Friday, February 08, 2019

The economic reality of migration

Guatamala's Q'eqchi' communities throughout eastern and northern Guatemala do not have enough land to survive from subsistence and market agriculture. The land in Q'eqchi' territory is largely in the hands of ranchers, large landowners and mining and palm companies. Families survive from subsistence agriculture, farming corn and other staples on small patches of land and make about $90 every six months from selling the part of the corn harvest left over after feeding the family. 

Land inequality and conflicts, low wages on plantations, food insecurity and displacement have fueled migration from Guatemalan farming communities and indigenous villages. The expansion of export crop plantations has spurred US-bound migration

Martin Tut, a local Community Development Council representative, told Al Jazeera.

"Everything is expensive here and we do not receive anything for our corn," said Tut, explaining that farmers in San Antonio Secortez make less than $10 per 100-pound (45kg) sack of corn. We are forced to work in palm." 
 Aside from subsistence farming, it is the only source of work for San Antonio Secortez residents. "The work was more intense every day and we were paid very little," Carlos told Al Jazeera. 

They were paid 65 quetzales ($8.50) for a 12-hour workday, less than the minimum wage, but they also had to pay for lunch, leaving them with even less income. 
Most subsistence and small-scale farmers do not own the land, instead the lease plots of state and private lands to farm. In 2005, when palm and sugar cane companies moved in to take over land rights for plantations, raising lease rates and draining water sources used by those small farmers who still had access to land.
"People have been displaced. Most of them have had to migrate," said 
Abelino Mejia, a community leader from Champerico and
a member of the National Network for the Defense of Food Sovereignty in Guatemala. "They migrate to other countries like Mexico and the United States because here in Guatemala there are really no opportunities."  With the wages failing to nourish their families and growing plantations harming their farms, small-scale farmers have banded together to fight for access to land and water. "The people have been alone in a struggle, clamouring for our rights to be respected, for water, for a means of living, and our voices are not heard," said Mejia. "But we understand that this is an economic model being imposed on us and that state institutions are at the service of industry."

Plantations of oil palm are taking over large swaths of southwestern and northeastern Guatemala. The oil extracted from the palm fruits is used for biofuel and in all kinds of household products, from ice cream and instant noodles to lipstick and detergents. Land, labour and environmental conflicts around oil palm plantations worldwide have sparked consumer campaigns to push companies to remove palm oil from their products' ingredients. Indonesia and Malaysia dominate the global palm oil industry, together producing more than 80 percent of the world's total, but production in Latin America has more than doubled since 2000. Colombia is the fourth-largest palm oil producing country in the world, and despite their small size, Honduras and Guatemala are still among the top five top producers in the western hemisphere.

The palm industry in Guatemala represents 1.2 percent of the country's gross domestic product and is largely comprised of Guatemalan companies supplying US and multinational corporations. The expansion of oil palm plantations has been accompanied by a host of problems around Guatemala. The rapid expansion there has intensified and sparked land conflicts, water shortages and labour disputes, according to a 2015 study about land tenure and palm commissioned by Congcoop, a network of non-governmental organisations.
The unequal land distribution, displacement and structural racism that were among the root causes of armed conflict still remain. Long-standing land conflicts and the expansion of export crop plantations have continued unabated under the administration of President Jimmy Morales, which has done little to address indigenous concerns. Q'eqchi' families are now increasingly joining the US-bound exodus of Guatemalans. The overwhelming majority of them have fled quietly, not with the highly visible caravan groups of predominantly Honduran migrants and refugees over the past three months. Last year, more than 70,000 Guatemalans were apprehended either at the US border or in Mexico.

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