Thursday, November 6, 2014

Poverty and Agriculture in Guatemala

By: Amanda DePerro
Produced & Edited By: Andrew Davis
In Guatemala, poverty and agriculture are a way of life. Throughout Guatemalan history, farmers have been marginalized to make room for big-name foreign corporations like the United Fruit Company. 
The effects are obvious today, as 70 percent of Guatemala’s poor population is made up of farmers, according to Kristin Lacy, CFO and coordinator of moderation and evaluation for Semilla Nueva, an organization dedicated to empowering farmers in Guatemala. To understand the plight of modern farmers in Guatemala, one must understand their history.
Semilla Nueva staff members in Guatemala city during a meeting
about the production, improvement and distribution of maize. © Semilla Nueva
A Troubled Past
Jacobo Árbenz, president of Guatemala from 1951 to 1954, was devoted to the agricultural state of Guatemala. However, his vision got in the way of the sprawling United Fruit Company, which was operating in many areas around Central America at the time, and was very profitable to the United States. The Central Intelligence Agency supported a coup d’état in Guatemala, and Árbenz was overthrown as threats of civil war emerged.
Small farmers are still feeling the consequences of that coup, as major companies are purchasing land that small farmers can no longer afford nor manage.
“The major problems with farmers and poverty is that land rights is a huge issue,” said Lacy. “Huge industries are buying a lot of land. Farmers don’t have any other option, their only asset they have is their land, so they have to sell it.”
The decline of private farmers has led many Guatemalans to turn away from agriculture in favor of more technological occupations.
“People who were farmers don’t want to be farmers anymore, they want to be tech guys. They think being a farmer is, like, being a poor person,” said Alexander Kronick, director of Caoba Farms, an organic farm in Antigua that produces food for Guatemala and connects nongovernment organizations, NGOs, with similar goals to one another.
Kronick contends that population growth in Guatemala has led to widespread pollution, which has led the population to become more aware of their environment.
Native farmers are being overrun by these corporations because of a lack of money, education and technology. They are unable to compete with massive businesses that can produce on a large scale.
“Most of smallholders’ agricultural activities are still traditional and manual, while continuing to use high amounts of chemicals,” said Joaquin Lozano, sub-regional coordinator and CPM of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Guatemala. “Agriculture is becoming less profitable for them, as they devote high resources to invest in a high-risk activity, more and more affected by climate change and natural disasters.”
Monsanto Law
Amidst the excitement of this year’s World Cup, Guatemalans were blindsided by the passage of a law that would potentially ruin smallholder farmers. The Law for the Protection of Plant Varieties, dubbed the “Monsanto Law,” would require the purchae of patents of certain seed varieties, patents that many small farmers in Guatemala could not afford.
“When people found out about it, the whole country kind of went berserk,” said Lacy. “Communities got together and put up roadblocks—they just stand in the highway and shut it down, which is pretty powerful.”
The law was rejected after the public outcry, but had the law succeeded in slipping past Guatemalans during the World Cup, it could have greatly damaged the agriculturally dependent country.
“It is not about being against GMO (genetically modified organisms) or not, it’s about seeking what is best for the countrymen,” said Juan Diego Chang, a physicist living in Guatemala City. “Many, many country people live from their own [sic] agriculture.”
Worms, distributed throughout the farm, inhibit healthy plant
growth at farms supported by Semilla Nueva. © Semilla Nueva 
The law would have hurt Caoba Farms, a large and successful farm dedicated to sustainability and the future of agriculture in Guatemala.
“In the long run it would make it more difficult to—there’s all sorts of new paperwork and registration to make the seeds more expensive, and it makes it harder for small farmers to come out,” said Kronick. “It’s just a way to control who can and can’t produce seeds. Basically, it’d make it more complicated and harder for the small agriculture guy to produce.”
Sustainable Farming
Many organizations, like Semilla Nueva and Caoba Farms, strive toward sustainability and the empowerment of small farmers through education and technological development. Since smallholder farmers don’t have access to resources including roads, it is difficult to compete with corporate-owned farms. This is amplified by the fact that many Guatemalan citizens are unable to read or write.
For Kronick, education is the key to the success of small farmers. Caoba Farms works with schools to teach agricultural education, and hopes to house students at the farm in the future.
“We’ll hopefully have a school of farming. We haven’t really gotten to that point yet,” said Kronick. “We’ll bring some people to the farm, house them, give them Spanish lessons. There are some people who have worked with us who don’t know how to read or write.”
Semilla Nueva uses a program named Farmer to Farmer to distribute technology that it tested on its own experimental farms. The technology can then be spread from farmer to farmer.
“We don’t want to hear that NGOs have to be here forever,” said Lacy. “Their money has flooded into the country, but it’s not really changing anything. So we’re really passionate about engaging with the state that can help carry out this agricultural development.”
According to Kronick, organic is the current trend. He hopes more people will embrace the possibilities that agriculture in Guatemala can offer.
“A lot of people are opening their eyes, and you can show them a lot of things,” he said. “Everything is a cycle—that’s what the Mayans said. It’s not a beginning, it’s not an end.”
Coaba Farms is nestled in the picturesque landscape of Antigua,
Guatemala. © Caoba Farms

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