November 14, 2019
By: Laura Robinson
October 12th, 2019 marked 527 years since the discovery of America, however, this year also marked 527 years of Indigenous resistance. Resistance which the Committee of Small Highland Farmers (CCDA) engages in wholeheartedly.
The CCDA engages in the struggle for the protection of land, life, human rights, and people in many ways, even at great cost to individuals and communities. However, all of the work they do in communities and across the country is vital. Today we were fortunate to meet with Leocadio Juarcan and Lesbia Atola who bravely shared their work and helped link the current exploitation and dispossession of Indigenous peoples with the past policies of the Guatemalan government. In the late 1800s, government policies during the Liberal Revolution made it so that when land was purchased, ownership of the land and the Indigenous peoples on that land passed to the new land owner. Those dispossessed of the land who worked on plantations were forced to work building roads for a set number of days if they did not own land. Additionally, special protections were given for deaths that occurred on plantations so that no punishment was dealt to those responsible.
As recently as 2 months ago, an organization called CACIF ––which represents business interests–– declared that the minimum wage in Guatemala was too high (minimum wage is currently 90 Quetzals a day for agricultural workers, or $15.50 CAD). This wage is already insufficient to cover an individual’s necessary needs and minimum wage is a myth as most make less than this amount. At the same time, the CACIF has also argued that there should be a return to the working condition policies mentioned above. These harsh realities are paired with the fact that the incoming Guatemalan government wants to strengthen its policies and capacity through the police and military to protect monocultures, mining, and mega projects which affect the land and threaten the people who live there. Because of this, the CCDA is bracing for tumultuous times ahead.
The CCDA brings together small farmers from across Guatemala to organize for change and better prices for their crops which is able to increase food security and keep them in the struggle. Together, they can challenge laws they believe violate the constitution, advocate for laws which they believe would ameliorate their situation, and file complaints concerning land which is being unjustly dispossessed. Over the past 35 years, the CCDA has been able to recover and access 77 plantations for members, which has changed the lives of many farmers by allowing men and women to access land titles and secure their futures.
However, for these successes, there have been retaliations. In the Verapaz region alone in 2018 there were 6 assassinations, 16 people jailed, and 734 arrest warrants issued. Many individuals are threatened as large organizations try to dissuade them from continuing in their work.
What struck me the most was the level of impunity for these land defenders. While in the 1800s there was an official policy allowing landowners immunity for the deaths of the workers on their land, today there is a pervasive unofficial policy of impunity in the deaths of small farmers. When many of these individuals are murdered, officials claim they were killed by their own fault— by drowning, or because they were drunk and got into a fight. On the rare occasion where criminal justice is found, it is not equitable. Samuel Chub was killed in 2016 and last year those responsible where punished with 2 years of prison time— a sentence which could be negated by paying 5 quetzales per day. On the other hand, 2 members of the CCDA who were sentenced only 2 weeks ago for defending their land have each received 35 years in jail.
The work of the CCDA is brave and vital work in the face of threats that have not diminished, but only increased. Their work mirrors the criminalization of Indigenous land defenders seen in Canada. Standing in solidarity with their organization and the hundreds of communities and thousands of families they represent is important and continuing the struggle to defend land and support land and water defenders is vital and truly a global struggle.