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GLOBAL AGRICULTURE : Land Reform : Guatemala Plagued by Historic Inequity : Fewer than 3% of the farms cover more than 65% of the farmland. The agrarian economy offers peasants few alternatives.

August 30, 1994|EDWARD ORLEBAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ALTA VERAPAZ, Guatemala — Luis Choc should be working in the fields for the coffee harvest that begins in earnest next month on this farm in the hills 150 miles north of Guatemala City.

But he and 53 other hands have been fired for demanding that they receive the minimum wage. Choc, 40, and his family have lived here for generations: "It is where the bones of my ancestors are buried," the Keqchi Maya community leader says.

From his house, Choc can see the electricity cable that runs through the farm--the Finca Pachilha--to operate the machinery that washes the coffee berries. But there is little prospect that the community's small wooden huts, with earth floors and palm-leaf roofs, will be connected to the power line.

The barefoot Mayan children, their bellies bloated with parasites, can no longer go to classes because the landowner turned the schoolhouse into a dormitory for seasonal migrant workers.

Choc and the other regular workers on the farm do not own land and have depended for generations on the patronage of the landowner for the privilege of tilling small plots of corn to supplement their subsistence wage. This year, they do not know how they will survive.

The minimum wage is 11.20 quetzales a day, about $2. When they were dismissed by the owner more than a year ago, they were earning around 5 quetzales. "There are some farms where the workers are not paid at all," said Antonio Argueta, a lawyer who is representing the workers in their wage claim against the owner.

These basic living conditions, which have barely changed for decades, are the result of Guatemala's notoriously skewed distribution of land, a pattern whose roots lie in the need of the coffee-exporting elite for cheap labor and extensive holdings.

They date from the reforms of the "Liberal Revolution" of Gen. Justo Rufino Barrios in the 1870s, which are still a subject of heated debate. For some Guatemalans, the period was a comparative golden age of economic development that pulled the country out of stagnation at a time when the important market for cochineal, a dye extracted from insects, was collapsing. But others call the period one of consolidation of an authoritarian state alien to the interests of Guatemala's indigenous peoples.

"The state elaborated a series of policies whose fundamental objective was to facilitate the cultivation of coffee," said Gustavo Palma, a land historian at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. "What the Liberals wanted was to open the door for landowners with a modern coffee-exporting vision while restricting the possibilities for indigenous development."

The government passed laws approving the appropriation of unused communal lands, which obliged the peasants to work on coffee plantations for subsistence wages. The results have stunted the growth of an internal economy, fueled social conflicts and contributed to rampant deforestation and migration to urban centers.

When left-wing guerrillas re-emerged in Guatemala in the mid-1970s they promised that, once they defeated the government forces, they would redistribute land that had historically belonged to indigenous communities. It was one of the most beguiling reasons for their widespread support in the countryside.

According to the most recent data, from a 1979 national census, fewer than 3% of the country's farms cover more than 65% of its farmland. The problem is not the unequal distribution of land per se, analysts say, but the unequal distribution in an agrarian economy with very few alternatives. Unemployment and underemployment in the cities is approaching 50%, in part because Guatemala has failed to develop a substantial internal market.

By official estimates, 80% of Guatemalans live in poverty, and the figure is considerably higher in the countryside.

Since there are few alternatives, the limits on access to land have led to chronic poverty and inappropriate land use. In the highlands the ever-growing population is pushing farther up the mountains, chopping down trees to plant corn.

Meanwhile, the Keqchis are hacking ever deeper into the jungles of the Peten in the north, considered by many the second most important rain forest, after the Amazon, in the Western Hemisphere.

Environmental groups say that at the current rate of deforestation the whole of the Peten will disappear by 2050.

"You have this very distorted situation where you have a lot of latifundios (agricultural estates) underutilized or lying completely fallow while a lot of landless peasants are chopping down trees to plant corn on completely inappropriate lands--either mountain lands in the highlands or the very fragile lands in the jungle," said one land expert who requested anonymity.

"Meanwhile, some of the best land is not being used at all or being used for cattle, which is low-intensive and does not provide a high return or create employment."

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