Guatemala’s El Oriente (Eastern land) is a region which has systematically been left aside by the state’s political and economic system. The population’s suffering is visible as they have one of the highest levels of malnutrition in the country. It could be said that this is partly due to the weather, because a lack of rainfall causes droughts which greatly affect cultivation. Furthermore, blight (la roya) is currently a major issue as it is one of the most catastrophic diseases for the cultivation of coffee, one of the principal activities in this region. However, the largest problem for these indigenous and rural communities is the lack of rights over these lands. Among these communities are the Ch’orti’, who mostly live in the Departments of Chiquimula and Zacapa, and to a lesser extent on the border between Guatemala and Honduras.
It is known that that before the Spanish Conquest, the concept of private property did not exist for the people native to this land. With the arrival of the colonial powers, land rights went through various agrarian systems all of which were based on the concept of ‘no land without owner’. Consequently, the land’s natural goods were passed on from the Spanish Crown to encomenderos and the Catholic Church whilst the local population began to be used for manual labour.
Nevertheless, the colonial model not only created a trait of resistance within the communities, but it also created tension between the Crown and the encomenderos. Consequently, laws were created which gave land to the indigenous communities. As such, we can acknowledge that there are records dating back to the Colonial period in which indigenous communities collectively owned land. However, we cannot ignore that these were used to guarantee the payment of tributes to the Crown, and that the communities continued owing work to the landowners. The nature of these new systems along with catholic indoctrination, was at the root of the loss of many of the original culture’s characteristics.
The process of independence to a liberal bourgeoisie set in motion a new division of land. This was in part due to the fact that coffee production was at its zenith in the region. With this, the indigenous population was introduced to labour in the plantations. This was the moment when the Ch’orti’ identity was lost, primarily through the loss of their language. Eventually, the Ch’orti’ people felt as if their belonging to the group was dwindling.
The course of Guatemalan history has been dictated by latifundista tendencies, but it did live through a decade of relief thanks to the revolutionary policies of 1944. Later, thanks to the Peace Agreements of 1996, 36 years of internal armed conflict, which mainly stemmed from agrarian disputes, was put to an end. Accordingly, an effort was made to redefine agrarian policy, including identity and indigenous rights. However, these agreements have remained on paper and have not been applied in practice.
The Oriente region still mostly remains dedicated to rural activities. However, it is worth distinguishing that the rural worker and indigenous relationships with the land differ. The former works on the land they live in, while the latter has a link that goes much further; the indigenous community has a deeper relationship, a spiritual one which includes a life cycle of past and future generations. For this reason the yield is not only the fruit of their labour, rather it is a favour that Mother Earth concedes and in exchange she deserves to be thanked, fed, and looked after by the human race.
Many of these values have dwindled and it is certainly true that rural workers no longer identify as being part of an indigenous group. Nevertheless, the fact that people have stayed in these lands despite the number of problems that living in this region entails, it is a good setting for remembrance and a good place to begin to rebuild a common identity. We must also bear in mind that this tendency to forget is also due to heavy discrimination. The struggles between Ladino and indigenous communities are the result of the historical process following on from the independence era and particularly in this region, as a result of the expansion of coffee plantations.
In response to this historical submission, various community groups formed a few years ago to recover their land rights. In 2004, ‘La Coordinadora de Asociaciones y Comunidades para el Desarrollo Integral de la Región Ch’orti’ (COMUNDICH)’ was established. This initiative coordinates 84 organisations that represent the interests and support the rural-indigenous communities of the Maya Ch’orti’ people. It’s main objective is to guarantee food security, i.e. “to ensure that every person or family has the opportunity to obtain the necessary food to meet the essential needs to survive”. The next step is the collective recognition of the communities, which consists in obtaining food sovereignty, in turn implying an autonomy which allows them “to decide through their own agrarian and food policies, defending the domestic market against products from overseas and at a better price”, in other words, their own development model.
As a cause and consequence of their recognition, there is an intent to rebuild and strengthen an accurate historic memory, like that of the Maya Ch’orti’ community. In this way they are able to develop a conscience of their own rights to ensure that they are respected and enforced for the community members.
In the past years, the communities assess that in some of the municipalities of Chiquimula and Zacapa Departments, nine Ch’orti’ indigenous towns have been named with their respective mayors. They have even managed to be recognised by the guatemalan government. In fact, the State has been obliged to recognise the communities as having rights, conceding their legitimacy ratified by international treaties. However, for the moment the result is very arbitrary because the municipal mayor has to recognise the rights of an indigenous community over any given territory. In this way, the true guarantee of these rights depends on the political goodwill of the municipal authorities.
In May 2014, this way of functioning demonstrated its limits when the mayors of the indigenous communities of Tacoche and Tizamarté, of the Camotán municipality realised that their foundation as an indigenous community (obtained in 2011), had been revoked by the municipal authorities without a formal notification, in May 2013. This ‘omission’ was used as proof by a tribunal in Chiquimula, to argue that legal deadlines had been exceeded, to reject the mayors’ impunity. The matter went to the Constitutional Court.
Looking back, the Ch’orti’ have sufficient legitimacy to be able to demand and defend what belongs to them. Based on these facts, the revision of agrarian history becomes ‘legal legitimacy’. In this way it is necessary to recognise the existence of juridical figures within these communities which for example implies that the lands are unchallengeable. That is to say that they avoid the negative effects of the commercialisation the lands and remain a fundamental asset to food rights.
Contrastingly, the ancestral community rights are state-level laws which regulate the administration of the territories via the land registry. This allows the system to buy and sell land and can have terrible consequences for the strengthening of the communities.
It is also important for COMUNDICH that international treaties can be invoked, such as Agreement 169 of the ILO as well as specific mechanisms, at both national and international level, which help towards reclaiming rights.
As an example, the recognition of the indigenous municipalities has allowed relevant written evidence to be presented to State officials, in this way rectifying the territorial lines drawn up by buyers who took advantage in the past.
The state government has seen the original communities as weak and passive for a long time. Thus, there remains a need to strengthen in the political arena because one the right are acquired, the challenge consists in defending the advancement achieved and to consolidate their ability to self-govern. However, in Guatemala, legitimacy tends to be cared for less than what is ‘realistic and achievable’. That is to say, if the proposals are not seen as economically viable, they do not have a future. For the Ch’orti’ community, the ‘game’ being played is to maintain harmony for all the parties involved. Despite these alternatives, many people still believe more in the state structures. For instance, between neighbours of a same community, conflicts arise easily due to differences in opinion.
According to the COMUNDICH directors, “there is not just one predefined path that can be followed to defend the rights of indigenous communities. It is a matter of action, making the most of certain existing legal resources, but also about finding exit routes in new situations via paths that have yet to be passed through. At every step, new strategies are learned for future phases”.
Looking back at the steps followed so far, certain results are identifiable and are valued as being very relevant. Nevertheless, the path is not merely comprised of successes. The conflicts that arise due to land disputes create high levels of violence year on year as well as other problems. In extreme cases, even blood has been shed and lives have been lost. Another phenomenon that has to be accounted for in Central America is drug trafficking. This is even more pertinent in the borderland where thousands of kilos of cocaine pass through every year following a path up to the United States.
The fact that the indigenous communities are defending their rights over the land is both a complicated and a high-risk issue. There are many players in this ‘game’ and there will not always be solutions that suit them all. This means that difficulties and challenges will arise for the communities simply due to the way the government functions. Therefore, the need for social change as a whole, is and will be of the highest importance.
This article first appeared on the website of ACOGUATE in August 2015 and has been translated by Julien Cartwright to whom we are very grateful.
You can read the original article here.
GSN is the UK committee of ACOGUATE, the International Accompaniment Project in Guatemala, which is formed of autonomous committees in Europe and North America.
ACOGUATE is dedicated to offering accompaniment to provide protection and support to human rights defenders, whether individuals or organisations.
Formed in 2000, its mandate is to offer international accompaniment to Guatemalan individuals and social movement and human rights organisations that find themselves (or fear) under threat through the work they do to construct a democratic, multi-ethnic, pluricultural society, based on socio-economic justice, the respect for human rights and the fight against impunity. This accompaniment cannot be linked to illegal activities of any kind, nor includes violence. It is non-partisan and non-interventionist.