Perdidos en la selva : un estudio del proceso de re-arraigo y de desarrollo local de la Comunidad-Cooperativa Unión Maya Itzá, formada por campesinos guatemaltecos, antiguos refugiados, reasentados en el Departamento de El Petén, Guatemala

P. Van der Vaeren

Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


<p><strong>Lost in the forest</strong> : A study of the reintegration, re-rooting, and endogenous development process of the communal co-operative Unión Maya Itzá, formed by Guatemalan peasants, former refugees in Mexico, resettled in the Department of Petén, Guatemala.</p><h3>Lost in the Forest: the return of the refugees to the El Quetzal "finca"</h3><p>This book is about the process of re-rooting and socio-economic development of a group Guatemalan peasants refugees, who had fled the internal armed conflict. Today, this group forms a pioneering community and co-operative, the <em>Unión Maya Itzá</em> , settled in the El Quetzal "finca" (or estate), in the Department of Petén. Taking advantage of political changes occurred in Guatemala in the second half of the eighties, and the beginning of peace talks between the guerrilla and the government, the refugees, advised by Guatemalan political exiles linked to the insurgency, undertook negotiations with the Guatemalan government about the conditions under which organized groups of refugees could return to their home country. The negotiations were concluded in October 1992 with the agreements between the Permanent Commissions of the Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico (CC.PP.) and the Government, which set the political and juridical framework as well as the practical modalities for the return of organized groups of refugees, including guarantees that their human and constitutional rights would be upheld. The return of the refugees, conducted by the Permanent Commissions, was obviously a political move, of which the main objective was to keep seeking changes in Guatemala towards a more equitable and democratic society. It is in this context that on the 8th of April 1995, after almost 15 years in refugee camps in Mexico, a group of about 200 families settled down in the El Quetzal finca, to reconstruct their lives and promote the socio-economic development of their community.</p><p>Until the arrival of the returnees, the El Quetzal finca was almost totally covered with forest, although most of its fine wood had been plundered before. For a long time during the negotiation for the return, the government, through the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP), opposed the settlement of the returnees on the finca, a private property, arguing that it was located in a protected area. However, the government never offered any serious alternative. Almost two years of negotiations and political pressures were necessary for CONAP to give way, and for the government to grant the co-operative the revolving credit to acquire the finca.</p><p>In spite of the extensive preparation of the social and technical aspects of the return, the political side of the negotiation with the government remained dominant. The financial support required to prepare the settlement infrastructures could not be obtained, and the date of the return was fixed according to political objectives. Therefore, the families of the Unión Maya Itzá settled in the El Quetzal finca under inhumane conditions, which they had to bear for nearly a whole year, while they were constructing the village. Moreover, just a few days after their arrival, they were left to their own fate, lost in the forest, by the persons who had advised them. The difference between the objectives pursued by the political advisers and by the peasant refugees-returnees became evident: the advisers were seeking, among other things, a political victory over the government, in overcoming the obstacles raised by CONAP, and a demonstration, towards other " <em>vertientes</em> " ( <em>sections</em> ) of the Permanent Commissions, of their capacity of political mobilization; whereas the peasants, without underestimating the global political objective of their return, were seeking to acquire land where to settle and to build the development of their community.</p><p>In spite of the quick organization of social services health and education-, on the basis of the capabilities acquired and of the social organization set up while in Mexico, the first year was a time of very serious social and economic crisis, in particular of food shortage. In building the social organization of the community, the returnees had to establish rules of procedure governing relations between the different groups, professional and gender organizations, as well as between the individual families, on the basis of the model of community organization discussed in Mexico, while integrating a new structure, i.e. the co-operative. The leaders of the co-operative came to take up the leadership of the whole community. The new community maintained the relationship it had with various actors who were involved in the preparation of the return, and established new relationships with new external actors: governmental institutions, NGOs, traders, etc., each one with its own political position, projects and interests.</p><p>The political significance of the return of the refugees, which was occurring while the armed conflict was still going on, and the opportunities to negotiate projects for their benefit, made various external actors try and control the social and economic process of the community. In particular, three external actors struggled with each other to open action spaces for themselves within the community. One actor was related to the government, a second was linked to the (former) insurgency (URNG), and a third actor, politically independent, was promoting a development process controlled by the community itself. With time, the returnees came to decide themselves the kind of relationship they would have with each one of those external actors, in accordance with their political options, and with the benefit they could obtain.</p><p>In the beginning, in spite of the presence of community members with substantial capability of analysis and experience in leadership, the refugees experienced difficulties to change their attitude of dependence toward external actors and authorities, as they had been used to for years as refugees. They would have difficulties in reaching decisions or take action on matters which could be of vital importance. This is the main reason why, eight months after the return, agricultural production had not begun, which provoked a serious food and economic crisis, that could only be resolved with external help. However, the returnees were able successfully to mobilize internal and external resources to negotiate with the government the construction of the access road to the <em>finca</em> , which was of vital importance for the economic development of the community.</p><p>The experience of the Unión Maya Itzá clearly shows the elements and conditions required to make a process of local development possible. These are: a coherent internal social organization; access to an amount of capital which can be converted into money; the sustainable management of natural resources. All this, taking into account the social, political and economic context, and the capability of the community to take advantage of it. This case shows how, under given conditions, beginning with the opening of political spaces in societies in conflict, the reintegration of an up-rooted population can be achieved.</p><h3>A modest sociology, the campesino actor, socio-technical networks, and endogenous development</h3><p>This study is a retrospective account and an analysis of the process of preparation, return, reintegration, re-rooting, and development of the Unión Maya Itzá. During the two years of the preparation in Mexico and during the first three years of the return, I participated in this process, not as an observer, but as an actor involved with one of the NGOs which collaborated with the refugees in Mexico, and which continue collaborating with the returnees in Guatemala. However, the events accounted for in this study started long before I got involved with the refugees, and continued their course after I ceased to collaborate directly with them. Moreover, a certainly important proportion of events and aspects of this process escaped me. In trying to tell how things actually occurred, I observed retrospectively, I sorted out events, and related actors among themselves. However, the account remains incomplete, fragmented and imperfect. It is an exercise of modest sociology.</p><p>The people of whom this study is about do not form an homogeneous social group, they are actors who are capable, each one of them, to process information, elaborate strategies, and modify the state of things or the course of events, through the organization of social relations. They have the capability to exert their human agency. This study is about the repeated intents of realizing their <em>human agency</em> by those who form today the Unión Maya Itzá, under conditions of repeated ruptures and sometimes extreme constraints.</p><p>The <em>campesino</em> has been defined as a social actor who lives off small scale agriculture, with low external inputs. Usually, campesinos represent marginalized sectors of the societies in which they live, with limited access to land, natural resources, social services and infrastructures. Peasant agriculture is characterised by the constant production and reproduction of inputs in the productive process, and by low external inputs. Peasant agricultural activity offers prospects of socio-economic development in societies with low employment opportunities in other sectors of the economy. This statement is valid under the conditions that the peasants benefit from stable and favourable political, climatic and market conditions.</p><p>Agricultural production requires the farmer to be inserted in a network, through which he can mobilise resources and fulfil his objectives. Through this network, which has been defined as a <em>socio-technical network</em> , farmers interact with other social actors - other farmers, traders, etc.- and with non human entities - land, natural resources, etc.-, called <em>actants</em> , who assume their respective attribute according to their interaction. The socio-economic development process of a peasant community depends upon, among other things, the insertion of its members in a socio-technical network, through which flow resources, information, labour and products, so as to allow its member to satisfy their needs, gain access to social services, and initiate a process of accumulation of capital and goods. The <em>up-rooting</em> - <em>re-rooting</em> process is one of breaking up and reconstructing and renegotiating socio-technical networks.</p><p>The community, which is the circle par <em>excellence</em> for co-operation among campesinos, shows how the families relate with one another to organize their economy, trying to strike a balance between the desire of each individual to retain control over the decisions made and the necessity of collective agreements. This co-operation is a means through which those who co-operate can increase their capacity of action, their power of negotiation with other social actors, or share the results of experimentation and appropriate technology innovations, in a process of technological internalisation. The first co-operation objective, for those who today form the Unión Maya Itzá, was to obtain land where they could resettle themselves. Generally speaking, the possibilities of poverty eradication and socio-economic development in rural areas depend on an egalitarian distribution of land, with the elimination of the dominant rural social classes and the implementation of social and economic policies favourable to small farmers.</p><p>The process of agricultural production and of natural resources exploitation is one of <em>co-production</em> , which results from the interaction between the human being and nature. In this process nature is moulded in specific forms in order to be converted into goods and services for human consumption. For the management of the agrarian ecosystem, or agro-ecosystem, to be sustainable, the cycles of matter and energy, and the dynamic equilibrium of the natural ecosystems, have to be reproduced. More precisely, the sustainability of the management of the agro-ecosystem depends on the following elements: its productive capacity; the stability of the dynamic equilibrium; its capacity to resist and/or to adapt to severe disturbances; its economic viability; its autonomy from external factors; its biodiversity; the possibility for the farmers to learn about practices appropriate to its specific characters. Moreover, situations of social injustice in rural areas: poverty, lack of resources, etc., have negative impacts over the sustainability of the ecosystem.</p><p>The socio-economic development process of the Unión Maya Itzá is one of <em>endogenous development</em> , in the sense that the families of the community control the local resources - human, natural, financial, etc. - at their disposal, and they negotiate or struggle with external actors to get control over the external resources they need. Most of the benefit and product of the activities implemented locally are reinvested in the community itself, to strengthen its own development process.</p><h3>A process of continuous up-rooting, caused by inequality of land distribution, lack of access to resources and political violence</h3><p>The peasant families who returned to the El Quetzal finca in April 1995, like numerous peasant families in Guatemala, have been through a continuous process of migration, temporary or permanent, mainly because of insufficient access to land, and political violence. From the " <em>reducción</em> " (forced gathering) of the inhabitants of present day Guatemala into the " <em>pueblos de indio</em> ", and the concentration of most of the cultivable land into large estates, owned by the oligarchy, the majority of the <em>campesinos</em> , both indigenous and ladinos" (Ladino: person of mixed origins), have been forced to constant migration and up-rooting because of the land tenure problem.</p><p>To survive, most of them had to seek work, in terrible conditions, on the large estates of the land-owning oligarchy, mainly on the South Coast. Either they lived permanently on the estates, or were migrating temporarily from their villages of origin. The families of the Unión Maya Itzá originate mainly from three regions of the country: the occidental highlands (Huehuetenango), the central highlands (Alta Verapaz) and the <em>Oriente</em> (Chiquimula).</p><p>From the sixties, those who are today the oldest members of the community migrated towards new areas of colonisation, in Ixcán and Petén, where they set up new villages, co-operatives, and other smallholders communities out of their own initiative or thanks to the support of foreign catholic priests. However, both regions became zones of conflict between the guerrillas and the army. At the beginning of the eighties, with intent to destroy the guerrilla, the army unleashed a <em>scorched earth</em> campaign, and many villages and co-operatives were destroyed and their population massacred. This occurred at a moment when they had achieved, or were about to achieve, a significant socio-economic development. The survivors were forced to migrate again, towards other regions of the country, and to neighbouring countries: Mexico, Honduras and Belize.</p><p>In Mexico, the refugees settled first in the State of Chiapas, until the Mexican authorities relocated an important number of them in refugee camps in the States of Campeche and Quintana Roo. The agreement of October 8, 1992 made possible organized returns to Guatemala. An important number of refugee <em>campesinos</em> who had lived in Ixcán could not, for various reasons, recover their land, or they did not have any land they could claim as their own, or the growth of their family had made it necessary to search for more land than they had in that region. In these circumstances, refugee political leaders and political "advisers", together with a small group of families who had already lived in Petén, promoted the return movement to that region. The return to the El Quetzal finca, after almost two years of arduous negotiations with the government and a relatively intensive process of technical preparation, was the first to take place in Petén. This new migration was intended to be the last for the refugees. However, migration has continued for a number of them, particularly for a group of families who had lived in Ixcán and were promised compensation for the land they had left in that region. Deceived by the political advisers as well as by the government institutions, they had been unable to solve their predicament at the moment of the present study. They remained landless, thus unable to take root again.</p><h3>Negotiation and preparation for the return to the El Quetzal finca</h3><p>The return movement to Guatemala of organized groups of refugees could take place thanks to the social and political spaces opened by the Permanent Commissions of the Refugees in Mexico (CC.PP.). Those spaces were given a formal stance in the Agreement of October 8, 1992. The refugees who decided to leave the stable material conditions of the refugee camps in the Yucatan peninsula and to return to Guatemala, were doing so because they wanted to acquire land where to settle with secure property rights, and to go back to their roots. They were also attracted by the prospect of socio-economic development offered by the return of organized groups. Knowing that the social, economic, and political conditions in Guatemala were harder than those in Mexico, they nonetheless hoped to promote political changes towards a more democratic society.</p><p>The refugees who choose to form a new community in Guatemala had to go through a series of procedures: find an estate which they could purchase; form a social organization; obtain the legal status of association from the governmental institutions in charge, for instance that of a co-operative; negotiate with FONAPAZ (Fondo Nacional Para la Paz) the revolving credit with which the estate could be bought.</p><p>On both sides of the border, various structures were organized by the CC.PP., in the refugee camps and among the political advisers, the <em>técnicos</em> , and the NGOs accompanying the return process to Petén, with a view to undertake the various functions and tasks for the political negotiation and for the social and technical preparation of the return.</p><p>The development model, that is to say the social, economic and political project of the return, was the subject of many discussions between the various actors involved, inside and outside the refugee camps. The main elements of the global development strategy agreed upon were the following: access to land, community and regional development, and "conservation" of the environment. However, political contradictions between two ideological trends among the external advisers did not permit to fully elaborate the development scheme.</p><p>The technical preparation, promoted by the political advisers and the external técnicos, concentrated on the formation of the social organization of the future community, on the planning of the urban centre, and on the use and distribution of the land and natural resources. One of the most debated topic was the size of land each family would get. Failing detailed knowledge of the characteristics of the land, it was agreed to proceed by steps, and to make, after the return, detailed studies to allow planning the use of the land. Questions remained about which perennial crops with high market value would be adapted to the land, and how to exploit the forest without destroying it, while implementing all the contemplated productive activities.</p><p>By mid-1994, while the negotiation of the purchase of the <em>finca</em> was going on, the Unión Maya Itzá co-operative was legally established.</p><h3>Development process of the Unión Maya Itzá Co-operative and Community</h3><p>The Unión Maya Itzá community is made up of four "neighbourhoods", or groups, and by various professional (health and education) and gender (women's organisation Ixmucané) organisations, and also by various committees with diverse social functions. The co-operative, strictly speaking, is the group of associates, i.e. the group of male heads of family, plus some women. It is structured along committees and functions as defined by the legal statutes, which are responsible for the management of the different economic projects and the community infrastructures. Since the arrival in the <em>finca</em> , the need for an interlocutor towards external actors, to centralize information, and to assume responsibility for promoting internal decisions and monitoring their implementation, led the management board ( <em>junta directiva</em> ) to take up the leadership of the whole community.</p><p>The particular situation of the Unión Maya Itzá - i.e. the co-operative organisation; the settlement in the forest; the collective property of land and of natural and financial resources, requires collective agreements on the organisation of the fundamentals of daily life, namely: the access to and the management of natural resources, the construction and/or the implementation of infrastructures, services, productive projects, etc.</p><p>During the preparation of the return in Mexico, it was insisted upon the necessity for the social organisation to be democratic. In the Unión Maya Itzá, there are various fora for debate and decision taking: the groups or "neighbourhoods", the sector meetings, and the co-operative general assemblies. These make possible a constant flow of information and consultation on matters which should be decided upon. However, in most cases, the decision making process is concentrated in the co-operative, where only the associates have the right to speak and vote in their general assembly. Therefore, an large number of community members, namely the women, the elders, the youth who have not reached majority and/or who are not associates of the co-operative, have only a limited access to, or are even excluded from, the process of decision making. In some cases, the decisions are taken only among the members of the management board.</p><p>According to the traditional structures and procedures of the co-operatives, any associate can be appointed by the assembly to any responsibility, and each project is the responsibility of a committee appointed for a given period of time. However, this results in a multiplication of committees and responsibilities, up to the point that more than two thirds of the associates are engaged in the different functions of the co-operative. It occurs that some associates are even appointed against their will, but have no possibility to refuse. In this situation, the load of community work is felt as too heavy, and the co-operative is still looking for a better way to distribute responsibilities and functions among its members.</p><p>The process of land planning discussed, in Mexico, in the preparation for the return was taken up by <em>técnicos</em> of one the NGOs accompanying the reintegration process, with the objective of establishing the most appropriate forms of management of the <em>finca</em> , of land distribution between the families, and of evaluation of crop adequacy. A series of technical studies (soils, cartography) were carried out, and the technicians in charge investigated with the <em>campesinos</em> the criteria these commonly use to describe the soil and their environment in general. This permitted a "translation" of the technical studies into a language they could understand. The results of the studies were presented in thematic maps, allowing the farmers to decide by themselves how to distribute the land and to manage their <em>finca</em> . In these processes, the results of a forest survey carried out by others were taken into account as well. The fundamental principle to abide by was to guarantee a fair access to land for all the associated families, while using the soil according to its intrinsic characteristics. Firstly, adequate food production had to be secured, and secondly, the production of commercial crops to contribute to the financial income necessary to sustain the socio-economic development. In this process, the location, extension and forms of management of the plots were fixed.</p><p>The studies carried out brought up a problem of overpopulation, compared to the actual carrying capacity of the <em>finca</em> . This situation was caused mainly by the political context in which El Quetzal was negotiated: the political advisers wanted to promote a return as numerous as possible, in order to demonstrate their capacity of political mobilisation; and the government wanted to settle as many refugees as possible in the <em>finca</em> , in order to limit the purchase of land. The real characteristics and capacities of the estate were disregarded. The returnees were left alone to face this situation, which has important consequences for the access to land and to natural resources, and therefore for the possibilities of economic development of the community. One of these consequences is that there is no possibility for the youth to get access to land within the <em>finca</em> .</p><p>Other analyses have raised serious doubts about the sustainability of the management of the forest area (2/3 of the total extension) as it had been planned, and about the possibility that some methods used in the commercialisation of wood (volume measurements) are unfavourable to the community. These aspects have to be further investigated.</p><p>After four years, the economic situation of the families is still very precarious. Most of them do not manage to cover their expenses with the income from the produce of their plots, mainly maize and other annual crops, and they have to seek employment outside the community.</p><p>The co-operative is managing six economic projects: a co-operative store; wood farming; xate ( <em>Chamaedora sp.</em> ) exploitation; public transportation; chicken husbandry; bee keeping. Some of these projects are certainly profitable, and offer a potential for significant income. However, in some cases, the technical management and, in general, the financial administration are extremely inadequate, up to a point where the associates have no knowledge of the financial balance of each project, nor of the whole co-operative enterprise. The families have access to social services and enjoy favourable price conditions in the co-operative store and on the public transportation. However, except for the distribution of a portion of the income from wood sales, the families have not, so far (1999), obtained any income out of the co-operative projects .</p><p>The members of the women's organization Ixmucané have started, out of an external initiative, a project of laying hen farming, which failed because of inadequate planning, and because the donor NGO did not fulfil its commitments. The organisation is now managing a bee keeping project, which, at the moment of the investigation, was still at an early stage.</p><p>The precarious economic situation puts a strain, not only on land, but also on the social organisation of the community. Many an associate is reluctant to dedicate its time and resources to community work and projects, from which no personal benefit is perceived. However, the members of the community have demonstrated their ability to analyse their situation and to propose solutions. This capacity has still to be transformed into concrete actions. Moreover, the community disposes of some human, financial and natural resources which are not used adequately, or not used at all.</p><p>The situation could get significantly better if the following be improved:</p><ol type="i"><li>the internal democracy, by allowing all adults of the community to participate in the decision making process, and by improving the flow of information, including about financial aspects;</li><li>the financial administration of the co-operative;</li><li>the technical management of the projects, not by appointed committees whose members change periodically, but by permanent and dedicated groups;</li><li>the expansion of the existing projects, after an analysis of their social, technical and financial feasibility, and the implementation of new projects, some of which could provide wage labour;</li><li>the search for another estate where to establish a branch of the co-operative, which would allow the youth to have access to land.</li></ol><p>As a whole, the productive and economic activities at family and co-operative level offer a development potential which is only partially exploited. The search for, and the exchange of, information within the co-operative, could allow its members and their families to take better advantage of the various existing productive and economic activities, and to organise and manage them better. Socialisation of information and co-operation between all the members also offer greater possibilities for the planning and implementation of new productive activities, with better chances for success, at individual/family level, as well as at co- operative/community level. This co-operation could dynamize the internal economy and allow to take better advantage of opportunities in existing local and external markets. The co-operative organisation is an asset in the search of common solutions to individual problems.</p><p>The aspects discussed in the present study are mainly internal to the community. In general terms, however, the socio-economic development of a peasant community also depends on the social, economic and political context, in particular: the politics of the State about services (health, education, etc.), and infrastructures (roads, electricity, telecommunications, etc.); and on the climatic and market conditions.</p><h3>Reflections and conclusions</h3><p>The experience of the Unión Maya Itzá shows how the reintegration and development of communities of uprooted peasants depend mainly upon the access to land and natural resources, so as to allow them to implement economic activities. The outcome of the exploitation of these resources depends, in its turn, upon the capability of the community members to adequately organise their social relations, among themselves and with external actors. The community members have to define ways of fair land distribution, of natural resources exploitation and of mobilization of internal resources: capabilities, experience, work force, etc., in implementing social services and communal projects. Through negotiation with external actors, in this case mainly the government, traders, and NGOs, the community should be able to mobilise the external resources which it is lacking, and to carry out economic exchanges.</p><p>Given the social and political situation in Guatemala, the returnees consider the political and the socio-economic dimensions of the return as the two sides of their reintegration and development process. However, the predominance of political aspects over technical ones during the negotiation and preparation of the return had adverse consequences for the returnees, particularly as far as access to land is concerned. Moreover, the <em>re-rooting</em> of the returnees takes place in an unstable national context, where actors of the military dictatorships of the eighties continue to play an active role in the State structures. Harassment and violent practices that were thought to belong to the past have indeed reappeared.</p><p>As for the economic prospects, the argument has been discussed that the unequal distribution of land, with the reproduction of a dominant social class, is an obstacle to development in a rural area, particularly in view of the very low possibilities of employment in other sectors of the economy. Currently, production might be increased and diversified mainly towards international markets, on which small farmers have very little power to influence the terms of exchange. Therefore, they can never be sure to reap a sufficient income. The development of an internal market, stimulated by equitable access to land and natural resources, and by adequate State policies, would contribute to reduce poverty in rural areas. However, there is currently no evidence of such a tendency on the part of the State.</p><p>To secure a positive impact on the development process of the community, external actors should focus on identifying the potential for endogenous development, as discussed in the second chapter, and seek to strengthen the local process, out of its own components: social carrier; agricultural production and exploitation of natural resources; local resources, knowledge and practices; local products; commercial lines products-middlemen-consumers. Under the condition that a relation of mutual respect be established between the community and external actors, especially regarding the local organisational structure and decision making process, the identification of the potential for endogenous development may lead to both sides designing together better endogenous development strategies.</p>
Original languageSpanish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • van der Ploeg, Jandouwe, Promotor
Award date20 Oct 2000
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789058083081
Publication statusPublished - 2000


  • resettlement
  • farmers
  • refugees
  • social development
  • economic development
  • guatemala

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