Momentum builds in the fight for land rights in Guatemala: Making us all a bit braver

In 2011, 769 families in the Polochic Valley in Guatemala were evicted to make way for the Chabil Utzaj sugar mill. Without land to farm and any other support, they were plunged into poverty and hunger.

Yet the evicted communities have continued to fight for land, inch by inch, year by year.

In June 2018, the government provided land to 134 evicted families because of sustained efforts by people making it altogether 355 families evicted getting land now.

Almost half of those evicted, now have land to call their own.

“This struggle meant overcoming hunger and thirst, but now we can ensure we have land, not just for us, but for our children.” - Juana Cuz Xol

Seven years ago, it was hard to imagine that hundreds of evicted rural families – in one of the most violent countries for human rights defenders – would again have land. The fight is far from over, with hundreds of families still landless, but it is clearly gaining momentum.

“There are still families left out and we still hope that they can be given their land and have what we have. I’m happy but I’m also sad when I think about those other families.” - Catalina Cho ‘Ico

“Land is the first step…what we need is to develop the community itself. The most urgent need will be water. There is no running potable water. Also electricity. We need a school and a health clinic.” - Hermelindo Cux

Infographic on Polochic families
“I am aware of each family’s suffering because we have suffered it together… That is how I was brave enough to participate in all the actions that we held and we still have demands that must be met.” - Dominga Botzoc Pop

The case is a testimony to the power of the powerless and marginalised – their steely resolve in the idea of justice, which can achieve extraordinary things. In fact, those who are most disadvantaged due to structural and systemic inequalities are the ones who provide the hope and steer us, to imagine a just society and a more equal world.

“I believe that the communities have played a key role in the defense of human rights. We continue to fight, we will not be silenced.” - Hermelindo Cux

The struggle for land rights

For many of us, it can be easy to forget that land is at the heart of everything – food, shelter, culture, identity and dignity. Land is life. It is critical to how we tackle climate change. It is the oldest story of inequality. Land rights struggles can also seem the hardest, the most enduring and intractable.

Across the world, communities are fighting similar mass evictions and dispossession while they stand to lose everything – just about everything. Their land is being concentrated into the hands of the wealthy and powerful, often violently and aided by financiers and governments.

The generational ties of communities to their land & its resources – to its seasons, its plants, its histories (culture and economy) are deemed less legitimate than the rights of those living hundreds of kilometres away to evict them with the stroke of the pen.

Time and again, we see this justified under a flawed notion of development, the underlying premise of which is that the poor must sacrifice for the greater good – what is never made explicit is who exactly stands to gain the most by this process. The phenomena is so common it even has a name – “development-induced displacement”.

The evidence is mind boggling. In 2015, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that between 2004-2013 the World Bank financed projects that physically or economically displaced 3.4 million people. In 2017, agribusiness was the most violent industry – it represented 46 of the 207 documented killings of land rights defenders that year. Those killed are often everyday people, many are First Nations Peoples in rural areas.

Violence and inequality

The physical violence of forcing people from their land is embedded in a deeper system of structural violence – one which undermines the fundamental notions of equality and everyone having access to land for their basic needs, through a distorted narrative of legitimacy and entitlement that seeks to justify concentrating resources in the hands of the few.

The rules are written to favour the rich, and not infrequently accompanied by corruption and cronyism.

The fight to secure land for the rest of 414 evicted families continues in Polochic Valley in Guatemala and it has gained strong ground with the allocation of land to 134 families recently. These struggles and fight back by communities such as the Polochic case, and others like it, make us all hopeful and a little braver.

They give us faith that, in a world of growing restrictions on our civic and human rights, we can continue to fight for justice. We learn from the tactics and strategies these grassroots communities use.

They remind us that it is important to fight the intractable, not just the achievable – and they teach us how to sustain hope and energy in dark times.

They show us the power of solidarity, that every community struggle is part of a larger struggle and our ability to address worldwide inequality is rooted in the creativity, tenacity and bravery of everyday people.

This entry posted on 20 July 2018, by Shona Hawkes, Oxfam Land Rights Policy Lead, and Mamata Dash, Oxfam's Southern Campaign Lead.

Photo: Indigenous communities march for land rights, in Polochic, Guatemala. Credit: Diego Silva

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