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GUATEMALA
Indigenous farmers take the lead
Louisa Reynolds
4/20/2012
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Indigenous march demands an end to evictions and environmentally unsound mining projects.

Visibly exhausted after their grueling 200-kilometer (125-mile) walk from various parts of the country including the Quiché highlands and the northern department of Huehuetenango, over 1,500 indigenous protestors entered Guatemala City on March 26.

The march included a large number of Mayan women, who walked across the country with their infants strapped to their backs, wrapped in traditional shawls, and whose feet were severely cracked by the time they reached the city.

Their arrival at the capital’s Parque Central, where they waved red flags in front of the national palace, was the culmination of the “Indigenous, Peasant and Popular March in Defense of Mother Earth and Integral Rural Development and Against Land Evictions and the Criminalization of Indigenous Demands,” that was organized by the Committee for Campesino Unity, known as CUC, and left the city of Cobán, in the highland department of Alta Verapaz, on March 19.

On the way to Guatemala City, members of the CUC were joined by dozens of indigenous, campesino, labor, human rights and women’s organizations. “They’re tired but hopeful,” said CUC leader Daniel Pascual as the march entered the capital.

Before they reached Guatemala City, President Otto Pérez Molina had tried to persuade the protestors to turn back and offered to negotiate if they halted the march. Undeterred, they rejected the offer and continued on their exhausting nine-day march.

After they had camped in the Parque Central for two days, Pérez Molina began talks with CUC leaders that dragged on until 3 a.m. Pascual emerged satisfied at the end and stated that “although we did not achieve all what we had demanded we made progress on fundamental issues”.

President’s attempt at appeasement
Pérez Molina made a series of key pledges such as subsidizing the purchase of land by over 100 peasant families and cooperatives, who owe the governmental Land Fund a total of Q300 million (US$ 38.8 million), and granting a farm in the Polochic Valley, located in Central Guatemala between Cobán and Lake Izabal, to house 14 peasant families that were violently evicted from lands belonging to the Chabil Utzaj sugar plantation in March 2011.

Although the CUC had applied for a loan to the Land Fund to rightfully purchase the land occupied by these families and a dialogue commission had been set up to negotiate a settlement with Chabil Utzaj, which belongs to the powerful Widmann family, a Coban judge authorized the eviction of the Miralvalle and Aguas Calientes settlements.

As the police set shacks on fire and destroyed corn crops a bitter scuffle between the police and peasant settlers broke out, during which one man, Antonio Beb Ac, died from serious injuries. At first the authorities denied that Beb Ac had been bludgeoned by police agents and alleged that he had injured himself with his own machete.

Following the incident, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights dictated cautionary measures in favor of the peasant communities that were evicted.

Other demands agreed to by Pérez Molina include a moratorium on mining and hydroelectric projects and the withdrawal of troops from the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez, where the Mayan Kaqchikel community has fiercely opposed the establishment of a cement factory that pollutes the environment and has already had a detrimental impact on their health.

Tensions between the government and the inhabitants of San Juan Sacatepéquez reached a height in June 2008 when the police arrested 47 community leaders. A few days later, when Francisco Tepeu Pirir was lynched after being accused of accepting bribes from the Cementos Progreso corporation in exchange for supporting the project, troops were sent in to quell the turmoil and were subsequently accused of committing serious human rights violations against the local population such as sexual attacks on women and searching houses without a judicial warrant.

The conflict continues to this day and in January this year, the Pérez Molina administration announced that a military detachment would be permanently established in the area. However, during the negotiations, Pascual and other peasant leaders emphasized that such measures are unacceptable as the armed forces cannot be used to solve civilian issues.

Congress agrees to push forward pending bills
Added to these pledges made by the Executive, the leaders of 11 different political parties in Congress signed a resolution committing to push through a number of key bills that remain stalled, such as the Integral Rural Development Bill, the Sacred Sites Bill and a Bill on Community Radio Stations, among others.

The Integral Rural Development Bill, which aims to improve food security by democratizing access to land, was put forward in 2009 at the beginning of the during President Álvaro Colom’s administration (2008-12). Although it was approved by the Congressional Agriculture Commission, it has yet to be debated in the house.

Currently, 70 percent of all arable land in Guatemala is owned by 0.15 percent of producers and although the bill does not contemplate a land reform, large landowners fear that its approval could lead to a transformation of the country’s semi-feudal land ownership model. For this reason, the bill remained stalled in Congress throughout the Colom administration and remains one of indigenous groups’ main grievances.
—Latinamerica Press.


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Campesino protest yields some gains from government. (Photo: Delmi Arriaza)
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