Guatemalan Communities Reject Neoliberal Development Plan

Life is difficult for the rural campesinos of Guatemala, but a set of neoliberal laws working its way through the Guatemalan congress will make life far more difficult. However, the coalition that defeated the Monsanto Law in the country has taken on this fight, and organized protests to demand for laws that assist rural farmers, not hurt them.

Call for Laws that Support Farmers

Life is difficult for the rural campesinos of Guatemala, but a set of neoliberal laws working its way through the Guatemalan congress will make life far more difficult.

However, the coalition that defeated the Monsanto Law in the country has taken on this fight and organized protests to demand for laws that assist rural farmers, not hurt them. Beginning September 17, indigenous rights groups and campesino associations from across Guatemala called for two days of demonstrations in protest of a package of neoliberal laws currently being debated in the Guatemalan congress.

“The neoliberal project is a violent, exploitative, racist project,” the members of the Campesino Committee of Atiplano (CCDA), Waqib Kej, and other groups said in their press release. “It has exasperated the social problems in the indigenous communities of the indigenous peoples.”

The current law package will further break down the requirement of companies to consult communities prior to the insulation of cellular towers within a community, or in the establishment of a mine; a requirement that is already regularly ignored. Furthermore, the laws stifle the community’s ability to challenge development projects that have little to no benefit to the people living there.

The package ensures that rather than holding international companies accountable to country’s laws, the Government of Otto Pérez Molina is lowering the bar to give the appearance the international companies are respecting the laws.

On September 17, protesters shut down highways and organized demonstrations in over 50 communities and municipalities, in the majority of Guatemala’s 22 departments.

In the department of Chimaltenango, campesino organizations associated with Waquib Kej and others presented the department government with a demand to support the rural farmers.

The following day, tens of thousands of protesters arrived in the nation’s capital, Guatemala City, to continue protesting against the neoliberal law package.

Mikhail Raquec is poor farmer from Patzún Chimaltenango who traveled to the city for the protest. On his small plot of land he grows white and yellow maize and beans. Like many small farmers in Guatemala, he and his neighbors struggle to produce enough for their tables and sell in the markets. He came to the city to protest the neoliberal law package.

“We have very little land,” admits Raquec.  “But these laws do nothing to for us. They hurt us; they make the rich richer. But for us, the poor campesinos, they make us poorer.”

The neoliberal law package looks to make changes to the nation’s mining laws, communication laws, as well as the “speed bump law,” which on one hand looks to remove speed bumps along the country’s highways, but on the other it also has clauses that will further criminalize and limit the right of protest. The changes to the mining law has increased concern that more communities will see the encroachment of mining interests in their territory.

“We are concerned about the changes to the mining,” said one of the leaders of the 12 Kaqchikel Communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez, which has seen much violence related to the construction of a cement factory in their communities. “The law will bring more mining into our territories. That is why we are here, that is why we are in resistance. We do not want more mining, we want healthy communities.”

“These laws are a travesty,” said Santo Reyes, a campesino from the community of Viente Nueve de Diciembre Saragosa, Chimaltenango who traveled to the city for the demonstration. “The police and military only defend the rights of business, all while they kill us with bullets and hunger.”

The reforms of the laws of Guatemala are meant to open up the country and the domestic market to multinational companies, and to comply with the requirements of the United States sponsored Central American Free Trade Agreement. But at the same time, according to Faliciana Macario of Waquib Kej Converencia, “they are closing the space of indigenous communities, and shutting the windows of opportunity.”

But community organizations and campesinos challenge this model of development, stating that these laws only benefit international businesses, at the cost of the rights of communities.

Activists and community organizations have presented the congress with an alternative set of “popular laws” that will benefit rural communities, to replace the neoliberal laws. This alternative package includes laws that will benefit community radio stations, a law to protect indigenous sacred sites, and youth development law.

The most important law proposed by the popular sector, the Integral Rural Development law, looks to invest and assist campesinos.

First drafted in 2009 by the Guatemalan Commission on Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, the law states that the farmer is the backbone of Guatemalan society, and provides support for the farmers of Guatemala. Since then, the popular sector has called for the congress to pass the law, stating that the situation campesinos face represents a “national emergency.”

Since then, the congress has voted on the law numerous times, with each vote coinciding with large demonstrations calling for the congress to pass the law.

The protests 17 and 18 coincided with another vote on the Rural Integral Development law, one that is sponsored by popular organizations, and would provide support for rural farmers and communities in Guatemala. Ultimately, the law defeated again when the coalition between Patriots Party and Lider, both right-wing parties, blocked the vote.

Protesters responded by blocking the roads around the Congressional building, blocking the exit of the congressmen and women. This led to a tense stand off with police and security forces, which lasted for an hour.

Yet despite the defeat of the Rural Integral Development law, organizations have kept the pressure on the congress to pass laws that support the campesinos of Guatemala.

Development for Whom?

At the core of the conflict over the law package is the question of who is development for? As protesters point out, the current arrangement benefits only the transnational companies, and the local oligarchy.

“The government wants to sell our lands and our cultures to multinational companies,” said Maria Luisa Vicente Lobo an indigenous campesino from Palin Esquintla. “We are not selling our lands. They are our ancestral lands. We are here to stand against the Transnational Companies.”

Land has historically been inadequately distributed, with a small landholding elite controlling the majority of land. Recent statistics suggest that 3.2 percent of the population controls 85 percent of the land.  The expansion of the production of sugar cane, and African palm oil has led land to be further concentrated in the hands of the few.

The implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has exasperated problems related to land in Guatemala, especially as the extractive industry expands. Entire communities have been displaced for the construction of mines, dams, or other mega-projects.

The loss of land has led to a massive internal and external migration from rural departments, as former farmers move to the cities in search of scarce jobs. In a report issued by the Coordination of Non-Governmental Organization and Cooperatives (CONGCOOP) in 2011, in the five years after the implementation of CAFTA, the departments of Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Quetzaltenango have seen the largest declines of population, with a large majority living abroad.

CONGCOOP attributes the decline directly to the effects of CAFTA, stating, “The rural population is forced to leave and seek opportunities outside the country.”

Inspiration of the Victory Against the Monsanto Law

The challenge to the neoliberal law package comes less than a month after campesino and indigenous communities won an important victory against the Monsanto Law, which would have given Monsanto and other seed producing transnational corporations, control and protection of Guatemala’s seed market.

“The victory against the Monsanto law was not the end,” said Miguel Olcot, a community leader from the department of Chimaltenango. “It was the beginning.”

The law was repealed after ten days of protests by indigenous and campesino groups. In one protest in the Department of Sololá, 30,000 indigenous farmers shut down a major highway between Guatemala City and the city of Quetzaltenango, the countries second largest city.

On September 4 the congress voted to repeal the Monsanto law.

Despite the defeat of the Rural Integral Development law on September 18, the indigenous groups and farmer’s organizations are dedicated to continuing the struggle. For them, it isn’t about the here and now; it is something more.

“For the government and the businesses, it is just for today; they want to take everything they can for themselves,” said Macario. “We are not just for living for today; we are fighting for the next generations.”