2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the Union of Peasant Organizations (UVOC), an organization that PBI has been accompanying since 2005. We will provide a brief historical review of both the achievements and the challenges encountered along the way.
UVOC strives for an Integrated Agrarian Reform, the defense of land and territory and the equitable and balanced development of campesino and indigenous communities. In other words, they focus their struggle on the most important structural problem in Guatemala, access to and control of land and territory, which has deep historical roots that go back to the Spanish invasion. This problem has yet to be solved and remains one of the major causes of poverty and conflict.1
The first steps
The origins of the UVOC date back to 1980, at the height of the internal armed conflict.2 Faced with the situation of extreme poverty which campesino and indigenous families in rural areas of the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz had to endure, leaders from these communities, particularly people involved with the Catholic Church and others concerned about the situation, met in the municipality of Purulhá (Baja Verapaz), to discuss, develop and implement proposals aimed at addressing the impoverishment and dispossession.
The cooperative Renacimiento R.L. thus came out of the union of small cooperatives and community organizations already in existence. Despite the fact that they were forced to carry out their activities clandestinely, due to the war and context of deep repression, the cooperative managed to function and continued to grow for 10 years. It managed to set up a printing room and a carpentry workshop, and offered courses in masonry, baking, cooking, typing, handicrafts and organic agriculture. They also managed to open a store for basic products, a bamboo furniture and construction workshop, and a handicrafts store, where the textiles made by the women were sold. However, these achievements provoked State repression, leading to persecutions, threats, imprisonment and even murder of campesino leaders and indigenous authorities who were members of the cooperative. The stores and workshops also suffered attacks and were destroyed by the army. However, as the coordinator of UVOC, Carlos Morales, points out, "they destroyed all our material things, but they could not destroy our way of thinking.
The emergence of UVOC
Based on the previous experience of the Renacimiento cooperative, small cooperatives, communities and social organizations from the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz began to meet again and formed UVOC on October 8, 1990. UVOC, according to Carlos Morales, "is an umbrella organization that works together, to protect, train, advocate to and win respect from the authorities. It is based on solidarity." UVOC ‘s work begins from the organizational vision of the indigenous peoples, in other words, based on their cosmovision and the energies of its members, who form the regional councils which make up the four cardinal points and the Heart Council. These councils are made up of men, women and young people who in turn form UVOC’s general assembly, where the work plans are discussed and approved. In this way they have built "a practice that gradually breaks with western, liberal and racist impositions."
After the signing of the Peace Accords (December 1996), the work of UVOC continued to gain strength and was extended to the departments of El Quiché and Izabal. They now have a presence in some 20 municipalities across these four departments. The work carried out by UVOC in favor of the communities' access to land is not risk free, as it impacts the interests of powerful actors, which has meant they have had to endure threats, physical attacks and criminalization. As such, they approached PBI to request international accompaniment in 2005.
Their constant analysis of Guatemala’s agrarian context and problems has led UVOC to identify five areas of focus: defense of land and territory; integrated rural development; food sovereignty and labor rights; organizational strengthening, political and ideological education and technical training; popular communication; and gender equality.
Organizational strengthening is key for UVOC, thus they established a Peasant School for young people, which provides political and technical training for active participation in the management of communities. The popular communication program functions as part of this School and allows young people to collaborate with community radio stations and contribute to the generation and dissemination of information among the campesino communities. The gender equality program seeks to promote the participation of women in decision-making and training spaces, to support the women’s productive processes as well as processes which recognize them as land owners.
Defense of Land and Territory
Given that the agrarian conflict continues to be one of Guatemala's principal problems, the defense of land and territory is a major focus of UVOC's work.3 As such, the organization provides advice, representation and legal defense to the communities who claim their rights. They also support leaders who experience criminalization and judicialization processes, precisely because they dare to defend their rights. One of the legal struggles they are accompanying is that of the communities who have ancestral rights to the land, because known as mozos colonos they were used for generations by plantation “bosses" as a quasi-slave labor.4 According to Carlos Morales, "As of today the communities have managed to access, regularize or recover the lands in some 40 estates.5 However, it is not enough to recover the land if they remain without access to services such as roads, running water, health, education or adequate agrarian policies. It has been a long journey for the communities who have not benefited from state support for concrete policies. For this reason, UVOC's accompaniment of the communities continues even after they recover their land, providing advice and advocacy with state authorities responsible for agrarian development. Strategic alliances have been created at the national level with other organizations such as the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), the Community Council of the Highlands (CCDA), and New Day Chorti Campesino Central Coordinator (CCCND), to strengthen this work. They have come together to form the Iximulew Campesino Front. At the international level, UVOC is a member of the International Land Coalition (ILC).
Challenges in the struggle for access to land
- Scarce availability of land for campesino populations as opposed to the large extensions of land which are available for mono-cultures and extractive projects.
- Repression against communities and campesino organizations who support them and criminalization of social protest by actors with interests in land (businessmen, military and politicians). All of this deeply impacts the social fabric of the communities, creating internal divisions.
- Lack of dialogue with government institutions for the implementation of integrated rural development policies. This is further aggravated by the recent closure of the Secretariat of Agrarian Affairs (SAA), an institution created with the Peace Accords to address agrarian issues.
Integral rural development and food sovereignty
UVOC is committed to implementing organic family agriculture and recovering the ancient knowledge transmitted from generation to generation in the lands recovered by the communities. According to Sandra Calel, coordinator of the organization's campesino and indigenous women's group, the historical processes of repression and dispossession experienced by indigenous peoples in Guatemala has "meant the rupture of the process of oral and practical transmission of ancestral knowledge that had been passed down through generations.”6 These were replaced by the impositions of mono-cultures and the use of chemicals, agro-toxins and pesticides. UVOC is recovering an ancestral ecological agriculture as an effective alternative to feed the population without risking the health of the planet while at the same time preserving biodiversity and local ecosystems. To this end, they are rediscovering the Mayan wisdom of the lunar cycles, the conservation and recovery of native seeds and crop associations and diversification, with the introduction of new crops such as mushrooms. They propose the use of natural fertilizers, such as chicken manure and worm compost. In the words of Carlos Morales, the UVOC is "working on family and ancestral agriculture7 in the Q'eqchi' and Poqomchi' communities. We are part of the Decade of Family Farming and in Latin America we are organized in networks so that farmers have greater opportunities in the countryside and rural areas".
1To deepen the information on the history of social struggles in the region, we recommend: PBI Guatemala, We Defend Life! The Social Struggles in Alta Verapaz, abril 2020
2The reconstruction of UVOC’s history is based on an interview with Carlos Morales, coordinator of the organization, held in June of 2020 as well as of information from their website (https://infouvoc.wixsite.com/uvocgt) and social media.
3According to the informe 2019 de OACNUDH, to the date of October 31, 2019, the Secretariat for Agrarian Affairs had registered 1.532 cases of agrarian conflicts, the majority in the departments of Huehuetenango, Alta Verapaz, Quiché and Izabal. The main disputes are about property rights, territorial limits and land registry.
4“This figure, similar to the feudal serf, has a colonial origin and established labor relations whereby campesinos who worked on landlords’ estates did not receive a salary, but rather were allowed them to live there and cultivate on the land. In most cases this was a verbal agreement, without the existence of a contract, and that status of mozo colono was passed from generation to generation by custom”. In PBI Guatemala, Op. Cit.
5Among them, we recollect the PBI accompanied and documented case of the La Primavera Finca, in the municipality of San Cristóbal, in the department of Alta Verapaz: After 15 years of peaceful struggle, La Primavera Poqomchi’ families recover their ancestral lands, Annual Report 2015
6Interview with Sandra Calel, July 3, 2020