Journalists and bloggers, including myself, have been focusing their Central American news coverage on the Honduran political crisis. But, over the last month, it’s become clear that another crisis is unfolding just next door in Guatemala. Drought has hit the rural areas, and hundreds of people have already died in a country plagued by chronic malnutrition. Initially, this crisis hit Guatemala’s “dry corridor,” but it has now affected at least six other departments in the western part of the country, where the concentration of indigenous people is higher.
President Álvaro Colom has declared the crisis a “public calamity,” and, if Congress approves this classification, it will hasten the flow of international aid and speed up domestic budget allocations. No doubt, we must all hope that the government and the international community can act swiftly to prevent this crisis from getting further out of control. But we must also hope that the Guatemalan government will see this as a symptom of deeper problems—namely, that land tenure remains vastly unequal, and the country’s ability to feed itself has declined in recent years.
Recent reports have made note of Guatemala’s chronic malnutrition—49 percent of children and 60 percent of indigenous children under five years old are malnourished. But the missing link is the connection with inequality in land tenure and food insecurity. Land has been the most contentious issue in Guatemala since the colonial period, and dispossession and forced labor for coffee plantations were a pervasive fact of life for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Land remained a central issue in the civil war and the peace accords signed in 1996, which included pledges to provide land to impoverished—and especially indigenous—peasants.
Ten years after the referendum to cement the peace accords—which would have further enshrined indigenous rights and advanced some land redistribution, though not full-fledged land reform—failed, progress has been slow. And, while many large coffee plantations are now gone, land remains a major source of conflict in rural areas. Increasingly, non-traditional agricultural exports, including palm oil and sugar cane for biofuels, have come to dominate Guatemala’s agricultural landscape. In coffee production areas like the central department of Alta Verapáz, the shift away from coffee has produced increased land occupations as people find their livelihoods compromised—they now have less access to land and stable employment. All of these recent shifts in production have also reduced Guatemala’s production of basic foodstuffs, leaving hundreds of thousands of its citizens more vulnerable to shocks like the current drought.
Years ago, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen taught the world that droughts do not necessarily kill people. Though food supply is important, people die in droughts because they lack entitlements—i.e., the resources necessary to purchase food. President Colom implicitly recognized this when he acknowledged that the deaths resulted from poor people’s inability to purchase food. Now, the government must engage with Guatemala’s notoriously fragmented Congress to address these deeper issues.
Already, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, has noted the need to increase taxes, an issue on which Guatemala long defied the international community before barely reaching the low bar set by the peace accords. In a country with one of the region’s lowest tax rates and highest inequality, government spending on anti-poverty measures, which include rural development and efforts to combat hunger, remains low. To outside observers like Schutter, progressive taxation is undoubtedly necessary to foster social spending and provide for the long-neglected majority of Guatemalan society. Moreover, progressive taxation must be coupled with a greater push for land redistribution so that poor people in rural areas can cultivate their crops and not rely on aid forever. But those acquainted with Guatemalan politics know that any calls for tax increases and increased land redistribution faces stiff odds in the Congress.
Schutter has also called for the government to push for increased production of food for domestic consumption to reduce subsequent vulnerability. This, too, will be difficult, given the Guatemalan government’s support for non-traditional export production over the past several years. It would thus be naïve to think that the government will accept Schutter’s recommendations with open arms. But if Colóm fails to start tackling these problems in what remains of his term, the tragic reality is that more Guatemalan citizens will likely die of hunger.
This is a humanitarian problem in the short term, but a long-term political challenge. For too long, Guatemala has been unable to address the gross inequalities that plague its society. One can only hope that the current crisis will be addressed quickly, and that it will provide an impetus for addressing food insecurity and the vast inequalities that continue to plague Guatemalan society. If progress is not made, hunger will persist, and a powder keg of potential unrest will remain in Guatemala’s rural areas for the foreseeable future.
Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org conducting research in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.