Dynamics in land tenure, local power and the peasant economy: the case of petén, guatemala

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Dynamics in land tenure, local power and the peasant economy: the case of Petén, Guatemala
Markus Zander, Jochen Dürr Abstract This article analyses the ongoing process of land grabbing by cattle farmers and drug traffickers in south-eastern Petén, Guatemala and its socio-economic consequences. In the last decade, this process has strongly accelerated due to several factors,which made investment in land more attractive and resulted in sharply increasing land prices. In the 236 communities included in the field study, 30% of all peasant families have already sold their land, some of them hoping to escape poverty, others under often violent pressure from buyers mostly related to the drug trade, who are securing control over large territories. For lack of economicalternatives the landless families end up leasing plots for cultivation from their neighbours, working as day labourers on big cattle ranches or occupying land in the protected areas in northern Petén, with poverty and conflicts about resources on a steady rise. Value chain analysis shows that the conversion from small scale peasant agriculture to extensive livestock production reduces landproductivity and diminishes local added value and employment, thus providing further arguments for changes in agricultural politics to halt or reverse the process.

Introduction
With over 50% of the economically active population working in agriculture 1, in their great majority as smallholders on tiny plots of land with an extremely uneven distribution of land holdings on a national level 2, landownership has been a crucial and conflictive issue in Guatemala for decades. The efforts of the democratically elected governments during the “Guatemalan spring” from 1944 to 1954 to carry out a land reform led to protests of the United Fruit Company to the USgovernment. A CIA-headed coup d’etat and the installation of a puppet government in 1954 reversed all previous progressive efforts andreinstalled the status quo in favour of the national
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PNUD 2008

2

Whereas 92% of the Guatemalan farmers have to work on only 21.8% of the available agricultural area, with plot sizes of under 7 ha., 1.9% of the farmers own 56.7% of the arable land. INE 2003

1

oligarchy and foreign companies. In continuation a chain of military governments ruled Guatemala until 1986. Armed resistanceagainst the military regime started a 36 year long civil war, which cost more than 200,000 – mostly civilian - lives and ended in 1996 with the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords. These included several substantial demands, among others, the redistribution of land to small-scale landowners and landless peasants. Most of these, however, have never been implemented. In the case of landredistribution, the Guatemalan government, supported by the World Bank and other international institutions, opted for a distribution via market-mechanisms, meaning that small-scale farmers would receive credits from the government institution FONTIERRAS to buy land from private owners. To a large extent this process has been a failure, since until December 2009 only about 19,471 of an estimated 300,000 to500,000 families in need of land had benefitted 3, and funds available for the acquisition of land for small-scale farmers have been continually diminishing over the years. What is to be observed at the moment is a new process of land concentration, in the hands of national and transnational companies engaged in large scale monoculture plantation farming and cattle ranchers, destroying entirecommunities and leaving their families without means of subsistence. This tendency has been especially strong in Petén, Guatemala’s northernmost, largest and most recently colonized department that comprises about one third of the country’s surface area. It also contains Guatemala’s largest nature reserves, concentrated in the department’s northern half. Concerned by the situation, several local...
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