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Guatemala is Hungry for Justice

September 2009

Earlier this week, the BBC produced a shocking article: “Eyewitness: Guatemala food crisis.”  The piece exposes the sad reality that haunts families throughout the country, particularly those in indigenous and peasant communities. I also encountered this dire situation — children dying of starvation and many others suffering from hunger-related diseases — during my visit to Guatemala last April, when I heard from our local partners that many peasant communities were showing signs of a food shortage.

In many countries, food shortages among peasants and indigenous communities occur after a major drought. The lack of rain can be fatal to food production. Without new crops, farmers cannot replenish their food stock for the year and are forced to scrabble for work and food. Many have to beg for donations in nearby towns and cities.

While cyclical droughts are expected in dry regions, they are not so common in Guatemala. Here, food shortages are more a result of landlessness. Guatemala has one of the largest rates of land concentration in the continent. According to a coalition of NGOs and social movements in Guatemala, that includes our grantee the Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC), 54% of the farmland in Guatemala is owned by less than 2% of the population.

Landlessness is a chronic problem that should be addressed if we want to end the plight of hungry children in Guatemala. The last serious attempt to eliminate landlessness ended in 1954, when then-president Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown. At time, Mr. Arbenz’s plans for agrarian reform were considered part of communist conspiracy to take over Central America, and the CIA organized his ouster.

Following Arbenz’s removal, a Civil War erupted which left thousands of indigenous families displaced, losing their right to land and food. In the interceding decades, many starved in refugee camps in the neighboring Mexico. Those who made the trip back are still unable to reclaim their land back.

Peasant and indigenous movements face steep challenges, but many are trying to reclaim their human rights to land and food. Grassroots International works with the Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC) and the National Coordination of Indigenous Peoples and Peasants (CONIC) which are using traditional methods to reclaim farmland. Among their biggest challenges are the expansions of palm oil and sugar cane plantations for ethanol production, combined with government concessions for multinationals to mine the last drop of petroleum and gold from the underground.

The land price has skyrocketed in prime areas and to add insult to injury, government programs to small scale farmers have been diminishing year by year. The government claims that there is no money to provide seeds, fertilizers and loans to family farmers, yet multinational corporations receive generous subsidies.

Without addressing the structural issues that affect the majority of indigenous and peasant families in the Guatemala, we will continue seeing unfortunate news of starving children.

Guatemala is hungry for justice.

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