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We Need a Democracy that Can Speak our Language

September 2007

In a few weeks, Guatemalans will cast their votes in the final round of the Presidential elections. They will choose between two candidates, the impresario Alvaro Colom and the army general Otto Perez Molina. So far, it seems that the next president will be elected with a small margin of votes with the two candidates disputing every vote in the capital of Guatemala City, where the election is expect to be decided.

Far in the mountains, the votes of Mayan peasants will have almost no impact on the final outcome of the election. This lack of impact is evident in both political platforms, which fail to address the main issues and concerns of the Mayan population, including landlessness and the dire agrarian situation in the country.

Guatemala has one of the world’s highest rates of land concentration with a mere 1.86% of the population owning 54% of the land. Mayan peasants (the majority) are the group most affected by landlessness and its consequences.

The candidates’ emphasis in this election is on proposed solutions to curb the high rate of violence in the country. Both candidates have promised to control the widespread violence through tougher laws and increased law enforcement forces.

For a country that is still healing the wounds of 36 years of conflict, the election,regardless of who wins, could jeopardize the already fragile process of national reconciliation in Guatemala. With Mr. Colom and General Molina’s proposals, it seems inevitable that there will be increased criminalization of the poor and deepening social injustice.

From what I learned from the people I met this weekend, peace in Guatemala is already threatened because of the failure of the government to implement the terms of the 1996 Peace Treaty. The increase in security forces, for instance, will not solve the increased poverty among peasants. In fact, the already high levels of militarization have yet to provide a sense of security among either the poor or the rich.

In Guatemala City, army personnel and the private security forces of stores, hotels and other commercial buildings maintain an image of constant vigilance and militarization. Displaying heavy guns, mostly rifles, in downtown Guatemala City, these security forces do not contribute to increasing the sense of security among the general population. On the contrary, urban residents remain in constant fear of being robbed.

For rural families, the growing militarization also has not controlled the activities of existing paramilitary forces and drug gangs that have spread fear among indigenous and Garifuna (Afro-descendent) communities on the Atlantic coast.

The same kinds of militarization and violence forced 200,000 Mayans into exile in the not so distant past, and even today are among the main causes of forced migration. More and more indigenous peasants are living in the mountains, without legal title to land or access to any infrastructure or social services.

“First they were expelled from their lands because of the cotton and coffee plantations. Today they are being pushed away by the expansion of the sugar cane and palm oil plantations [for agrofuels production] in the country”, said Carlos Paz, executive secretary of CNOC (National Confederation of Peasant Organizations).

Cultivating small plots of land, Mayan peasants are responsible for the production of animal protein, plantains, corn and vegetables such as beans and cabbage that constitute the basic meal in Guatemala. Without the labor and knowledge of the Mayans, more Guatemalans will be facing hunger.

According to members of the peasant movement here, recently cases of famine were found in 49 municipalities in the country. Infant mortality, for instance, is a social and economic problem that the Guatemalan government has yet to address with any vigor.

“The structural problems that have caused the war in the first place still persist” noted Carlos Barrientos, executive secretary of the Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC). From this perspective, the implementation of the terms of the Peace Treaty especially as they relate to the return and resettlement of refugees and ex-combatants is a need that is being ignored in the political debate.

In the Tablon community, located two hours from Guatemala City, I learned from a Mayan Quiché community that their livelihoods are being threatened by the opening of four mines in the area. In Guatemala, mining companies are exploiting the last resources of Mayan peasants, destroying their livelihoods and lands, and depleting water reserves. Even a small mining operation can use 250,000 liters of water per hour.

The Mayan peasant communities are taking their issues against CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement), mining licenses and local property taxes to the city and federal governments. “But they don’t want to hear us. We need a democracy that can speak our language “, a member of the community declared in his mothertongue Quiché Maya.

It is also from their mountains that Mayan peasants resist CAFTA and the invasion of genetically modified seeds. Through the support of national groups and the solidarity of international friends, Mayan groups have organized plebiscites against the implementation of mining operations on their land. However, the government has not accepted these democratic expressions of the people. For many government officials, local communities have no stake in decisions on how natrual resources are to be used. Their logic is that this is because it is a “national” resource, not a community good.

The Mayan peasants want to be able to voice their opinions in their first language, and also to be heard. In Guatemala, there are 22 different Mayan languages, plus two other indigenous non-Mayan languages, the Garifuna dialect and Spanish. However, the exclusion of indigenous peasant communities in the democratic process is a reflection of social segregation and discrimination, not just a language barrier.

The CUC, a member of the Via Campesina and the Confederation of Latin American Peasant Organizations (CLOC) in Guatemala, is working to make the different ethnic groups’ voices heard. Besides producing newsletters in different languages, CUC is planning to train regional communicators who will educate and disseminate information through community radios and other media outlets in the local language.

Through this initiative, Mayan peasants hope to express in their own language their hopes for developing democracy and securing justice in Guatemala.

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