“The palm has more right to water than us”

The psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that humans have a hierarchy of needs, from the most basic, required for our very survival, to what he called the need for self-actualisation. These needs are often visualised as a pyramid, with the most basic needs at the bottom. The logic of this analysis is unarguable: without sufficient food, water and shelter the other needs become luxuries or are seriously compromised, overwhelmed by the imperative to stop the aching in the stomach.

We are in the luxurious position of having little understanding of what it means to be hungry. When we come in after a walk in the hills claiming to be starving we’re still in the land of the metaphorical. We have however got used to seeing hunger elsewhere in the world: if you’re old enough, don’t  you  remember Michael Buerk and the skeletal children in Ethiopia that inspired Band Aid and LiveAid in 1985?

I don’t remember much being said at the time about how those people ended up in that situation, or that it might have come about as a result of human action as much as from some random climatic disaster.  Certainly, nothing was ever said about those people having a right to proper nutrition rather than a passive reliance on charity, but in the intervening years I have noticed a big change in how hunger is discussed.

For sure, the rights are there, in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC),  created in 1966, but always overshadowed by its sibling, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). For instance, at its founding Amnesty International only addressed rights under the ICCPR: they were a bit easier to deal with, as generally one could point to national law X, or ratified international law Y and say that person Z’s rights under X or Y had been violated and what are you going to do about it? With things such as rights to health, education and an adequate standard of living one got into muddier waters about available budgets or what an adequate standard of life is anyway – back to Maslow and his hierarchy, what level are we aspiring to be on?

I was reminded of all this debate by a recent mission report published by a group of NGOs entitled “The Right to Food in Guatemala”, which examines nutritional standards in Guatemala, but always framed with a rights perspective. One of the mission’s aims was to “carry out a verification of possible cases of violations of the right to food in the country” (author translation).

In Guatemala we are in a parlous state as far as malnutrition goes: according to a UNICEF report quoted, Guatemala has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in Latin America, affecting 80% of indigenous, rural people, and is fourth in the world for child malnutrition. A census of school age children in 2008 found that 73.24% of children in Totonicapan were malnourished.  A great deal of the reasons for this are human made: highly unequal access to land, originating in colonial times; climate, especially in eastern regions prone to drought; recent food price rises, some of which originated from speculation in commodity markets rather than supply and demand factors. To make matters worse there has been a series of climatic disasters, starting with Hurricane Stan in 2005, and continuing with the effects of El Niño which caused drought. The situation has become so grave that a State of Calamity has been declared, and continues to be so.

What levers  would we have in Guatemala to alleviate these difficulties? The report considers the provisions of the ICESC in relation to food, and how Guatemala measures up to these, or not. The government’s emergency food programmes which were initiated once the state of calamity was declared in September 2009, and other food distribution programmes, are given good marks. Of course, these, and many other governmental programmes, are limited by available funds – if it actually collect the amount of tax as a percentage of GDP as pledged in the Peace Accords then it might have some more to spend. Equally, this is only a sticking plaster solution, which doesn’t address the fundamental structural issues which we might dare to say hunger to be solved.

The ICESC imposes an obligation on states to facilitate access to adequate food for those people who do not have it. One way in which it can do this is to ensure that people have enough money in their pockets to be able to afford a basket of basic goods, but here we find a serious failing in what our own government would probably like to call “joined up thinking”. Between December 2007 and August 2009 the cost of a hundredweight of maize rose by 64%, and of one pound of black beans 68% whilst the value of a basic basket of food was estimated by the authorities to have only increased by 14.3%. Worse still, if we look at absolute values, the statutory minimum wage was raised in 2009 to Q1560 a month, and that basic basket of goods costs Q3540.63, highlighting even more starkly that a healthy diet for the average Guatemala  family of five is unaffordable, even where both parents work and actually get paid the minimum wage.  A government that really cared about the welfare of its people ought to be concerned that they can’t even afford to eat properly, and get its thinking and its laws connected up properly.

There are further obligations: to ensure existing food sources are not removed, and furthermore prevent third parties from taking that source away, the obligations of respect and protection.  We don’t have to think hard to see how these obligations are not being kept: the eviction of campesinos from land immediately removes them from their food crops, which are sometimes destroyed in the eviction anyway. This privileging of property rights, often disputed in any case, over the basic right of people to the means of their very survival cannot be justified on any grounds except greed and might makes right.

The demands of mining and biofuel for land and water are both mentioned as further violations of these obligations. Take away the land and the water, and there is less for those dependent on agriculture to use, contaminate that water to boot and they’ll get ill. We have probably all read about how much water gold mining needs: the independent review of the environmental impact assessment of the Marlin Mine carried out by engineer Robert Moran was highly critical of its assumptions about the amount of water available and the impact of mining on its quality. Since the mine started operation eight wells are reported to have dried up and the water remaining is contaminated.

The report considers the Marlin Mine in a set of illustrative cases. A lesser known case is that of the biofuel plantations in the municipalities of Ocós and Coatepeque. Here the surrounding communities have seen their water supply diverted to water an African palm plantation, meaning that they are no longer able to harvest twice a year, women have to walk further to fetch water and again, water is contaminated by the effluent from the plantation. They indignantly remarked that “The palm has more right to water than us”. They would probably be even more indignant if they knew that the amount of corn required to fill a 4×4 tank with biofuel would feed a child for a year.

It could be argued that the inability to feed one’s family, due to the lack of land, was a prime cause of the internal conflict. As long as trees and motor cars have more “right” to water and food produced by the Guatemalan land there can never be a true state of peace and justice. As long as the only pyramids that are ascended in Guatemala are the ones in the forest there will never be proper development and neither the people nor the country will ever fulfil their potential.


Categories: Justice, Land

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