Out of land and nowhere to go: occupying land in Cahabon, Guatemala

Contributor: Sam Jones

Editor’s Note: Writing in the Guardian [The Great Imposters – August 6th, 2012], George Monbiot warned of the dangers of extending the market to encompass nature. In his article, he quoted Jean Jaques Rousseau’s 1754 work ‘What is the origin of Inequality Among Men…’. Rousseau wrote that; “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘this is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’. For the people of Guatemala, access to land has become an ongoing battle, for without it resilience is impossible, as Sam Jones explains…

The lack of land in Guatemala

The facts are very simple; Guatemala suffers from extreme inequality of distribution of land.  56.59% of the land area is in hands of just 1.86% of the population, while 21.86% is shared between 92.06% of the population [i]. The majority of land that is privately owned is exploited by large private industries such as mining companies, agro-fuels, fruit plantations, logging or sometimes is not used at all. Meanwhile, large parts of the population are left without access to sufficient land to provide food security.

This inequality in land distribution has contributed to high levels of malnutrition and land conflicts. It is estimated that currently in Guatemala there are 1,000 land disputes affecting more than 20,000 families [ii]. There appears to be as much fighting over land as farming it, which is part of the reason why 6,147 communities have high levels of malnutrition [iii].

In order to gain access to land, some communities decide to take the legal option that the state offers through mortgages granted by the National Land Fund (Fondo de Tierras). However, the National Land Fund has two hefty impairments: it has neither sufficient funds nor can it offer land. This leaves people trying to follow the sole legal recourse for land acquisition facing an impenetrable impasse [iv].

Faced with such a challenge when applying for land to the state, rural communities have begun to occupy private terrains. Such a case exists in Cahabon, in Alta Verapaz in the north-east of Guatemala. Here on the 20th of October in 2011, 700 indigenous families of qeqchi origin began to occupy a plantation called Secanquim that belongs to the logging company InterForest S.A. [v].

Santa Maria Cahabon

Cahabon, like much of Guatemala, suffers from a high percentage of land disputes. At the moment it is estimated that 50% of the rural population who work small plots of land are waiting to be recognized as legitimate owners [vi].

The lack of clarity in land ownership can be traced to the production of coffee that has existed in all of Alta Verapaz since early 1900. At that time German immigrants arriving in Guatemala bought up large expanses of land to turn over to coffee production. As well as buying the land, the deals almost always included the buying and selling of the workers who lived on the land. During the Second World War, the majority of the German population was expelled from the country due to the alliance between Guatemala and the United States. This meant that many of the plantations were left without legal owners. Those who were living on the land were allowed to live there and work it as if it was their own [vii].

Today the government – instead of initiating a process of distributing the land to those who have worked it for more than a century – has allowed multinational companies to establish mega-projects. These companies often track down the previous legal owners of the land, who no longer live in the country, and make them attractive offers, especially as the coffee price has fallen [viii].

Six mining licenses for copper and nickel currently exist, almost covering the entire county of Cahabon [ix]. Similarly, a hydroelectric plant has been constructed on the main river that passes through the area and there are plans to build three more [x]. Yet more land has been turned over to logging firms such as Interforest S.A.

Interforest S.A. vs 20 de Octubre

The legal owners of over 9000 hectares of land spanning states of Alta Verapaz, Izabal and Santa Rosa, is Interforest S.A., a logging company that exports wood to Japan, that is later turned into paper and low-cost furniture [xi]. Occupying just a tiny fraction of this land are 700 indigenous families. They have lived on the terrain for nearly a year; naming the community ‘20 de Octubre’, to commemorate the day they arrived and occupied the land. They now are preparing to harvest their crops of corn and beans.

Despite the impacts on the livelihoods of the indigenous population and the rural poor, the management of the Secanquim plantation, owned by Interforest S.A., has been certified by the Rainforest Alliance as a company that can receive carbon credits due to its efforts in reducing carbon dioxide [xii]. Furthermore, as the company is engaged in carbon reduction it is exempt from paying tax to the state in accordance with the law for incentives for the production of renewable energy passed in Guatemala in 2003 [xiii]. That is to say that Inteforest S.A. is not only managing a large plantation in an area where land is extremely scarce for the rural population, it is also paying nothing to the state and keeping all the profits from a UN-run project to dubiously lower CO2 emissions.

According to the Convention 169 proposed by the International Labor Organization and signed by the Guatemalan government, the indigenous communities have the right to decide how the land that they have cared for and worked on is used. There has been no community consultation in Cahabon where the communities have voiced their opinion about the entrance of mining, hydroelectric or logging companies.

For the people of rural Guatemala their grievance is simple, and their motivation plain:

We don’t understand why the government gives big companies so much land to plant trees when we have nothing. We can’t eat wood, we need to feed our families. That is why we must occupy this land.” [xiv]

Sam Jones currently lives in Guatemala and works closely with several rural workers’ associations in the country.


[i]               Buscando otros caminos para la Defensa y Recuperacion del Territorio, CCDA,  April 2011.

[ii]              Presentacion CCDA, 02/12/2011.

[iii]             Presentacion CCDA, 02/12/2011.

[iv]             Conflictividad Agraria en las Verapaces, Una Mirada Campesina, UVOC, January 2006.

[v]              Comunicado UVOC, 21/10/2011.

[vi]             Universidad del San Carlos, Diagnositco Socio Economico, Potencialidades Productivas y Propuestas de Inversion. 2006.

[vii]            Conflictividad Agraria en las Verapaces, Una Mirada Campesina, UVOC, January 2006.

[viii]           Incidencia Cultural, Espiritual y Material del Proyecto Hidroelectrico Chulac y Exploracion Minera, Municpio de Cahabon, Departamento de Alta Verapaz. CONAVIGUA. January 2005.

[ix]            El Observador No.7. Julio 2007.

[x]              El Comunitario 29/10/2010.

[xi]             Web page InterForest. http://www.interforest.com.gt/

[xii]            Web page InterForest. http://www.interforest.com.gt/


[xiv]          Interviews with members of 20 de Octubre, 31/07/2012

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