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Struggling to keep their land

Drug traffickers are building secret airstrips and landowners are acquiring large plantations, pushing out small farmers in Guatemala.


“These are nearly all subsistence farmers and they are being offered 150,000 to 200,000 quetzales ($18,750 to $25,000)," said Markus Zander, the survey's author. "For them, that’s enough to live for five to 10 years.” Predominantly growing corn and beans for their own consumption, farmers in rural Guatemala typically earn less than $2 per day.

Until recently, it was the more remote villages, swaths of cleared jungle tucked deep inside the province, that were sold off, leaving empty homes and echoes of once promising villages. Now buyers have started approaching farmers in villages close to the major towns — such as Neves’ village, Caoba, a one-hour motorcycle ride on a beaten dirt road from the municipality.

“These were villages, farms, lives, that were promising because the people who owned them had enough land to live off of,” said Laura Hurtado, who has studied the issue for the anti-poverty agency ActionAid Guatemala. “In western Guatemala, people do not have enough land to live off of. But in the Peten, they have enough land to farm, hunt, gather firewood, even fish sometimes.”

The small farmers who sell out often migrate to cities in search of low-paying jobs or to the United States. Others move their families to national park land, cutting down protected forests to plant corn to feed their families. Seven of Neves’ neighbors who sold their land moved to National Wildlife Refugee Xutilha, an area supposedly off limits to development.

While the government has voiced concern over the sales, critics say it is also to blame.

The government has favored the growth of large land estates, said David Guzman, who worked in the region for the Presidential Commission for the Resolution of Land Conflicts until last year.

A proposed highway between Mexico and Guatemala's Caribbean port “has helped to accelerate the process of land concentration and the displacement of hundreds of families,” Guzman said. Guzman fears that more small farmers, unable to compete with agribusinesses growing sugar cane and oil palm for export, will sell in coming years.

The government’s Secretary of Agricultural Affairs says, partially due to the land sales, at least 1,450 land conflicts have been documented, with hundreds more likely. In those cases, landowners sell their property and relocate onto protected parks or others’ property. In response, the government and several non-governmental organizations have launched a campaign urging small farmers not to sell their land.

But local residents say that when buyers show up in four-wheel-drive SUVs and flash a handful of cash, the choice is easy.

“People know they shouldn’t sell their land because the land is the only thing we have. We’re poor. But [the buyers] have more money than we’ve ever seen. It’s hard to say ‘no,’” Neves said. “Pretty soon, the whole department is going to be one giant cattle ranch.”