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Agrarian Reform: The lessons of Guatemala and the peace process

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh 

14 May 2017

Twenty-one years ago a final agreement was reached between the URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) and the government of Guatemala.  It brought to an end a long armed uprising against the Guatemalan oligarchy that began in the 1950s and despite the difference of a few years; it had a lot to do with the 1954 CIA coup d’etat against the Arbenz government and its agrarian reform programme.  So it comes as no surprise that the agrarian issue was a key issue in the negotiations.

Guatemala resembles Colombia in many aspects, a long running armed conflict, a rotten oligarchy, systematic repression of the peasants and indigenous and a peace agreement that was supposedly going to bring an end to the causes of the conflict.  And the Agreement for a Firm and Lasting Peace  (Guatemala) is like the General Accord for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable Lasting Peace (Colombia), more commonly known as the Definitive Final Accord, both are in reality a series of accords on different points, amongst them the agrarian question.  Point 27 of the Socio-Economic Accord (Guatemala) describes the importance of this issue in the following way:

It is essential and unavoidable to solve the problems of agrarian reform and rural development in order to address the situation of the majority population, which live in rural areas and is most affected by poverty, extreme poverty, injustice and the weakness of State institutions. The transformation of the structure of land use and ownership must have as its objective the incorporation of the rural population into economic, social and political development so that the land constitutes, for those who work it, the basis of their economic stability, the foundation of their progressive social well-being and the guarantee of their freedom and dignity.(1)

The description is clearly accurate and is no different from the description made about Colombia, nor is it different to the content of the Final Accord signed between the FARC and the government.  In fact the situation in Guatemala is so similar to Colombia that the proposals of Final Accord seem to be a copy and paste of the agreement signed by the URNG.  They are not just similar in name but in content.  Point 34 (a) of the Accord in Guatemala proposed to:

Establish a land trust fund within a broad-based banking institution to provide credit and to promote savings, preferably among micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises. The land trust fund will have prime responsibility for the acquisition of land through Government funding, will promote the establishment of a transparent land market and will facilitate the updating of land development plans. The fund will give priority to the allocation of land to rural men and women who are organized for that purpose, taking into account economic and environmental sustainability requirements;(2)

And amongst the measures agreed to in order to foment access to land, were the following:

(i) Uncultivated State land and State-owned farms;
(ii) Illegally settled public land, especially in Petén and the FranjaTransversal del Norte, which the Government has pledged to recover through legal action;
(iii) Land acquired with the resources allocated by the Government to the National Land Fund and the National Peace Fund for that purpose;
(iv) Land purchased with grants from friendly Governments and international non-governmental organizations;
(v) Land purchased with loans secured from international financing agencies;
(vi) Undeveloped land expropriated under article 40 of the Constitution;(3)

And to round off with point X) miscellaneous donations.  It is obvious to anyone who has read the Final Accord in Colombia that they two accords are very similar.  Although it is worth pointing out that it is equally obvious that not all those organisations and politicians that support the Colombian peace process so much have actually read the Accord, as was seen with a recent letter regarding a draft bill, where they committed monumental mistakes that show that various left wing congress people have not read it.(4)  However, despite the lack of reading on the part of our congress people, the agreements are similar and deal with similar issues with similar proposals.  If they haven’t read the Colombian one, it is unlikely that the congress people are going to read the Guatemalan agreement, but I am honest, believe me and save yourself the effort.  But your lack of reading does not change the reality of the country.

As regards landownership, following the armed conflict and the signing of the Peace Accords (December 1996) no structural changes were made.  Guatemala continued to be a country of a small number of large landowners where 3% of them usufruct more than 60% of properties.  If we traced this data on a virtual map, we would find that 3% of Guatemalans are the owners of the entire arable surface of at least 13 of the 22 departments in the country.(5)

It is not for nothing that when the process with the FARC started the NGOs invited various personalities from Guatemala to speak about the peace process there.  They didn’t tell us what the current reality was, they didn’t speak of the constant murders of social leaders nor did they say what the current state of play with the agrarian question was.  Here we propose to take a brief look at the agrarian situation in Guatemala today and the lessens for Colombia in the post-accord period.  To what extent did the Accord achieve an agrarian reform? And what are they current dynamics of the Guatemalan countryside?

Land Use

The first point to take note of is the dramatic change in land use since 1996.  The area under permanent crops has almost doubled, just like De Roux proposes for Colombia.  In 1996 in Guatemala there were 549,000 hectares under permanent crops and in 2014, 1,061,000 of total agricultural surface of 3,793,800 hectares down from the agricultural surface area of 1996 which stood at 4,512,000 hectares.  The expansion of cash crop monocultures played a role in that.

In 1996, there were 15,000 hectares of African palm in Guatemala, and after the Accord that slowly increased to reach the figure of 45,000 hectares in 2006.  From that year on it began to expand rapidly through the country.

Likewise sugar cane experienced an increase from 178,580 to 263,830 hectares in the same time frame.  Agricultural production also changed regarding yields.  In 1996 240,000 tonnes of oil palm fruit were produced and in 2013, that figure reached 402,000 tonnes.  Banana production also underwent a dramatic rise, more than tripling the production levels of 1996.  In the same period the importation of basic staple products such as wheat and corn increased dramatically.  In 1996, the country imported 216,852 tonnes of corn and in 2013, 689,013 tonnes and 354,069 tonnes of wheat in 1996 and 462,759 tonnes in 2013.  These are figures which have a real impact, they are not simply part of a discourse on food sovereignty.  Whilst the prevalence of undernourishment is at the same level as 1996, the absolute number of undernourished people has increased from 1.5 million to 2.5 million people, reflecting an increase in the size of the population that Guatemala has not been able to feed properly.(6)

The land that was planted with palm and sugar cane was peasant land. It is not simply just a case of a change in the use of the soil, but also of the owners of the land.

Whilst the land area given over to cane is double that of palm, the sugar cane has been expanding, particularly in the lands of the South Coast (Pacific), that were seized for export plantations during the second historic milestone in the theft of indigenous and peasant land from 1850 onwards.

However, 58% of the land suitable for palm and 78% of that under palm in 2010 in agricultural colonisation and peasant development territories…(7)

Whilst it is true that sugar production is not new, there have been expansions towards indigenous and peasant lands and the sugar association has tried to underestimate the amount of land planted with sugar cane.  But social organisations have stated that sugar cane occupies 9.6% of planted lands in the country, 4.5 times the 2.15% reported by the sugar barons.(8)  Palm, for its part increased to 146,563 hectares by 2014, according to the figures from the business association.

The also introduced the same associative model promoted in Colombia by nefarious personalities such as the priest De Roux and palm companies such as Indupalma, which is now an integral part of the Final Accord.(9)  In other words, they convinced or intimidated peasants into covering the costs of the companies in what is known in Guatemala as Contract Agriculture,(10) and Productive Alliances, Strategic Alliances or Integrated Peasant Farm in Colombia.  The names of this model change from one country to another, from one time to another and depend in part on the national or international entity financing the projects, but the result is the same.

For capitalism, who owns the land is not always important, but rather the use it is put to and the final destiny of the produce is what is important.  Although the law on associative practices of peasant companies in Guatemala is from the 1980s, it got a real boost from the peace process.

There are two strategies on territorialisation displayed by the state that stand out in the recent historic context that have contributed – directly and indirectly-, to identifying, registering and dividing up of the national territory with a view to awarding under exclusive private property and/or usufructuary rights.

On the one hand, the dichotomy of the liberal agrarian policy and the subsequent military regimes (for exporters and their plantations/for peasant reproduction and the work force on the plantations), and leaving behind the (agricultural) legal, financial and productive protection of the state, applying the tabula rasa of the Market Assisted Agrarian Reform (MAAR) subjecting, as was done in the beginning of the liberal period, all claimants for land to “free competition” in the market place, regardless of their financial capabilities or political clout.

Under the guidance and partial financing of the World Bank, the Guatemalan Land Trust (FONTIERRAS) was set up with the aim of turning the landless rural population, or those with land but no title deeds, into “private property owners” by: i) awarding loans to landless rural groups or those with insufficient land, to buy land on the market; and ii) give official title deeds to all those who held land (See Decree 24-99, Land Trust Law).(11)

All of these factors are currently in play in Colombia and are included in the Final Accord, such as the land trust, title deeds and also loans for a market assisted agrarian reform, as can be seen in Point 1.1.2. “Special loans for purchasing: a new line of special credit with long term subsidies for the purchase of land will be opened.”  This change towards a market orientated agrarian reform, agreed to and accepted by the FARC and the unarmed left will not solve the agrarian question in Colombia, just as it didn’t do it in Guatemala.  Colombia already experimented with a market assisted agrarian reform and it didn’t work, and won’t work now.

There is a lack of precise data on the current situation in Guatemala, but in 2003, the last year for which data on the Gini Coefficient for land distribution exists, the country had a Gini of 0,84, the highest rate in Central America.(12)

Although the agricultural dynamics in Guatemala are neither new for the country or the world, they do take place in the context of a supposed post-conflict and a peace agreement, which as is the case with the Final Accord signed with the FARC, promised to solve the agrarian problem, or that is what they fans of the process claimed.

The production of African Palm in Guatemala and the Central American region began in the context of the previous oil crisis (or capitalist hyperaccumulation) of the first half of the 1970s.  The [palm] oil production flourished and grew in the country up to it joining the WTO (in 1995), which produced the conditions for liberalising its importation.  It was after 2000 that the crop was reactivated and its surface area grew exponentially… in response to the rise in international prices for crude palm oil encouraged by the increasing demand from the food and cosmetics industry and especially the agro-energy industry.(13)

In other words, the industry fell into decline before the Peace Accord and its recovery after 2000 is due to international factors, (as is the case with Colombia) but also the new dynamics of the country, both regarding the war and agriculture.  Amongst the international factors are the increase in demand for palm oil in various sectors of the economy, plastics, chemicals etc and although we shouldn’t exaggerate the importance of biofuels, they are a significant factor, where the same old imperial powers come into play, the USA and the EU as well as the new champion of biofuels and loyal minor partner of imperialism, Brazil under the PT.

The Framework Agreement signed in March 2007 between Brazil and the USA, with the aim of “cooperating in the development and promotion of biofuels” as well as the strategic alliance with the EU on cooperation on renewable energy, particularly biofuels, signed in July of the same year is the backdrop to the new international political economy of the agrofuels with concrete implications for Central America.(14)

Brazil, under the supposedly progressive government of Lula began a campaign to expand their energy based influence throughout Latin America, even installing biofuel plants in Haiti and Guatemala, amongst other countries and thus avoiding paying taxes on its exports to Europe.  Brazilian biofuels pay customs duties and those of Guatemala and Haiti do not.  Europe unlike the USA imports most of its biofuels.  In Guatemala we find all of the factors in play in Colombia, large scale projects by multinationals from the agricultural sector, biofuel projects, an agreement that promises to resolve the agrarian question (despite the actual content of the agreement), a defeated guerrilla army and rotten oligarchy entrenched in political and economic power.

The Final Accord signed by the FARC and the Colombian government is very similar to the Guatemalan agreement, it offers similar guarantees to the peasants and the indigenous, i.e. it offers no real guarantee, but rather a signed declaration that will be a dead letter once the ratification ceremonies are over.  Colombia just like Guatemala is subject to the same external pressures, from the USA and the EU.  Unlike Guatemala, Colombia has a long history of implementing large-scale agro-industrial projects in the name of peace and experimenting with various “innovative” models for exploiting the peasants, such as the social component of Plan Colombia, the EU’s Peace Laboratories etc.  It is no novice when it comes to peace, it does not have to implement very new policies, but rather it has to refine a little, some of the already established policies that have been endorsed by the Final Accord, such as agro-industry and scale production, which are explicitly mentioned in the Principles of the Accord (page 12).  Guatemala is a clear beacon of where we are going; a counter-agrarian reform and radical change in the use of the land.

The reality of Guatemala is that despite the distribution of some land by the Land Trust to peasants and indigenous people, there was a counter-agrarian reform which continues its advance today at gunpoint.  Not only has the oligarchy’s dominance and that of international capital been strengthened, they continue to use the same methodology; violence.

When the peace process fans invited the pals from other parts to conferences on peace, they did not talk of the real problems of Guatemala.  The peace process fans are real fans, they have a blind loyalty to their team and they go to the stadium to shout hurrah. Even when their team is losing 5-0 they do not lose faith.  And when they lose, they blame anything other than the team, the weather, the pitch, the other teams fans, anything other than reality.  They never question what they are doing.  Those who shouted victory in Oslo, when the process with the FARC began continue to shout victory or blame everyone else.

The social organisations are faced with a wave of murders and the state has already murdered the first demobilised members of the FARC and also the son of one of them.  This violence was foreseeable, but the fans denied it would come to pass.  Now we can state without fear of mistake that as a result of the peace process there will be a counter-agrarian reform in Colombia just like there was in Guatemala.  That is one of the lessons of Guatemala.  The fans can deny it, or accept that it is so and decide to struggle against it and that means discarding the Final Accord as a reference point for transforming the countryside.  History will not forgive them nor will the uprooted peasants.


(1)  Agreement on Social and Economic Aspects and Agrarian Situation, concluded on 6 May 1996 between the Presidential Peace Commission of the Government of Guatemala and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca Paragraph 27 Appendix to UN General Assembly Document 6th of June 1996 A/50/956

(2) Ibíd., Párrafo 34 (A)

(3) Ibíd., Párrafo 34 (C)

(4) ImplementingThePeaceAccordADraftBill.html 

(5) Cabanas, A (2012) La paz, ese paréntesis (1996-2011): Revisión crítica del proceso de paz en Guatemala, Memorial de Guatemala, Guatemala p. 108

(6) Figures on agricultural production, nutrition etc, are taken from the web page of the FAO, except where otherwise stated.

(7) Alonso-Fradejas, A. et al. (2011)Plantaciones agro-industriales, dominación y despojo indígena-campesino en la Guatemala del siglo XXI, CONGCOOP y IDEAR, Guatemala. P. 34

(8) Winkler, K (2013) La Territorialidad Tz’Utujil, frente a la expansión de la caña de azúcar, Guatemala, Magna Terra Editores S.A. p. 34

(9) See Final Accord Point

(10) Alonso-Fradejas, A. et al. (2011) Op. Cit. pp 35 & 36.

(11) Ibíd., p. 41

(12) Guereña, A. (2016) Desterrados: Tierra, Poder Y Desigualdad En América Latina, Oxfam, Reino Unido. P.22

(13) Alonso Fradejas, A. et al (2008) Combustibles para un nuevo ciclo de acumulación y dominio en Guatemala, Guatemala, CONGCOOP y IDEAR, p.33

(14) Ibíd., p.46

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