The makeshift houses made of black plastic and bamboo line the road cutting through the lush green valley in the Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz. Rumors of a pending eviction permeate the small encampment between the road and the Chixoy river.
Land conflicts are part of the long history of inequalities in Guatemala. Today, communities throughout the country facing attacks and evictions are engaged in recuperation and court battles to defend their lands.
The 40 Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi families started occupying the land in Chitún, Tucurú, Alta Verapaz in July 2020. They say that the land belongs to them, until it was forcibly taken by a hydro project the estimate nearly twenty years ago.
“We are trying to recuperate the rest of our community,” David Maxaná, a 30-year-old resident of Chitún who lives in the makeshift houses made of canes and plastic tarps that make up the occupation, said. “We are not [land] invaders. We are seeking to recuperate the land that was taken years ago from our ancestors.”
He adds, “The company doesn’t need this land, but we, the campesinos, need the land to cultivate. We have received threats and heard rumors [of eviction].”
Residents estimate that the Santa Teresa hydro-electric project on the Chixoy river arrived to their community twenty years ago with promises of work and development. But neither materialized.
“The company came to us for a signature, but we didn’t know how to read or write,” Pedro Caal, a 61-year-old Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi resident of Chitún who also resides on the occupied land, said. “They said they would bring work, build roads, a health center, a school for the children. But they never did what they promised. We were taken advantage of.”
The project officially broke ground in 2012. Now the communities have no access to the river or the forests below. Land that was once used by the families is now blocked by tall cement-block walls topped with barbed wire and signs that read “private property,.” Private security guards block residents from reaching the river and forests.
“They put in place security that wouldn’t permit anyone to enter to collect firewood,” Maxaná said. “It is really sad. Now we do not have places to collect firewood or to collect water. They took our waters of life.”
The families occupying land that had been taken from them are being supported by the campesino organization Union Campesino Organizations of the Verapaces (Unión Verapances de Organizaciones Campesinas - UVOC).
Land conflicts like the one in Chitún are all too common in Alta Verapaz. According to the Secretariat of Agrarian Affairs, 272 of the 1400 recognized active land conflicts in the country are in Alta Verapaz.
Today, a small minority of the population, primarily the non-Indigenous, known as Ladinos, owns the majority of land. Land inequalities — or lack of access to traditional land — contributes to the extreme poverty rural communities, especially for indigenous communities suffer, Over 70 percent of rural Indigenous families live in poverty.
A threat looms for campesino organizations and the communities struggling to recuperate their land, as leaders fear that the administration will carry out widespread evictions due to pressure by landowners in the departments of Alta Verapaz and Izabal. The landowners argue that the usurpation of private property is continuing, and they have called on the government of Guatemala to carry out the pending evictions of communities that they claim have occupied their lands.
These fears were realized against another Maya Q’eqchi’ community in the same region. On October 31, Guatemala Police arrived in the village of Chineval, El Estor, in the neighboring department of Izabal, to evict the families who lived on the land. Houses were burned, and one resident, José Choc Chamán, was shot and killed by police as families fled for the mountains. The eviction occurred in a region that has seen the concentration of land into the hands of the producers of palm oil. Many residents returned in the days following the eviction.
Criminalizing Land Use
Over 120 kilometers northwest from Chitún sits the Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi community of Sapalu Samutz which is supported by the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA). The community sits on a long dirt road that was once used by the Guatemalan military to transport supplies during the country’s country’s 36-year-long internal armed conflict. During the war, many village residents fled to the mountains to escape the military bombings of the region. They still find the remnants of these bombs today in their fields.
Alejandro, a 58-year-old Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ was born in Sapalu Samutz, and lived on the land during the war. He was shot in the upper thigh by soldiers in 1983, he believes. He still carries the bullet in his thigh. Today the community lives under a new threat: dispossession of lands that they have lived on for generations.
“There is a conflict in our community because a landowner managed to register our lands in her name,” Alejandro said. “But these lands are ours. Our parents died and are buried here, we have lived our lives here. We will not allow anyone to remove us from here.”
The woman who claims to own the land registered the lands in her name, but the residents, which include Sapalu Samutz and parts of the neighboring Santa Elena Samanzana II and two other villages, point out she has appeared to lack knowledge of the lands.
“I don’t understand. She says she is the owner of this finca, but she doesn’t know these lands or where the limits are, and I don’t understand why the State allowed her to register these lands in her name,” José Armando Yut, a 48-year-old Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ from Sapalu Samutz, said. “We have lived here our entire lives and we have never seen her.”
Faced with the claims of another owner, the community has begun to work to obtain the legal titles.
“We as Indigenous Q’eqchi do not need a document to say that we own these lands, but sadly the State has said it’s the law,” Yut explained. “We are in this process now so that the State registers our lands in our names.”
The CCDA has worked to obtain an agreement with the Guatemalan government to resolve land conflicts like the one in Sapalu Samutz. In 2015, the administration of Otto Pérez Molina signed an agreement to work to resolve over 40 conflicts, but the agreement was never implemented. The next administration of Jimmy Morales also agreed to resolve the conflicts, but once again there was little progress.
Campesinos and their supporters face a serious challenge in Guatemala. Land continues to be a source of power for the country’s economic elite. The mini kingdoms they preside over are defended with the full power of the state. Leocadio Juracán, a former congressional representative and the coordinator of CCDA, estimates that 65 percent of arable land is owned by 2 percent of the population.
As campesinos struggle to keep their lands, finca owners have also mobilized to defend their massive land holdings. In June 2020, a group of finca owners formed the Association for the Defense of Private Property (ACDEPRO) to defend their land and to lobby for the eviction of those they accuse of usurping their lands. ACDEPRO has accused the CCDA of taking their private property. This has led to criminal investigations against community leaders in San Lucas Semox.
Among those who face criminal investigation is Gregorio Caal, a 60-year-old member of the ancestral authority of Sapalu Samutz. “We have lived here for over 50-years, and our lives have always been marked by agrarian conflicts,” Caal said. “This finca owner has criminalized us and persecuted us, but this land is ours; and it will be our childrens just as it was our parents. We are not invading any land. We are threatened with evictions, but we will not leave.” Yut also has cases opened against him.
The use of criminal charges has become common. The charges vary, but often include aggravated land occupation, illicit association, drug and weapons trafficking, and other trumped up false charges in their struggle for the land. CCDA estimates that there are over a thousand arrest warrants for land defenders in the department of Alta Verapaz alone.
“The penal code is being used legally and systematically to criminalize [campesino leaders], but there is no agrarian code to resolve conflicts,” Juracán said. “The strategy is to criminalize and not to resolve [conflicts].” He adds, “It appears to us that there are two Public Prosecutor’s offices in the country: One in [the Capital], and one in the rural areas that responds to special interests.”
Targeted killings are another threat. Since 2017, at least 28 land rights activists have been killed in Guatemala. The CCDA was one of the organizations especially hit hard by the violence, with at least six leaders killed, many of whom were part of the agreements signed with previous governments.
The election of Alejandro Giammattei in August 2019 offered the perfect ally to the landholding elite in maintaining the status quo, especially as communities already face eviction.
Amidst the pandemic, in April 2020 the administration of Giammattei announced the closure of the Secretariat of Agrarian Affairs and the Secretariat of the Peace, which were formed after the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the country’s 36-year-long internal armed conflict. The Agencies were consolidated into one commission, the Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights (Copadeh). The Secretariat of Agrarian Affairs was one of the key institutions that organizations worked through to resolve land conflicts.
“They are dismantling the institutions that work for the prevention of conflicts,” Edgar Gutierrez, the former Minister of Foreign Relations during the administration of Alfonos Portillo and current security analyst, told me. “However the conflicts in the region are increasing. In place of negotiation to resolve the conflicts, the government has declared states of siege and states of prevention.”
500 Years of Land Theft
The land inequalities began with the arrival of the Spanish in 1524, and further concentrated following the liberal revolution of 1871, which granted Indigenous lands to German and Italian families began for the production of coffee and cardamom for export, especially in the department of Alta Verapaz. By the turn of the century, the U.S. United Fruit had entered the country and negotiated vast tracts of land for the production of bananas.
The 1944 revolution against the dictatorship of President Jorge Ubico set in motion the first land reform in Guatemalan history. In 1953, the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz passed Decree 900, which expropriated unused lands from large landholders and distributed them among small farmers. But the decree triggered a reaction from the landholding elites, especially United Fruit, which utilized their ties in the U.S. government to conspire to overthrow Arbenz.
The CIA backed coup d’état snuffed out Guatemala’s best hope at land reform and propelled the country into 36-years of war. By the signing of the peace accords in 1996, 200,000 Guatemalans, mainly civilian Indigenous, were dead, 45,000 were disappeared, and over one million were displaced. It was common that community leaders struggling for land rights were falsely accused of being connected to Guerrillas and were killed. Military leaders stole lands that had belonged to small farmers and communal lands registered to Indigenous communities were usurped.
The era of “peace” ushered in new mechanisms for communities to gain land rights, including the establishment of the Secretariat of Agrarian Affairs. Campesino organizations such as the CCDA, UVOC, the Unified Campesino Committee (CUC), and Nuevo Día, which all make up the Iximulew Campesino Front, have accompanied communities in their struggle to protect their lands and sought to introduce legislation that is favorable to campesinos in Guatemala’s congress. But in spite of attempts to resolve land inequalities, Indigenous communities continue to see the theft of their land through the issuing of falsified titles and through State violence.
Indigenous communities, Campesinos, and their supporters, however, have utilized the courts to gain their rights back to lands that were stolen.
In July 2016, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled that Santa Elena Samazana II was an Indigenous community and that they had a historic right to their land. The communities have since worked to gain the legal titles for their lands through the country’s Land Fund, but have seen their lands and harvests attacked and stolen.
“We are waiting for the state to inscribe us in the national property registry,” Pedro Cahbon, an 46-year-old authority from the community of Santa Elena Samanzana II, said. “But we are receiving threats, violent attacks, and they are occupying parts of our lands.”
Other communities have seen success with their petitions in the courts. These demands too have led to the struggle for massive tracts of territory. In 2020, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled in favor of Maya Ixil and Ch’orti communities, returning massive tracts of lands that were illegally taken from them.
But the dismantling of institutions meant to resolve land conflicts, the threat of evictions, and the maintaining of the status quo by the landed elite signal that the land conflicts will continue.
“Today the demand for land is due to the lack of employment, due to hunger, and lack of development,” Daniel Pascual, the coordinator of the CUC, said. “The land problem continues to be a timebomb.”
*Jeff Abbott is a freelance journalist based out of Guatemala where he has reported for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, and The Progressive Magazine, among many others. Follow him on Twitter @palabrasdeabajo.