systems which
are associated with, if not responsible for such inequalities in land
distribution. Political control of the Ladino landed elite over the rural
peasantry was largely exerted through political repression and suppression of
land reform movements ultimately resulting in a civil war.Technological control was also exerted, as it
was the government and landed elite who have both promoted and subsidized
technology and research to their political and economic advantage. Agricultural expansion in Guatemala
has consistently sought to promote export production over domestic food
production; diminishing autonomy and access to land without providing either
the intended sustainable economic development or the food security needed by
large portions of the rural population.
Colonial Agricultural Models: Cacao and Indigo
The current system of land tenure in Guatemala is modeled after systems initiated in colonial agriculture and have developed as a result of the continued expropriation of communal
lands for production of export commodities. Starting with the confiscation of existing cacao orchards by the
Spaniards and their utilization of indigenous populations to fill labor quotas
through their organization into centralized villages; the search for wealth at
the expense and exhaustion of natural resources and indigenous populations
became the general model.Little focus was given to the foodstuffs needed to feed the indigenous
peasants causing both famine and labor shortages, which when compounded with declining
orchard health, spurred the need for an alternative export crop. Indigo followed cacao, but failed because of
an inadequate labor supply, as well as inaccessibility of markets. The expansion of the hacienda
system during the eighteenth century signaled the shift in conflict from the
supply of labor to the supply of land as colonists ventured out from the cities
seeking the most productive lands, leaving only the more marginal lands of the
highlands and costal lowlands for the indigenous populations.
By 1810, fifty years after the Central Americagained its independence
from the crown, the desire for a lucrative export crop
was met by the emergence of coffee. The
lands best suited for coffee production were those at moderate elevations, the
majority of which were inhabited by subsistence peasants. Confiscation of communal lands was enacted as
land titling reforms, and reallocation of such lands was based upon the
expansion of coffee production, which required substantial capital unavailable
to peasant farmers. Yet again, export
potential was limited largely by labor; which was consequently assured through
legalized forced labor such as mandamientos and debt peonage.
Though coffee production continued
successfully, another export crop was established in Central America
by the end of the Nineteenth Century. Large tracts of coastal lowlands were ceded to foreign banana companies
in exchange for infrastructure developments, such as regional railroad lines,
which were necessary for both banana production and distribution as well as for
growing industrialization efforts.At the time these grants were made they presented no real conflict with land
tenure patterns, but the vastness of such landholdings ultimately came in
conflict with the land needs of growing rural populations. Additionally, the extreme power that these
companies held in Central American politics and economies had direct effects
upon the opportunities facing rural indigenous populations. The United Fruit Company was Guatemalas
largest land holder, though 85% of their holdings were not under
production.During the massive land
reforms of the 1950s under President Arbenz, 2.7
million acres of uncultivated lands was expropriated from multi-nationals and
Ladino elite in an attempt to return that land to food production through
distribution to over 100, 000 families (Healy, 2003).Because of the international power of The United
Fruit Company and the allegations of communistic leanings of the Arbenz government, the U.S.
launched a destabilizing campaign which resulted in the resignation of
President Arbenz and the return of the majority of
the expropriated land (Barraclough
and Scott, 1988).
Boom/ Bust cycles of
Post World War II Expansion
Central American economies were damaged by
World War II, and eventual economic recovery was characterized by a push for
rapid economic development through a diversification and expansion of exports
(Brockett, 1998). Cotton, sugarcane, and
beef production grew rapidly as a result of government promotion. The Pacific
lowlands were previously considered uninhabitable and unmanageable from a
growing perspective because of lack of roads and pesticide technology, but
became extensively utilized during this period of expansion. The lands needed for increased production of
cotton, sugarcane, and beef during the postwar period were in addition to those
needed for steadily growing production of traditional export crops such as coffee,
nearly 40% of the forests in 1961were destroyed by 1978 (Brockett, 1998). Consequently, the periods economic successes
must be viewed in the context of furthered inequalities in access to land,
self-sufficiency, and autonomy within the rural populations.
By 1964 the largest 3.7% of
farms in the Pacific lowlands occupied 80.3 % of the land, and within fourteen
years the amount of land under cotton increased ten-fold (de Janvry, 1981).
Cotton was in the tradition of the boom/ bust cycle of production and
exploitation, particularly because of its annual life cycle, which allowed for
fluctuations of annual acreage based upon varying demand. Consequently, cotton producers increasingly
used indiscriminate amounts of pesticides without focusing on sustainable
production practices, and often
converted to sugarcane production when cotton prices bottomed out.
Beef and Deforestation
and Eighties presented yet another potential export commodity, and rapid
conversion to beef production was also largely promoted by governmental and
external loans.It is estimated that
during this period over half of the loans made to Central America promoted the production of beef for export markets. The beef industry played a significant role
in further deforestation through its continued search for grazing lands. Uncleared land was
often rented out to subsistence farmers at minimal prices and then converted to
beef production once the land was cleared.
Political Control of the Landed Elite
Political control has been
characteristic of all periods of Ladino rule in Guatemala,
but this control became increasingly violent in the second half of the 20th
century. From the Fifties on, the
majority of Guatemalan presidents had a military background and gained support
of the army through relegating a large degree of power to it. Proletariat leanings of many of the peasant
movements hastened the almost complete repression of social organizations,
trade unions, and political parties.The
calls for land reform were largely restricted and consequently began to take on
illegal forms. Counterinsurgency
campaigns of the early Eighties aimed at depopulating areas of guerilla control
and support. Over 440 whole villages
were destroyed, with more than 100,000 civilians either dead or missing (Healy,
2003).Such destruction not only reduced
rural populations,displacing them
through massive relocation programs, but also affected further deforestation
and environmental damage through an attempt to minimize physical groundcover
available to the guerillas ( Healy, 2003).
Control of the Landed Elite
Technological control of the
landed elite was exerted through policies determining technological and
agricultural research and subsidization (de Janvry and Dethier, 1985).
The rural landless lacked the political power to demand innovations
which would be applicable to their needs.
Consequently policies promoted expansion of large scale export
production in search of economic growth and international markets. Farm research by organizations such as NARS
was based almost exclusively on the fertile farmlands of the lowlands, and was
therefore inappropriate to the vast numbers of subsistence farmers (Bebbington et al, 1993).
In addition to
the self-serving interests of Ladino farmers were the self-serving interests of
foreign investors who played a key role in determining which technologies and crop productions
would be subsidized ( Tucker, 2000 ). Reliance upon foreign aid for internal development proved highly unreliable in developing
sustainable agricultural systems because such support could be withdrawn quickly,
as was seen in Guatemala in the late 80s when spending on public research and
extension declined by 48 per cent and 60 per cent respectively between 1989 and 1991 (Bebbington,
1993).Similarly, export promotion aid
from the U.S.
totaled 82 million dollars for the entire period of 1954 through 1982, and in
1983 alone this number rose to 32 million dollars drastically shifting the Guatemalas
agricultural economy with out
sustained commitment to continue such trends.
Deforestation continues at a rate of 2.05% annually (World Resource Institute,
2003). Despite economic expansion, access
to international markets has failed to increase the independence, autonomy
,and food supply for
the majority of rural populations.In
1950 landless families composed only 15% of those involved in agriculture,
where as in 1980 that number was estimated to have risen to25%.
Bimodal Agricultural Systems
Guatemala had the most skewed distribution of land in Latin America (Healy, ),
a framework which has come to be referred to as bi-modal or dualistic in reference
to the vastly different production and consumption patterns characterizing the two separate components of the
economy. By 1983 88% of the total number
of farms occupied a mere 14% of the land, and were considered sub-family farm
units unable to provide adequate food
supplies for the families who farmed them (Brockett, 1998). Another significant component of the minifundio and latifundio bimodal
system is the role of foreign aid as food imports,which discouraged domestic production
of food crops through cheap food prices.
U.S. food aid to Guatemala totaled 93 million for the entire period between 1954 and 1984, where as in
1985 alone it totaled 20 million. Lacking the capital needed for the higher
technological inputs of competitive export production, and no longer able to
sell staple crops at competitive prices many subsistence farmers were obligated
to seek off-farm incomes in the export market.
Additionally, technological advancements on large landholdings were not
managed solely in an attempt to maximize profit, market share. Because landholdings were viewed as
low-return and low-risk investments, largely valued as maintaining economic and
social security, they were often not managed with land efficient production
practices (de Janvry, 1981).
This inverse relationship between farm size
and efficiency of production is increased when an analysis of the quality and
environmental marginality of subsistence and commercially productive lands is
Agriculture in 1998 accounted for 23 percent
of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and food products represented 61 percent of
Guatemalas exports in 1998. Coffee has been Guatemalas most important
export for more than a century, and despite considerable diversification, in
1999 the country produced 204,300 metric tons. Sugar has been rising in
importance, and Guatemala harvested 18 million metric tons of sugarcane in 1999.
Bananas remain important and are grown in the tropical lowlands, mainly by
foreign corporationsincluding Chiquita (formerly United Fruit and United
Brands), Fyffes, Dole, and Del Monte. But as world demand for bananas has
declined, as soil has been depleted, and as other crops have been developed,
banana production has become a much smaller percentage of total exports than
Since the 1970s Guatemala has been the
leading exporter of cardamom, a spice popular in Arab countries. Falling prices
for this crop, however, have diminished its importance, and in 1995 it accounted
for only 2 percent of Guatemalan exports. In 1999 fresh fruits , oilseeds , and
vegetables were significant crops. Guatemala no longer exports cotton, which
until recently was a major export. Cotton output dropped dramatically from
165,698 metric tons in 1985 to a mere 7,500 metric tons in 1999, because of both
production problems and wide competition from other regions and synthetic
Export agriculture has absorbed so much of
Guatemalas limited arable land that food production has suffered. Corn
remains the principal crop for domestic consumption, but significant amounts of
rice, beans, sorghum, potatoes, soybeans, and other fruits and vegetables, as
well as livestock, are also raised.
Guatemalas large forests, estimated at 9.5
million acres in 1995, have been declining at an average rate of 2 percent
annually, as trees are cut for firewood and construction timber. Some valuable
stands of mahogany and cedar remain. In 1998 timber production reached 478 cubic
The commercial shrimp and fish industries
have grown in the 1990s, with the yearly catch increasing from 2,782 metric tons
in 1985 to 11,303 metric tons in 1997. Domestic seafood and freshwater consumption is small and growing smaller with overfishing areas that may have had a high yield five years ago.
Considering that populations growth is
inherent in the future of developing countries, land demographics is an unavoidable
issue and vital to both the economic and environmental health which will face
future generations. The largest threat
to Guatemalas environment is continued deforestation as well as the soil
erosion associated with the exhaustion of marginal lands. Capitalistic perusal of export crops by the
landed elite, starting in the Colonial Period and continuing through the Twentieth
Century, has failed to provide a sustainable model of development for the
country at large. The world trade also affects the local farming in that selling prices fluctuate drasitcally enough to make or break a farmer once they have invested all their money into one type of crop. The efficiency of
agricultural production practices are contextual and must be considered in
terms of the demographic, political, and cultural effects on the country at
large. Consequently, environmental
solutions must take all components of rural economies into consideration
when attempting to affect comprehensive and sustainable solutions. Solutions may be one of educating locals as to what is unique to the natural environment here and assisting them in marketing in a world market for those products.
World Resource Institute. 2003. Recent data on
environmental and agricultural conditions in individual countries.
In October of 2013 the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC) announced the redistribution of land last month to 140 indigenous and peasant families. The families were part of the largest violent eviction in the recent history of Guatemala in March 2011 when non-state actors, police, military forces and the government forced nearly 800 indigenous Q’eqchí families of their land without notice, destroyed their crops and burned their homes.
The evicted families, representing 14 ancestral communities who had been on the land for generations, suffered psychologically, socially and economically from the ordeal. These human rights violations show the state’s complicity with companies and landholders who exploit farmworkers and peasants.
Since the evictions in March 2011, private security members allegedly hired by the Utzaj Chabil Company began a chain of armed attacks, death threats, intimidation, persecution and criminalization against community leaders. Chabil Utzaj is a sugarcane company located in the fertile lands of Polochic Valley. The company wants to expand its sugarcane plantation in the area regardless of the human rights of the families who live there. To date, the community has suffered the assassinations of several peasant and indigenous leaders, including Antonio Beb, Oscar Reyes, María Margarita Che and Carlos Cucul Tot.
With the support of the Inter-American Development Bank, the Guatemalan government has been imposing a model of development that threatens the territory and the lives of Guatemalan indigenous communities. Human rights abuses of peasants and indigenous peoples, the loss of their land, and severe environmental destruction are happening in the name of the “green and clean” fuel production – one of the false solutions of the corporate “green economy.”
The indigenous Q’eqchi population has been repeatedly stripped of their land and territory through different historical processes promoted or authorized by the state. Today communities face the new challenge of the re-concentration of land in the hands of companies dedicated to large-scale monoculture plantations. This has led to a drastic reduction in indigenous communities’ access to land, limiting their ability to sustain their ways of life, and threatening food security.
Three months after the eviction of the 769 families, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued in June 2011 precautionary measures in favor of the families, ordering the State of Guatemala to provide food security and decent housing. But the government did not fulfill the international orders.
It was not until the ”Popular, Peasant and Indigenous Peoples March” in March 2012, that the government committed to resolve the land conflicts of the Polochic Valley, meet the Precautionary Measures and return the land to illegally evicted families. Organized by CUC and 15 other ally organizations, thousands of people marched to Guatemala City in defense of the land and territory. CUC used “La Marcha” to pressure the government to address the situation of the Polochic Valley families, as well as many other communities across the country affected by megaprojects such as mining and mega-dams.
Facing organized pressure from grassroots movements, the government has finally begun to honor the agreements it made in the wake of La Marcha. However, community leaders emphasize that there is still a long way to go. The legal land titles for the first 140 families are merely the first step in long overdue commitments. CUC and its allies in La Marcha continue to demand land for the remaining 629 Q'eqchí families, and call for decent housing, access to basic services, the legal review of the land grabbed by Chabil Utzaj company, and an end to the national promotion of African palm and sugarcane monoculture.
Waldemar Basilio Vazquez, an organizer with CUC, explains: “The Guatemalan government is repressing the people through militarization, favoring landholders, corporations and extractive companies against Guatemala peace accords ... repressing our sisters and brothers who are in resistance.”
A partner of Grassroots International, CUC is playing a key role in protecting the rights of rural families and indigenous groups, and making every effort to provide sufficient and suitable land to the displaced communities. Grassroots International supports CUC’s efforts and is in solidarity with all the Q’eqchí families in the Polochic Valley.
The Final Warning Bell
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Jovanna Garcia Soto
2000. Grassroots International