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Agribusiness and the Land Crisis in Guatemala: No Peace without Agrarian Reform

I met José at the local school in Chex, Huehuetenengo, Western Guatemala. From our vantage point, we had a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. I asked José about his farm and his family’s future. In a sweeping gesture, he indicated the small green cornfields covering the mountain. “This mountainside belonged to my grandfather. It was divided first between my father and his brothers and then between my brothers and I.” He pointed to his plot. I looked at the tiny square on the steep slope and asked, “How will you divide that land between your four sons?” He was quiet for a moment. “That, ” he said, “is the problem.”

Guatemala, like much of Latin America, faces a serious agrarian crisis due to misappropriation of land and land shortage. Subsistence farmers, such as José, find it more and more difficult to feed their families on shrinking plots. Surrounded by hungry children and swollen bellies, I realized the severity of Guatemala’s “land problem” and began to question why children starve in this fertile country of temperate climate and rich volcanic soils. While farmers in the Western highlands cultivate on steep slopes inadequate for agriculture, expansive sugar, coffee, cotton, and banana plantations dominate the coastal and piedmont regions. Multinational food corporations such as Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita reap the benefits of Guatemala’s rich agricultural environment; they export fruits and vegetables to North American supermarkets and leave little land to native farmers.

In Guatemala, rural families suffer from severe malnutrition because international agribusinesses occupy prime agricultural land. Critics indict transnational food corporations and their land monopolies for Latin America’s painful agricultural paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty. Eduardo Galeano states that the continent “continues to exist at the service of others’ needs…as a source and reserve of the raw materials and foods destined for rich countries” (Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent 1973: 1).

Pablo Neruda writes:
“The Fruit Company lands its ships,
taking off the coffee and the fruit;
The treasure of our submerged territories
flow as though on plates into the ships”
(“The United Fruit Company”)

Most attribute Guatemala’s agrarian problem to the “minifundio-latifundio dicho-tomy,” a grossly inequitable land distribution pattern characterized by expansive tracts of land devoted to export agriculture (latifundios) and minuscule subsistence-oriented farms (minifundios) that feed the majority of the population. This inequitable land distribution pattern causes social, cultural, political and ecological upheaval: immi-gration, malnutrition, political violence, and natural resource degradation all emerge as consequences of land shortage. Unfortunately, these problems are endemic to Latin America. The Pontifical Justice and Peace Council states that problems arising from land concentration “affect the dignity of millions of persons and deprive the world of the possibility of peace.” Given violent uprisings over land in Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, it appears that Latin America will never know peace without effective agrarian reform and equitable distribution of land.

In this article I will examine the passage of food, Neruda’s “treasure,” from Latin American soil to US dinner plates and show how international agribusiness has contributed to the “deepening crisis of hunger and poverty for the vast majority of rural Latin Americans” (Burbach and Flynn, Agribusiness in the Americas 1980: 83). Using Guatemala as an example, I will explain the historical roots of the land problem, explore the current social and ecological implications of inequality, and detail US government policies that subsidize this “pillage of a continent.” In surveying the movement of food throughout the Americas, we remember Pope John Paul II’s call to hemispherical solidarity, a solidarity that requires analysis and reflection “on issues of justice and of international economic relations, in view of the enormous gap between North and South” (Ecclesia in America 1999: 2).

The Roots of Crisis: From Colony to Coffee

The historical origins of the minifundio latifundio dichotomy vary from region to region; land concentration patterns were influenced by geography, amount and accessibility of arable land, existence of mineral deposits, and the nature of indigenous civilizations (Burbach and Flynn 1980: 87). Central America’s primary function was to supply luxury goods (such as sugar, cacao, and indigo dye) for Europe and generate income for colonists. Spaniard “get-rich-quick” farming schemes involved seizing land and labor from indigenous Mayan communities and then planting large monocultural tracts of the most profitable crops. Colonists set an early precedent for risky, latifundio agriculture at the expense of subsistence farming, other economic activities, and the health and dignity of native peoples.

Guatemala’s basic national formations, political institutions, land use policies, labor organization, and class system all matured around the coffee economy (Bulmer-Thomas,The Political Economy of Central America Since 1920 1987: 4). By 1889, coffee made up 96% of Guatemala’s export earnings as foreigners appropriated native land. In 1862, communal authorities in Cobán complained “After having bought land in this same city, the foreigners have also taken much more . . . we cannot even plant a kernel of land because they have taken the best land” (Cambranes, Coffee and Peasants: The Origins of the Modern Plantation Economy in Guatemala 1985: 76). This new elite, “came to form a virtual oligarchy exercising economic, social, and political influence out of all proportion to their numbers” (Bulmer-Thomas 1987: 2). Using their political power, coffee growers employed violent methods to extract labor, forcing farmers to leave their own fields and families to further agribusiness interests.

Beginning a Banana Republic

Throughout both the Colonial and Coffee Periods we find the unjustified acquisition of land, labor, and political power all in the name of export agriculture. Those trends continued throughout the twentieth century, with increased participation from U.S. corporations intensifying during the 1930’s Depression. The United Fruit Company (UFCo), long the symbol of U.S. imperialism in Central America, gained disproportionate power as Guatemala’s largest landowner and major foreign investor. The company was notorious for exploiting natural resources, paying unjust wages, consistently opposing organized labor, and orchestrating the CIA-engineered overthrow of the progressive government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 (Burbach and Flynn 1980: 207). The UFCo, and its successor Del Monte (they took over UFCo’s operations in 1972), thwarted Guatemalan efforts to gain control over their own natural resources. Due to the activities of UFCo and Del Monte’s (among other corporations), Guatemala now boasts one of Latin America’s most concentrated land distribution patterns, second only to Brazil (Carter et al., “Agricultural Export Booms and the Rural Poor in Chile, Guatemala, and Paraguay,” Latin American Research Review311:33-65.1996: 51).

Modern Minifundios

Historically, the activities of multinational food corporations have concentrated land and wealth in the hands of a small North American elite that is allied with reactionary forces in the Guatemalan bourgeoisie. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace states, “Perverse inequalities in the distribution of common goods and in each person’s opportunities for development, as well as the dehumanizing imbalances in individual and collective relationships brought about by such a concentration, are the cause of conflicts that undermine the very life of society” (Toward a Better Distribution of Land: The Challenge of Agrarian Reform 1998). As rural folk negotiate social life in a crowded landscape, “dehumanizing imbalances” are evident in the form of high infant mortality rates, rampant malnutrition, violent encounters over land ownership and natural resource rights, breakdown of traditional justice mechanisms, and familial and social stresses caused by U.S. migration.

As families grow and available land shrinks, minifundistas face the threat of proletarianization, complete marginalization from their land and full integration into the wage labor force. Most farmers in Western Guatemala migrate to coastal coffee, banana, or beef plantations in order to raise enough funds to buy fertilizer, medicines, and seeds for their farms. Maquiladora work and U.S. migration has also become an increasingly popular option as individuals hope to raise enough capital to buy more land. Proletarianization has led to a mass rural exodus evident throughout Latin America; growing numbers of street children, urban poor, and U.S. migrants (such as the guests of Casa Juan Diego) are all symptoms of rural displacement.

Those who choose to remain on their land, such as José, find it increasingly difficult to remain healthy and adequately feed their children. According to UNICEF, Guatemala has the worst infant mortality rates in Central America, with Mayan populations experiencing rates twice as high as those of non-Indian populations. Children most frequently suffer from easily treatable diseases such as intestinal infections, influenza, or pneumonia (Painter, Guatemala: False Hope, False Freedom 1987: 4). Crowding in the highlands has resulted in increased environmental degradation; deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, and agrochemical contamination have significantly lowered the quality of rural life.

Agro-Imperialism Continued

Without romanticizing the difficulties of rural life, we must acknowledge that subsistence farmers and rural people retain a dignity that generally eludes the urban poor. This dignity stems from control over their own resources and independence from the vagaries of a capitalist economy; specifically urban wage labor, maquiladora work, and the destructive boom and bust cycles that have characterized Guatemalan export agriculture since Colonial times.

Guatemala’s painful legacy of export agriculture and natural resource extraction has created a rural underclass that survives off the scraps of land left over from plantation agriculture. The future is bleak for those minifundistas. José’s four sons will not be able to support a family off the land they inherit from their father; they will most likely search for opportunity either in Guatemala City or in the United States.

While inequitable land distribution (due to multi-national food corporation expansion) is the primary cause of proletarianization, U.S. foreign policy compounds the problem by undermining subsistence agriculture and encouraging minifundistas to abandon staple crops for export agriculture. U.S. foreign policy, starting with the Alliance for Progress during the Kennedy era and continuing through Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative, is largely responsible for the proliferation of snow pea, broccoli, cauliflower, berries, melon, and cut flower production throughout the Guatemalan countryside. US foreign policy restricts Guatemalan farmers’ economic independence by exclusively promoting export agriculture over staple food (corn, beans, wheat, etc.) production. The 1986 Bumpers Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act prohibits the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) from supporting staple food production because those crops could compete with U. S. agricultural exports.

Non-traditional agricultural export (NTAE) production sprung from U.S. political and economic interests rather than concern over Guatemala’s agrarian problem. Douglas Murray notes that in the Post World War II era, the United States viewed the poverty of Latin America as fertile ground for Communist manipulation. U.S. intervention was necessary to protect the political sanctity of the hemisphere and assure open markets for North American products. He notes that the promise of agricultural development, “was based on a profound faith in the organizational prowess of capitalist state and market forces” (Murray,Cultivating Crisis: the Human Costs of Pesticides in Latin America 1995: 2). Policy-makers targeted agriculture as an economic arena which would generate sufficient capital to eventually fuel Third World industrialization. They promoted high technology, “Green Revolution” agricultural practices without considering the importance of subsistence agriculture to the region’s nutritional security.

Guatemalan mini-fundistas have profited little from the introduction of NTAE’s, genetically-altered seed species, elaborate irrigation systems, farm machinery and agrochemicals that characterize Green Revolution agriculture. I spoke with many Guatemalan cauliflower farmers who felt they were little more than slaves to the multinational food corporations who bought and then exported their products. Agrochemicals proved initially useful in adding nutrients to exhausted soils (farmers no longer have enough land to leave fields fallow), but they also increased farmers’ dependence on the cash economy and caused health problems. Critics of U.S. agro-export policy point to the inequitable returns and environmental risks of export agriculture as a symptom of unsustainable agricultural techniques and poor export planning (Tucker, “The Promotion of Nontraditional Agricultural Exports,” in Poverty, Natural Resources, and Public Policy in Central America, ed. Sheldon Annis, 1992, pp. 107-135.). NTAE’s, like the more traditional export crops of banana, coffee, and cotton, benefit multinational food corporations and Guatemala’s wealthiest class.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIX, No. 3, May-June 1999.