Guatemala's Indians sink deeper into poverty

Unbalanced land tenure, grinding poverty, and inadequate public farm programs have spurred growing Indian dissatisfaction and increased the possibility of open civil war.

Here in Santa Catarina Palopo, a highland town set on the shores of Lake Atitlan 80 miles northwest of Guatemala City, 1,500 Cakchiquel Indians barely eke out a subsistence living 10 months a year. When the rainy season ends each October, leaving the smell of rotting corn behing, families begin to run out of money and food.

Out of desperation, about 200 men are forced to go into debt peonage by December and migrate from Santa Catarina Palopo hundreds of miles in open trucks to cotton and sugar plantations on the southern coast. Some 500,000 Indians do the across the nation do the same thing.

"My family doesn't have enough land," said Manuel Gonzales, a 28-year-old migrant who clings to his Cakchiquel tongue and wears traditional striped culotte-type pants. "I have no choice but to go. There is much pain on the coast and it is very hot."

Gonzales, who has a wife and baby daughter, shares less than an acre of land with three generations of his family. Years of intensive corn farming have left his mountain land cracked and dusty. Ironically, he looks out on the lake and volcanoes that surround it -- a view the wealthy pay thousands of dollars to see from weekend villas.

By the end of November, Gonzalez must contact contractors who offer him loans of between $5 and $15 to feed his family in exchange for a month or two of work on the plantations. He has little choice but to do this. Small farmers do not qualify for government rural credits and are regarded as poor risks.

"We can't give evryone money," said a spokeswoman for Bandesa, the government agricultural bank. "Our experts investigate applications and often find that applicants are farming the wrong crop on the wrong land. We try to advise them." The bank gave out $50.6 million in low-interest loans to 22,069 applicants in 1979.

"With all the farmers who have no land, what we can do is very little."

Low wages, crowded housing, DDT poisoning, and tropical disease on plantations helped the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) organize thousands of Indian migrants for the first time through its labor wing, the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC). Some 75,000 rural workers from around santa Catarina Palopo and northern provinces struck for 17 days last February before getting their first raise in the minimum wage since 1972. One hundred peasants suspected of taking part in the work action disappeared in June, presumably the victims of right-wing hit squads.

Over 2,500 Guatemalans have died in political violence this year, and 25,000 people are missing, according to Amnesty International.

The EGP and the Organization of People in Arms, two of four guerrilla orginizations active in Guatemala, have picked up sizable Indian recruits, knowledgeable sources say. They promise land reform and higher prices for farm produce.

When asked about government efforts to redistribute land, one West European aid official responded, "What land reform are you talking about? There is none."

Official statistics show 2 percent of Guatemala's 7.2 million people own 70 percent of the cultivate land. Some 200,000 peasant families own no land at all.

As peasants climb into the mountains seeking land, deforestation and severe erosion have become serious problems.

"Fifty years ago there was no problem," said one analyst. "[But] subsistence farming is not enough to feed a growing Indian population." Meanwhile, a few large landholders increased their acreage from 5.3 million to 6.7 million between 1964 and 1979.

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