Some good news this week from Polochic in Guatemala: 134 new rural indigenous families are finally getting their own land, seven years after they were violently evicted to make way for a sugar mill. But with more than half of the families evicted still without land, the fight continues.
In 2011, 769 families were evicted from their land in Guatemala. They were accused with occupying land belonging to the Chabil Utzaj sugar mill in the Polochic Valley. This is an area where indigenous families have been forced out of their lands for several years now.
To fight back against this move, the Comité de Unidad Campesina, or Committee for Farmers’ Unity, joined up with the local community and brought the case against the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Finally, they managed to extract from then-president Otto Perez Molina a promise to return lands back to the affected families. Yet years went by without any steps towards fulfilling that promise.
The history of the collective fight for land rights
In early 2013, the movement grew. New links were formed with local and international groups, including Via Campesina, Foro de Organizaciones No Gubernamentales, the Copenhagen Initiative for Central America and Mexico, and the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights. Artists and Guatemalan leaders, like Rigoberta Menchu, the indigenous Nobel Peace Prize winner, voiced their support and lended strength to the movement.
Local and international press covered the case and carried out their own investigations. Concerts and public mobilizations took place in Guatemala and elsewhere. More than 100,000 people from 45 different countries signed a petition in support.
In October of that year, 140 families were able to return back to their lands in Sactela and San Valentin. This was the first win to come from the focused, well-organized campaign carried out by dozens of organizations, including Oxfam.
Slowly, more families were allowed to return. In July 2016, 81 families returned to the Polochic II, and just days ago, 134 other families returned to two other areas.
That president Jimmy Morales is following up on promises made by a previous government is good news. Today, 355 families have returned to their land. But that’s still far from the 769 who were originally displaced.
Land grabs: growing global problem
If the original displacement of families from Polochic, and their slow return had been a one-off case, we could debate whether the glass is half-full or half-empty.
However, if we take a wider look at what’s happening - not only in Guatemala, or Central America, but around the world - we can see that there are more new cases of displacement than ones being resolved.
The demand for vast swaths land for massive mining and agriculture projects in Guatemala and around the world keeps growing. In this fight for land, governments are mostly turning a blind eye to what powerful industries are doing, at the expense of the poor communities, like the indigenous Q’eqchi’, the Afro-Colombian population in Chocó, or the nomadic pastoralists in Niger.
More land in less hands
The concentration of land ownership is one of the most dramatic examples of inequality. In Guatemala, according the last available survey, 78 percent of fertile land was owned by just 8 percent of producers. Meanwhile, the original owners, most of them indigenous groups, have been stripped of their lands and live below the bare minimum standards of living.
While “respect for private property” is held up as a valued principle, the displaced Polochic families suffer through chronic malnutrition. Voices that rise up to challenge this are muzzled, criminalized, or even silenced with targeted, unpunished killings.
Families celebrate the return of their land in Polochic, Guatemala. Photo: Oxfam
The fight for justice goes on
Thanks to the coordinated efforts by national and international groups, the Polochic case has been kept alive. That 355 families have been able to return to their lands is proof of this. However, the task won’t be complete until the remaining 414 families return as well. There’s no better example than this than the solidarity showed by the families who were recently allowed to return saying that they won’t quit fighting until everyone displaced is allowed back.
The lessons from this case must be used to find peaceful solution to similar cases happening in other parts of the country. Doing so will help build a new Guatemela, where human life has more value than property. This will help guarantee that the massive effort by the 769 families, the CUC, partner organizations, and tens of thousands of people who supported them will have been worth it.
At Oxfam, we’ll keep pushing so that influential, international institutions working in Guatemala, governments, and the private sector consider how land rights are at the center of the fight against social and economic inequality.
This entry posted by Valentin Vilanova, Oxfam Campaign Advisor on Land Rights, on 13 July 2018.
Photo: 134 more rural indigenous families finally get their own land, seven years after they were violently evicted to make way for a sugar mill. Credit: Diego Silva