Our Relationship to the Land

Although the travel seminar was filled with a wide variety of rich, educational experiences, something I have been thinking about in particular is the nature of one’s relationship to the land. While we were in Guatemala, we visited two agricultural communities called La Florida and Santa Anita, both of which had the rights to their land. These two communities emphasized the ways in which owning their land gave them a better, more sustainable, and dignified life. Yet, we also visited a family who worked on an ejido (communally shared agricultural land) in San Caralampio, Mexico, who had lost hope in their livelihood, expressing the difficulties of competing in a global, neoliberal system. At first I had trouble reconciling why these communities had such different perspectives even though all of them owned their land and were similarly facing neoliberal pressures, yet I later on realized how strongly their different histories and contexts had changed their outlooks. 

After spending most of our time in Xela, a busy and vibrant city, we were grateful to be in La Florida, a peaceful and beautiful finca that has a rich and inspiring story. On the first day we arrived in La Florida, we spoke with Esteban about the history and strength of the community. The story of La Florida goes back to the Guatemalan Civil War, in which over one million Guatemalans were displaced. In response to this injustice, a group of campesinos formed SIDECO, a labor union that fought to better the lives of campesinos and against the violation of people’s rights. After many years of organizing, SIDECO became interested in La Florida, an abandoned 47-acre finca. In 2002, more than 100 members occupied the finca, yet many families ended up abandoning the mission in fear of violence and unemployment, leaving only 22 families to put the finca back together. Although the families faced threats of violence, they remained on the land, recognizing the power of their vision and refusing to recede to a life of economic and political insecurity. In order to negotiate the terms to the land, with the help of organizations, lawyers, and financial advisers, they went and sat through long tedious meetings, and ultimately were able to lower the price of the land to 6.5 million quetzals, almost halving the original cost. Although the members of La Florida are still working to build their community and struggling to bring in income, they have found innovative ways to enhance their economy, using ecotourism and beginning to produce bananas and coca plants. The power and pride that came with building this community and fighting for their rights was not only evident in Esteban’s talk, but it was also reflected in our experiences eating with families, working, and exploring.   

Shortly after our stay in La Florida, we visited a similar community in Santa Anita, an organic banana and coffee growing campesino made up of ex-guerillas from the Civil War. Both from speaking with members from the community and watching the moving documentary “Voice of A Mountain,” we learned about how the community’s values from the war have impacted their vision for Santa Anita, hoping to build a more equal and sustainable society. One of the main differences between Santa Anita and La Florida was that the community didn’t have the same organizing force and was unable to negotiate the price of the land, but rather had to take out extensive loans from the Fondo de Tierras to purchase the land. Although their work and organization has provided them with pride, dignity, and a better life, working to develop the community and maintain indigenous roots, they are also still struggling to make ends meet and pay off the debt. One of the main messages communicated in the movie was the members desire to build better educational systems so that their children would no longer have to work off the land and live off of low-agricultural wages, but could go to school and enter the professional world, making a better life for themselves.  

Although we were warmly welcomed in San Carlampio, the stories we heard were quite devastating. After having a nice lunch all together, the farmers told us of how their lives on the ejido have changed, revealing the ways in which the ejido system is now an empty shell of what it once was. Not only is it expensive now to live as a campesino with the current price of corn, but also the farmers’ crops were dying due to a plague. They explained that with the escalating costs of fertilizer, pesticides, and seeds, which are not indigenous to the land, they are having trouble sustaining this lifestyle, yet without using these products they would not have a chance at keeping up with global competition. They lamented that only 10 to 15% of profits stay for the family. The farmers are now reliant on selling corn to El Salvador on the black market, yet coyotes have become in charge of determining prices, making it even more difficult to live. As their young 2-year-old granddaughter walked around, carefree and full of energy, they sadly said that she would have a hard life and that they are worried for her future, having lost all hope in reviving the ejido system. 

Although on a surface level it appears as though these three campesinos are in similar situations, their different histories and contexts have significantly affected their life chances as well as their optimism. I realized on further reflection that the pride and strength behind La Florida is not solely from owning their land and controlling their working conditions, but is due to their triumph; fighting for and winning the land at a time in which privatization and international corporations are flourishing is a great success. La Florida’s communal and progressive finca is a new and growing project that is providing more work opportunities in resistance to these neoliberal forces. Although Santa Anita similarly has overcome great hardships, the debt of purchasing the land is still heavily weighing down on them. I was confused when in “Voice of a Mountain” the community expressed that they want to move away from farming and into the professional realm while the community in La Florida had presented their livelihood as a vision for the future. Because farmers in Santa Anita are still struggling to get by, they no longer see their agricultural lifestyle as sustainable, but want to provide more opportunities for their children so they can escape the living conditions of the campesino.

San Carlampio on the other hand has a very different history from these other two campesinos. Working on an ejido is not a new model of resistance, but is rooted in the past; the ejido system was established in the 1930’s. This family had grown up on the ejido when it was in its prime and has seen it slowly erode with changing technology, the implementation of outside seeds, and the growing power of neoliberalism. Although all the campesinos were trying to succeed within the neoliberal, global market, hurt by policies such as NAFTA and CAFTA, Mexico’s corn industry in particular, which the campesino specialized in, was completely destroyed by NAFTA in which the U.S., due to agricultural subsidies, came to dominate the market; Guatemala though specializes in coffee as one of its main exports and doesn’t face U.S. competition. La Florida and Santa Anita are not only producing a specialized product, but also are tapping into markets of ethical consumers, providing organic and fair trade coffee, which provides them with a lucrative advantage. The ejidos in Mexico on the other hand were significantly damaged by the Green Revolution in the 1940’s, which forced farmers to use U.S. seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, destroying their ability to produce organic materials. The Green Revolution significantly impacted the face of agriculture in Mexico, making it expensive to keep up these practices while also making it difficult to compete without them. Although workers on the ejido still own their land and live communally, as neoliberalism and privatization have become more powerful in Mexico over the past 70 years, their way of life has become more and more difficult to sustain. 

La Florida, Santa Anita, and San Carlampio may have vastly different experiences and visions for the future, but I am still in awe of these three communities’ power and strength in owning their own land, dictating their working conditions, living communally, and resisting the power of neoliberalism.     

-Claire Molholm


One Comment on “Our Relationship to the Land”

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