Guatemalan campesinos embrace ancestral farming practices to prevent migration


An article by Jeff Abbott, Waging Nonviolence (abridged)

There is a crisis facing campesinos in rural Guatemala, as tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled to the United States over the last year in search of work. Yet the same forces that have driven many onto the migrant trail have led to the emergence of a movement of young campesinos organizing to stay on their land, and not be forced to migrate to the cities or the United States. In the process, they hope to recuperate the ancestral Mayan forms of agriculture, and combat hunger and poverty in their communities. . .

Thousands of Q’eqchi’ Maya farmers from the communities around Chisec gather in the central square of Chisec to celebrate the campesino. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

On a national level, the young campesinos have found support from a number of grassroots organizations, including the Coordinator of NGOs and Cooperatives, the United Campesino Committee and the Campesino Committee of the Plateau. Since 2009, these organizations have campaigned for laws that will allow farmers to stay on their land. One of these laws is Law 40-84, or the Rural Integral Development law.

“This law would oblige the state of Guatemala to assist the people living in rural areas,” Mauritius said. “It would ensure that the local market is supported.”

Since the law was first proposed in 2009, there have been regular protests demanding that the law be passed. Yet with each attempt, and each protest, the law is blocked by a coalition of right-wing parties.

Organizers have hoped to overcome the blockage through an awareness campaign entitled “I support 40-84,” which targets urban populations, trying to bring awareness of the importance of farmers to those who live in the city. The campaign has utilized videos and other materials to build support among civil society.

The campesinos have continued to keep the pressure on the government to provide a solution by holding regular protests, blocking highways, and occupying space in Guatemala City, demanding that the government pass the law.

In September and November 2014, farmers shut down major highways throughout Guatemala. And on April 17, over 400 families from the states of Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz and Izabal, traveled from their homes to occupy different parts of Guatemala City to demand a solution to the hundreds of conflicts over land in their states and that the Congress pass 40-84.

“We are going to be here until the government of Guatemala meets our demands,” said Jose Chic of the Campesino Committee of the Plateau. “We’ve set up medical services, kitchens and even schools for the children. The reality is that the social services here are better than the services that these families have in their communities.”

But despite the campaigns and protests, progress has been slow.

The small farmers have received help from other organizations, such as Utz Che, or “Good Tree” in the Mayan language Kaqchikel, which have worked alongside the campesinos to assist them in renegotiation of debts. For the community of La Benediction, this has led to the lowering of the debt that is owed from the purchase of the land to 342,000 Quetzales.

“Utz Che has been assisting the community,” said Barrios. “The situation still remains critical, but we are organized.”

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