Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Letter From Latin America

Emma Eastwood in Guatemala City

Squall 10, Summer 1995, pg. 47.

As a London squatter in exile here in Guatemala, I’m working as a human rights monitor accompanying grass-roots activists who have been subjected to death threats, kidnapping, torture and all manner of repression Latin American stylee.

Like so many other countries in this corner of the world, lack of land is probably the most pressing problem. Almost 70 per cent of a mainly indigenous population live in rural areas and their culture revolves around the spiritual and nurturing concept of Mother Earth. Families are forced to survive off of tiny and often barren bits of land, while a small but powerful elite of land owners hoard huge areas of fertile land to cultivate coffee, sugar, bananas and cotton, destined for export only. Their pockets are lined with riches reaped from the sweat of thousands of peasants forced to work on plantations for as little as 80 pence per day.

However, the situation has changed drastically over the last few months. Peasant and land rights movements are springing up like mushrooms nationwide. Peasants are saying nuffsenuff to the vestiges of colonialism in Guatemala and have been peacefully occupying plantations in conflictive zones on a national scale to demand agrarian reform. With a government that lacks the political will to confront the problem, remaining paralysed between the business and military forces of the country, the plantation owners have taken the law into their own hands. Amidst a climate of fear and tension there have been a number of violent and bloody evictions that have taken place over the last few weeks.

One night last week we received an emergency call from Rosario, a peasant leader working in the capital. She had received information from one of the groups’ activists out in a conflictive region on the south coast that a group of 200 armed peasants, bribed by the local landowner, had suddenly arrived at a local plantation and violently evicted a small group of peasants. They had peacefully occupied the land a few days earlier in an attempt to pressurize the landowner into conceding a little of the plantation for the local community.

Rosario had been informed that many people had been wounded during the eviction and were hiding out in a nearby community. Also a couple of children and the local priest who had arrived to try and mediate and calm the situation had disappeared. Given the tense and dangerous situation Rosario asked us to accompany her to the community - hoping that the presence of international observers armed with cameras and tape recorders would deter the landowner from other violent acts.

We arrived at the community in the middle of the night to find confusion, fear and anger amongst the wounded peasants. We listened to stories throughout the night as they recounted the nightmare scenes that had taken place earlier that day. As dawn broke, peasants who had been hiding out in the woods began to dribble into the community to try and decide a strategy for the future. The situation was desperate. Yet despite the forces weighed against them and the constant presence of the landowner’s heavies cruising by in their Range Rover, snapping photos, the peasants decided to retake the plantation. Literally they have no choice now but to continue in the struggle, without the land they and their families will starve, whilst the plantation owner’s kids grow fat munching on their McDeath burgers bought with the profits made from the coffee that appears on the shelves of your local Safeway.

The taking of the plantations, coupled with an increase in the number of squatter camps springing up in the capital due to lack of adequate housing, makes for a tense situation here in Guatemala. Just a few days ago 500 anti riot police “peacefully” evicted 70 peasants from another plantation down on the south coast. Who knows how the situation will turn out, but the peasants have sworn to continue with their NVDA until a just solution is found to end 500 years of colonial exploitation here in the Banana Republic. Some are willing to die before giving up the struggle. Twyford Down, Split, Weiderdam, San Isidiro, Guatemala; same old story, same old struggle, just different strategies.

Got to say it, SQUALL 9 is even better, like the new format. Always knew that the Criminal Injustice Act wouldn’t kill the spirit.