PETEN, Guatemala — Like thousands of other peasant farmers, Pedro Jaime Neves fled strife in his home village during Guatemala’s civil war in favor of a wide tract of land here.
"The rest of the country was conflicted because of the war and there was no other place to go," said Neves, the mayor of the small village of Caoba in southern Peten. "This was a peaceful place. It was a good place to raise your family."
Twenty-five years later, a new type of conflict has found him: Drug traffickers and agribusinesses are buying thousands of small farms — including those that surround Neves’ home — in a land grab reshaping Guatemala’s largest and most rural department.
The Peten, an area the government once used as a relief valve for residents displaced by the war, is becoming the province of wealthy landowners and drug traffickers. The trend, although legal, is having disastrous social and environmental consequences.
In a country where some 2 percent of the population controls nearly 80 percent of arable land, the Peten was an exception, and the sales are eroding what little gains Guatemala has made in land redistribution since the civil war’s end.
Land owners are amassing sprawling haciendas and drug traffickers are building illicit airstrips to land small planes swollen with Colombian cocaine en route to the United States, anti-narcotics analysts say. “It’s a huge problem. Farmers lose their land. Guatemalans lose their forests. The only people who are winning are big landowners,” said Carlos Rodas Castellanos, regional coordinator for the government’s Secretary of Agricultural Affairs. “Where are we going? If we continue like this, we’ll have millions of peasant farmers with no jobs and no land to live on. These are the same conditions that led to our civil war.”
Populated largely by poor farmers and controlled by few authorities, the Peten sits between the Caribbean coast and the Mexican border like a giant piece of real estate waiting with its "for sale" sign hanging out front. Assembling land there is a key part of the drug trade.
Mexican drug cartels pushed south into Guatemala in recent years. Once drugs arrive in Guatemala from producing countries in South America, they are taken by land over the porous Mexican border to the United States.
The drug traffickers don’t advertise themselves as such when they set up shop. Like other large landowners, they use the land as pasture for raising cattle, but they build airstrips in the middle. Guatemalan authorities say some 40 clandestine airstrips are in operation, but an anti-narcotics analyst estimated to a U.S. Congress committee that hundreds of such airstrips exist.
Already, some 30 percent of small farmers in southern Peten have sold their property, according to a study being conducted by the German Development Service, a German governmental agency. The survey of 16,000 families in 250 communities found farmers have already sold at least 156,500 acres — an area roughly the size of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens combined.
“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.”