140 Indigenous Families Win Back Land in Guatemala
The Peasant Unity Committee (CUC) announced the redistribution of land last month to 140 indigenous and peasant families. The families were part of the largest violent eviction in the recent history of Guatemala in March 2011 when non-state actors, police, military forces and the government forced nearly 800 indigenous Q’eqchí families of their land without notice, destroyed their crops and burned their homes.
The evicted families, representing 14 ancestral communities who had been on the land for generations, suffered psychologically, socially and economically from the ordeal. These human rights violations show the state’s complicity with companies and landholders who exploit farmworkers and peasants. Since the evictions in March 2011, private security members allegedly hired by the Utzaj Chabil Company began a chain of armed attacks, death threats, intimidation, persecution and criminalization against community leaders. Chabil Utzaj is a sugarcane company located in the fertile lands of Polochic Valley. The company wants to expand its sugarcane plantation in the area regardless of the human rights of the families who live there. To date, the community has suffered the assassinations of several peasant and indigenous leaders, including Antonio Beb, Oscar Reyes, María Margarita Che and Carlos Cucul Tot. With the support of the Inter-American Development Bank, the Guatemalan government has been imposing a model of development that threatens the territory and the lives of Guatemalan indigenous communities. Human rights abuses of peasants and indigenous peoples, the loss of their land, and severe environmental destruction are happening in the name of the “green and clean” fuel production – one of the false solutions of the corporate “green economy.” The indigenous Q’eqchi population has been repeatedly stripped of their land and territory through different historical processes promoted or authorized by the state. Today communities face the new challenge of the re-concentration of land in the hands of companies dedicated to large-scale monoculture plantations. This has led to a drastic reduction in indigenous communities’ access to land, limiting their ability to sustain their ways of life, and threatening food security. Three months after the eviction of the 769 families, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued in June 2011 precautionary measures in favor of the families, ordering the State of Guatemala to provide food security and decent housing. But the government did not fulfill the international orders. It was not until the ”Popular, Peasant and Indigenous Peoples March” in March 2012, that the government committed to resolve the land conflicts of the Polochic Valley, meet the Precautionary Measures and return the land to illegally evicted families. Organized by CUC and 15 other ally organizations, thousands of people marched to Guatemala City in defense of the land and territory. CUC used “La Marcha” to pressure the government to address the situation of the Polochic Valley families, as well as many other communities across the country affected by megaprojects such as mining and mega-dams. Facing organized pressure from grassroots movements, the government has finally begun to honor the agreements it made in the wake of La Marcha. However, community leaders emphasize that there is still a long way to go. The legal land titles for the first 140 families are merely the first step in long overdue commitments. CUC and its allies in La Marcha continue to demand land for the remaining 629 Q’eqchí families, and call for decent housing, access to basic services, the legal review of the land grabbed by Chabil Utzaj company, and an end to the national promotion of African palm and sugarcane monoculture. Waldemar Basilio Vazquez, an organizer with CUC, explains: “The Guatemalan government is repressing the people through militarization, favoring landholders, corporations and extractive companies against Guatemala peace accords … repressing our sisters and brothers who are in resistance.”
A partner of Grassroots International, CUC is playing a key role in protecting the rights of rural families and indigenous groups, and making every effort to provide sufficient and suitable land to the displaced communities. Grassroots International supports CUC’s efforts and is in solidarity with all the Q’eqchí families in the Polochic Valley.