Lucas Garcia Pop, a 30-year-old Q’eqchi Mayan farmer, lost everything last year when he and his neighbors were evicted from Finca San Pablo Pomoxón, a sugar plantation in the Polochic Valley, in the Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz.
“The soldiers burned our houses and our crops. Now we don’t have anywhere to plant corn,” Garcia Pop said.
He explained that he and his family now live in a shack that he pays for with his labor, but he has a hard time finding enough paid work to buy food. “Sometimes we eat, and sometimes we don’t,” he said.
Garcia Pop was one of approximately 2,000 Mayan and Ladino farmers who began a nine-day march on March 19 from the highland city of Coban, in Alta Verapaz, to the Guatemalan capital. Organized by the small farmers’ organization Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC), the march commemorated the first anniversary of the eviction of 600 families from several large farms in the Polochic Valley. Mayans from across Guatemala participated in the march, which ended the week off March 26 with a rally in front of the country’s presidential palace, and meetings with members of the country’s congress and new president.
It was the first major protest since the January 14 inauguration of President Otto Perez, a retired general who campaigned promising to crack down on Guatemala’s epidemic crime. Perez is the first former military official to be elected president of that Central American nation since it emerged from decades of repressive military rule in 1986.
Nearly half of Guatemala’s nearly 14 million inhabitants are Mayan, yet they constitute the vast majority of the country’s poor. They also suffered disproportionately during Guatemala’s brutal, 36-year civil war, which claimed more than 200,000 lives before the government and guerrilla signed peace accords on December 29, 1996.
As part of his plan to combat crime, Perez has given the military a great role in law enforcement across Guatemala, which Mayan leaders and human rights activists have objected to.
Edgar Gutierrez, Director of the Institute for the Analysis of National Problems, at Guatemala’s University of San Carlos, noted that Perez lost in most rural areas, where Mayans are the majority, but he won the presidency with the urban vote.
Gutierrez said the recent march was important because, “It put the historic demands of the country’s indigenous people on the agenda of a government that has thus far ignored them.”
Gutierrez said that the march’s first concrete result was a commitment by congressional leaders to open debate on a rural development law that has been languishing in the Guatemalan congress for years, as well as legislation to legalize community radio stations and protect communal lands and sacred sites.
Gutierrez explained that the rural development law would provide credit and technical assistance for Mayan farmers, many of who are reduced to farming marginal land, because most of the best land is owned by a small group of families and corporations. According to a World Bank report, more than 60 percent of Guatemala’s agricultural land is held by less than three percent of its farmers.
After meeting for several hours with 11 members of congress last Wednesday, the march’s leaders spent more than eight hours negotiating with President Perez and several ministers. Their demands included that the government halt evictions from various large farms, forgive $39 million of debt that small farmers owe a government agrarian reform fund, much of which was for marginally productive land. They also demanded that Perez declare a moratorium on mining and hydroelectric projects, and withdraw the military from areas that suffered human rights abuses during the civil war.
The president rejected the demands for mining and hydroelectric moratoriums, but he signed an agreement to study options for resolving the land conflicts, forgiving agricultural debts, and limiting the military presence.
According to the Guatemalan daily El Periodico, Perez said, “We aren’t going to offer things that we can’t comply with. We need to consult the law and respect the jurisdiction of other organisms.”
Gutierrez predicted that proponents of moratoriums on mining and hydroelectric projects face an up-hill battle, but he observed that the president’s willingness to meet with the march’s leaders and address their demands is grounds for measured optimism.
Cleotilde Cu, who heads the Defensoría de la Mujer Indígena, a government institution that defends the rights of indigenous women, observed that land issues were central to the protest. She said the fact that many Mayan farmers lack enough good land to produce the food for their families causes a host of problems. Poverty forces many Mayan children to drop out of school at young ages, whereas many parents send their teenaged daughters to cities to work as live-in maids, and other families spend months of each year as migrant farm workers.
“Mayan communities, which are the majority in rural areas, lack good education, health care and opportunities. That’s why many people move to the capital, but because they lack education, they end up working as servants,” Cu said.
Mariano Hernandez, of San Juan Atitan, Huehuetenango, said he and his neighbors joined the march to demand a moratorium on mining. He noted that various large companies have solicited concessions in his area in recent years.
“We are farmers, and they want to take the land that god gave us,” he said. “We don’t want them to destroy our nature, our rivers, our land, because that is what we live from.”
Hernandez said that he was also protesting against the increased military presence in the countryside, explaining that troops committed massacres in Huehuetenango during the civil war.
“We are afraid of the military because they don’t respect human rights,” Hernandez said. “Just as we respect the current government, we want them to respect us. We say no to violence and no to destruction.”