Environmental Justice Case Study: Indigenous People's Land Rights in the Peten Region of Guatemala: After the Peace

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Above image taken from http://www.travelvantage.com/gua.html

The Problem

The Peten region of Guatemala has undergone a series of colonizations conducted by the Guatemalan government since the 1960s. The colonization of the region has recently increased--a result of the Peace Accord signed ending the 36-year Guatemalan civil war. The construction of roads, the development of large cattle ranches and agro-businesses, and the formation of the Guatemalan Biosphere Reserve have forced many indigenous and poor people off their native lands. The landless peoples have either moved deeper into the dense forests or escaped to refugee camps in Mexico. Government and military intervention prevents the development of permanent settlements. Battling for the rights of indigenous and poor people's of Peten has been a group called The People's Communities in Resistance in Peten. In 1996, the Communities in Resistance marched on Guatemala City to speak with Guatemalan president elect Alvaro Arzu. This event was the first time an indigenous people's organization in Guatemala sought formal recognition - and in step with Guatemala's policies toward indigenous people's rights, President Arzu refused to talk with the Communities in Resistance leaders on the steps of the capital building. This organization, along with other indigenous rights groups, is currently working with the new Guatemalan government for indigenous peoples civil and land rights.

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Since the Spanish introduced themselves into Guatemala hundreds of years ago, there has been an inequitable distribution of land in the country. Indigenous peole make up over 60 percent of the nation's population, however they hold less than 10 percent of the land. Today, 85 percent of the nation's land is owned by less than 2 percent of the population; 80 percent of the Guatemalan population lives in extreme poverty - with an estimated 50-60 percent of these extremely poor people being indigenous. The institution of forced colonization programs sent thousands of indigenous peoples to the heavily forested Peten region. Soon after their arrival, the colonizers began forming cooperative farms (without any assistance), but the government was much opposed to such "communist activities". In response to the formation of cooperative farms and villages, the government began a series land seizures and genocidal massacres (performed by a U.S. funded and trained military). The current Guatemalan political system actively discriminates against indigenous peoples - the Guatemalan constitution does not state any right to ethnic diversity. Formal political documents refer to indigenous people as "those indigenous communities" and the prevailing attitude of Guatemalan political leaders has translated into a "vast legal ignorance" of Mayan and indigenous law.

A recent peace accord, ending a 36 year long civil war has conjured up some semblance of hope - hope that the Mayans and their descendents will be distributed land in which to live on peacefully. The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, the group of indigenous peoples who waged the 31 year campaign against the Guatemalan government and military, have called for dramatic reforms to Article 203 of the Guatemalan Constitution. These reforms would in effect recognize the customary law of Mayans and land rights. The emergence of a strong Mayan identity in the past 20 years has sparked new life into the fight for indigenous land rights.

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Key Actors

The People's Communities in Resistance in Peten

In 1993, indigenous people and other landless/poor people in Guatemala formed this organization, with the intent of improving the quality of life and rights of people living in the Peten. Most of the people involved in this organization live either deep in the rainforests or in Mexican refugee camps. But in October of 1993, they crept out from under the woodwork and marched to Guatemala City as a formal delegation with a list of demands.

National Vanguard Party

The new government in Guatemala since the election of 1996 has a massive responsibility in maintaining peace in Guatemala. The government is also responsible for instituting land reforms in the Peten and all over Guatemala giving indigenous people the necessary rights to live freely. President Alvaro Arzu must initiate these broad reforms. He has already shown some initiative by ousting several generals and government officials responsible for war crimes.

Guatemalan National Revolution Unity

The rebel group who fought the 36 year Civil War and signed the Peace Accord in December 1996 (Fairnu, 1996). The group now plays a pivotal role in promoting reforms within the government.

Manuel Alvardo

One of the few indigenous people represented in the Guatemalan Parliament. Alvardo is a key figure in the leftist Democratic Front for a New Guatemala. He is currently fighting violations of the Indigenous Civil Rights Accord.

The International Community

The U.S. government and international organizations like the World Bank contributed to the current situation in Guatemala. The U.S. involvement in military and intelligence operations in Guatemala spawned the Civil War and prevented any land or civil rights reforms this has been a reaction to threats against U.S. vested agricultural economic interests and resulted in continual military funding. Also, in the establishment of puppet governments that does nothing but quell democratic indigenous uprisings. For indigenous people to gain civil and land rights in Guatemala, it is very important that the U.S., Western European countries and other international monetary organizations do not interfere with the democratization of the Guatemalan government..

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Detailed census data of the region is currently unavailable. Generally, the region is composed primarily of indigenous people (of Mayan and other native descents). There is also a number of poor laborers and landless peasants of latino descent (Spanish and Mayan).

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Strategies Used

This is an ongoing struggle with new strategies being adopted on a daily basis. The People's Communities in Resistance in Peten, as mentioned earlier, have presented the government with a list of demands for rights to land, rights to practice traditional law, and the right to restore the cultural integrity of the people living in Peten (and all of Guatemala). They are working with Parlimentarians like Manuel Alvardo to institute the grand reforms in the Indigenous Rights Accord.

In the future, the group hopes to gain guarantees of safety and rights from the national and international organizations chiefly the Catholic church, human rights organizations, and the U.N. The people of this region are wary of the Peace Accord, they have been hurt too many times by government actions; many are still frightened of the repercussions of planting traditional crops or practicing other ethnic activities. In the recent past, anything associated with the Mayan cultural identity was targeted and eliminated by the Guatemalan government and military. The organization plans on working with the groups previously mentioned to gain a sense of stability in the near future.

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A problem such as the one outlined in this case study is inherently easier to define than it is to solve. This is a far-reaching dilemma, stretching across the international landscape - but the problem facing The People's Communities in Resistance in Peten ends up right back in their hands. The government desperately needs to raise the necessary funds ($3.6 billion) to implement the peace accords over the next four years. These accords signed by the National Vanguard Party and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity call for measures to: end racial discrimination against native peoples, reduce the power and size of the military (making the military fall entirely under civilian control), greatly alter the judicial and police system, and hold those individuals accountable for wartime atrocities. The international institutions at fault for the current situation in Peten have to urgently: provide funding for educational programs, institute the reforms in the Peace Accords, redistribute the land equitably, end senseless persecution, limit U.S. involvement, foster development of environmentally sustainable and economically viable cooperative farms. This is quite the list and it really gives one a sense of the task laying ahead of The People's Communities in Resistance in Peten.

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The key to the success of effective land reform in Guatemala is to gain the appropriate funding to implement the Peace Accord plans of equitable land re-distribution - and for indigenous peoples and civil rights organizations to act as watchdogs, to make sure the Guatemalan government actually implements the reforms (and not regress to a militaristic state again). The Communities in Resistance leaders have already begun this process by seeking the assistance of international civil rights, political, and monetary organizations. The quest now is to foster good relations with government officials and continue the healing process - which begins and ends in re-distributing the land back to indigenous and other landless people of Guatemala who've suffered long enough.

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Contact Person/Information Sources

For more information regarding this specif case study, or if you would like to remain updated, participate, or become involved in this environmental struggle, you can contact:

ICA homepage http://www.icaworld.org/guatemala/index.html

ICS homepage http://www.oneworld.org/ips2/sept98/221-50-087.html

RSP homepage http://www.qeh.ox.ac.uk/rsp/rpn1811.htm

For pictures and more info on Guatemala http://ocean.st.usm.edu/~tgparker/bigtikaljpg

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