Guatemalan Farmers Going Hungry Amidst Pandemic
It is the season for small farmers to sow crops in Guatemala, but Miguel Salas, a farmer and community leader from an Indigenous Maya Mam village in the Huehuetenango department, can’t get to the land he leases. His farm is across the border in southern Mexico, and the Guatemalan government's measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 have closed all cross-border traffic.
“There is no passage [to Mexico],” the 55-year-old from the town of San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán, Huehuetenango, which is about 300 kilometers, or 180 milies, from Guatemala City, told me. “I’ve spent years working there, renting land. Now I am not able to leave to go to the field.”
Border crossings have been closed, public transportation has been prohibited since March, and communities are under a daily curfew—all part of President Alejando Giammattei’s measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The efforts, while meant to keep people safe, are afflicting local communities: as markets are closed, crops are lost, and people are unable to access their land. Hunger and economic collapse looms over many small farmers throughout Guatemala.
For Salas, his family has food for the moment, but not being able to plant for the December harvests puts his family in a precarious situation.
“There is still maize from last year’s harvest, but next year will be more difficult,” he said. “Next year I’ll have to buy maize”
Food prices, however, have risen dramatically in parts of the country due to the speculation caused by the pandemic, and for many there is little money being earned.
For the last 15 years Salas has rented land nearly two hours from his home in the Southern Mexican State of Chiapas. He pays 1500 Quetzales, or about $195 dollars USD, for about a hectare of land. Salas points out that the land in Mexico is far better for production and that it does not require as much chemical fertilizers.
He is not alone in worrying about hunger or access to land.
Guatemala has a historic land problem. A small minority controlling the vast majority of land, while what little land is held by small farmers is often exhausted.
As a result of the inequalities, according to residents of San Ildefonso Ixtuahacán many residents rent land in Mexico in order to provide food for their families and to sell in the local markets. Many others rent land elsewhere in the department.
Small farmers in other indigenous towns in the region, including San Pedro Necta, Cuilco, and San Sebastian Huehuetenango in Western Guatemala also rely on renting land in Mexico in order to provide for their families. But measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic, along with the closure of the borders, means that many of those who rely on agriculture to support their families are left without food and without economic resources. “No one here in my community is able to leave and go work [in Mexico],” Salas said.
“The crisis that we are living in is affecting the local economy, specifically the rural communities that survive through the interchange of produce,” Nicolás Maldonado, a 24-year-old campesino from San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán, told me over the phone. “Right now there are no markets due to the crisis. They do not have the income that comes from the market.”
He added, “Not all families are privileged to be closed in their homes in quarantine.”
The hunger in San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán and elsewhere in Indigenous communities across Guatemala is both a current and future threat. “We are worried because this is the beginning of a nourishment crisis,” Leocadio Juracán, a campesino leader with the Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA) and a former congressional representative, told me.
“The Guatemalan Government is not prioritizing primary products, such as vegetables and fruits,” he said. “They closed the markets and they limited the ability of farmers to circulate.”
The Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, warned the Guatemalan Congress in late May that growing hunger is poised to impact communities across the country.
Prior to the pandemic, Guatemala already suffered from extreme inequalities resulting in poverty and malnutrition, with one of the highest rates of childhood malnutrition in the world. While Guatemala’s national poverty rate hovers around 59.3%, the rate for rural, largely Indigenous peoples, with make up over 40 percent of the population, the poverty rate is 75.5%, according to the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).
Rural communities, largely indigenous, disproportionately suffer from poverty, extreme poverty, and hunger.
From March 13 to June 1, the country has registered 5,336 cases and 116 deaths, according to the Guatemalan Health Ministry. Besides the death toll, the pandemic has further exposed the inequalities in the Central American country.
As the pandemic set in, the Guatemalan congress approved over 3.6 billion Quetzales, or about $477 million dollars, in aid to both individuals and private companies. Included in the emergency package was the issuing of a stimulus of 1000 Quetzales for those in the informal economy, food aid for communities to prevent hunger, and 75 Quetzales per day for those who have lost work.
The Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA) received 400 million Quetzales through the Congressional decree, or about $5.2 million dollars, and is tasked with distributing food aid to families affected by the crisis. The Guatemalan Government began to distribute aid in Guatemala City, but at the end of May, the aid has yet to arrive to many indigneous communities.
“The question of social assistance was a lie, nothing has arrived to the communities,” Carlos Morales, the coordinator of the Campesino Union of the Verapaces (UVOC), said. “The program has not functioned.”
The tensions over the Government’s response and discrimination against small Indigenous farmers is growing. On May 18, campesinos across the country blocked highways that pass through San Francisco El Alto, Totonicapán, Los Encuentros, Sololá, Cunén, Quiche, and many other parts of the country to protest a weekend curfew that the Guatemalan President had announced minutes before it took effect. The small farmers were prohibited from circulation, even while transnational companies, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, and the national beer company, Gallo, were permitted to circulate.
“We don’t understand why the companies continue to operate and we cannot pass with primary food items,” Morales told me.
“The campesino economy is affected,” he said. “The mercardos are closed. They are losing their produce. The losses are psychologically affecting families.”
Riot police were deployed to respond to the protests in San Francisco El Alto, Totonicapán by firing tear gas and driving the farmers from the highway.
The following days the Guatemalan government responded by saying that campesinos were essential workers, but the announcement did not resolve the conflicts. The Guatemalan National Police continue to persecute small farmers attempting to open markets or sell their goods. Tensions remained high.
On May 24, small farmers San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán gathered in the municipal market in spite of the closure of the market and the weekend curfew. Frustrated and angry campesinos threatened the mayor over the closure of the market and police and military were deployed to break up the campesinos and evict them from the market.
The police have continued to evict campesinos in other parts of the country who attempt to sell in closed markets. In Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango, Police arrested 4 women who attempted to sell vegetables in the market, parading them in front of cameras.
Campesino leaders such as Morales and Juracán have met with the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food and called on Congress to resolve the problems facing small farmers.
“For many small farmers, the Guatemalan government’s response to the global pandemic has put them in a far more precarious position,” Morales said.
FI name: June 2020