Food Insecurity in Guatemala
By Emily Nagatomo
Guatemala’s fertile lands and diverse geography provide a wide range of growing capacities. This land, and more importantly the control over it, has shaped the course of food security within the country. Prior to European contact, food was plentiful and diverse. Farmers provided sufficient quantities to feed local populations that thrived until the Columbian Exchange. The institution of capitalist food systems dictated by the conquistadores laid the foundation for a history of conflict over land ownership. This was a central issue in the Guatemalan Civil War. Indigenous resistance groups advocated for rights to their land instead of land controlled by the US-backed government. The outbreak of violence itself was crucial in exacerbating food insecurity because it created a shortage of food as farmers were massacred and fields were destroyed. The issue of agency is derived from a lack of control over the land. Thus, Guatemala remains dependent on countries in the Global North to help combat food insecurity in a sinister twist, as it is them who is largely responsible for the creation of food insecurity in Guatemala. This, coupled with the impending climate crisis is the one-two punch that has crippled food security in Guatemala. The colonial legacy of the Columbian Exchange, the neoliberal ramifications that manifested in the outbreak and end of the Guatemalan Civil War, and climate change perpetuated by the Global North have been critical in shaping food (in)security in Guatemala.
The Columbian Exchange
The market is bustling. Children are running through the marketplace as people browse the stalls. Traders, farmers, and artisans alike come and fill their stalls with their goods. Cacao, fish, salt, peppers, pineapples, squash, feathers, pottery, dyes, and most importantly, maize line the center as anxious feast-preparers come to exchange goods. The year is 1490 and people in the Western Highlands region of Guatemala are preparing to celebrate the traditional Mayan deities for the next several days. Fish is being brined, chickens are waiting to be slaughtered, and chicha, an alcoholic drink made from pineapple and maize, is still being fermented in preparation for the feast. The culmination of all the work put into growing, harvesting, and preparing the food will result in a feast of chicken tamales, cacao, fruit, and chicha. By 1942, everything changed. The impact of the Columbian “exchange” altered the food systems and food insecurity of the greater Mesoamerican region forever, and in particular, the Western Highlands region of Guatemala.
Prior to European contact within present-day Guatemala, diversified food systems thrived. The indigenous Mayan population in the Western Highlands region cultivated a variety of crops that were able to sustain the vast populations that inhabited the area. Festivals, feasts, and celebrations were frequent. The violent and disruptive nature of the Columbian encounter altered the once-thriving Mayan food systems. The conquistadores who ventured to the New World first took notice of the new approach to cultivating agricultural products. Unaccustomed to the traditional practices of slash and burn agriculture, the bewildered conquistadores recounted their encounter with a new fertilization technique:
The Indians first cut down the cane and trees where they wish to plant it
[maize]… After the trees and cane have been felled and the field grubbed, the
land is burned over and the ashes are left as dressing for the soil, and this is
much better than if the land were fertilized.
It was then that the conquistadores realized the rich and fertile land of the Western Highlands was perfect for the cultivation of cash crops and crops from the Old World at unprecedented rates of growth.
The prospect of profit maximization lay within the soil of the Western Highlands to be uprooted and traded. The Spanish conquistadores in their shiny armor altered the cultivation and food systems of Guatemala indefinitely. They planted the seed of extractive capitalism, reaping food insecurity within Guatemala and dependency on the Global North that still continues to cultivate profits centuries later. The most sinister of crops introduced to Guatemala’s Western Highlands region were sugarcane and coffee that established plantations that profited from slave labor and exploitation. The institution of slavery altered agricultural systems and farming practices. This, along with the diseases brought from the Old World, decimated Mayan populations. Traditional farming was decimated as farmers died from disease and abuse. As a direct result, the Mayan population experienced severe famine. The irony lies in that more food than ever was being cultivated in the Western Highlands; however, it was all being extracted and stolen by the conquistadores and shipped back to the Old World. The colonial legacy of the Columbian Exchange was a pivotal first step in establishing an extractive export economy that has continued to render Guatemala food insecure. The shift towards establishing the Western Highlands as a site of extraction has set the foundation for neoliberal exploitation.
The Guatemalan Civil War
The ramifications of the Columbian Exchange have echoed throughout Guatemala’s history. This has been particularly prominent during Guatemala’s Civil War and in its wake. After disputes over land distribution, exploitation by the US-based United Fruit Company, and the installation of right-wing military dictators by the United States, conflicts erupted with poor landowners, particularly indigenous Mayan groups. Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú continues her work as a staunch advocate for indigenous rights in Guatemala. She recounts her life during the Civil War and the scarcity of food, not as a result of lack of production, but because it was funneled to exploitative government agencies. Menchú notes:
Our community, which never bought so much as a bottle of oil, had to buy them [government engineers] rice, oil, eggs, chickens, meat. We had to buy coffee and sugar, because they couldn’t eat panela. Our community never ate these things. We all had to go to town. The village got together, gave in their ten centavos and with this collection we bought what was needed. Earning ten centavos is hard for us, it’s earned by a lot of sweat. It was worse when the inspectors stayed a whole week. When they left, the village breathed a sigh of relief and we were much poorer. We didn’t eat meat. They did…It was my father who gave up his time because he loved the community, even if it meant we often had nothing to eat at home.
Menchú, like many Mayan and indigenous groups in the Western Highlands, struggled with reliable access to food. She poignantly remembers hunger and poverty throughout the Civil War, commenting on the impact of the violence on people and their livelihoods. The War ravaged fertile lands that indigenous communities relied on for centuries. When the lands were not torn apart, farmers were forced to abandon their fields to flee the violence. When they returned to their lands, they “were faced with the prospect of having to wait at least one full harvest cycle (nine months) before they could secure any food.” This exacerbated the already devastating famine throughout the region. Menchú reflects on the aftermath of the Civil War noting that “[indigenous activism] is a struggle which cannot be stopped. Neither the governments nor imperialism can stop it because it is a struggle of hunger and poverty. Neither the government nor imperialism can say: ‘Don’t be hungry,’ when we are all dying of hunger.” Moreover, the colonial legacy of Guatemala has had profound effects that continue to exacerbate food insecurity within the Western Highlands region.
Beyond the physical destruction and abandonment of crops, food aid distributed by the Guatemalan government often systematically neglected certain insecure Mayan populations. To address the crisis of violence in Guatemala, foreign aid was sent, largely by the Global North, to influence and end the War. The distribution of aid was, and often continues, to be controlled by the government and its interests. As a result, food aid was targeted towards right-wing government supporters, withholding essential food supplies to combat hunger in the Western Highlands. After the War, food aid shifted from agricultural products and subsidies and relied more on indirect aid via agricultural reform programs and modified seeds. Rigoberta Menchú comments on the ineffectiveness of this type of aid:
The community, the priests and some friends of my father helped us. Some Europeans were helping us too. They sent us a lot of money. They were people who had worked for a time teaching the peasants how to farm. But the way they plant isn’t the way we do it. Indians reject the chemical fertilizers they tried to teach us about.
The ineffectiveness of indirect aid and its lack of cultural considerations did nothing to combat the high levels of food insecurity for indigenous communities after the Guatemalan Civil War. Rather, the neocolonial strategy of aid began to solidify the shifts towards agribusiness models instituted by the US and the United Fruit Company to later be exported for profit. This system aimed to establish dependence on the US and produce specific crops for export that are unsustainable for the dietary needs of indigenous communities. Instead, Guatemala and the Western Highlands specifically must rely on imported food, subject to increasing food prices, to feed their families. Not only did the physical violence of the War impact food insecurity, but also the attempts to alleviate food insecurity via neoliberal aid were detrimental to the food security efforts in the Western Highlands.
Climate Change and Food Insecurity
Almost thirty years since the end of the Guatemalan Civil War, and centuries after first contact with the Old World, Guatemala’s food insecurity continues to grow as a direct result of the extractive agricultural industries instituted by the Global North. Now, the impending climate crisis is disproportionately affecting the Western Highlands region of Guatemala because of the historic and significant role the Global North has played in altering the climate. Compared to wealthier nations, Guatemala has contributed very little to global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, it suffers the most serious and negative impacts of climate change. Guatemala’s Western Highlands region has been acknowledged as facing the greatest risk to climate change because it lies in the ecological region deemed the Central American Dry Corridor (CADC). The CADC is characterized by severe weather inconsistencies including variable rainfall, intense heat waves, and extreme droughts. Currently, in Guatemala, 70% of indigenous children in the Western Highlands face severe food insecurity. This number varies, however, depending on the cyclical nature of El Niño cycles. During recent El Niño years, malnutrition and hunger rates soared among the Maya populations as prolonged dry spells and intense heat waves decimated essential crop yields. Climate change continues to accentuate the already extreme weather patterns of the Western Highlands that will only continue to grow as global temperatures rise.
Farmers like Jesús García Ramos rely on their harvest of crops to provide the necessary income to feed their families. García Ramos produces maize and in recent years has only been able to yield half of what he plants. In the past two years, his crops were battered by hurricanes and erratic hailstorms. In order to feed his family, he relies on extra seeds provided by a community seed reserve. The seeds are provided by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), sinisterly perpetuating the dependence and reliance on the Global North that created and continues to exacerbate climate change disproportionately. Moreover, food insecurity among indigenous populations has grown and food accessibility from crop production becomes increasingly unreliable due to climate change created significantly by the Global North.
Over the course of centuries, Guatemala’s Western Highlands region has been increasingly food insecure as a result of the colonial and neocolonialism within the region. The Columbian Exchange altered agricultural production indefinitely. The contact itself spread disease that wiped out indigenous farmers, hindering crop production as a result. Further, the conquistadores enforced farming practices to suit colonial objectives at the detriment of the indigenous communities’ food security by creating cash crop plantations. The Columbian Exchange laid the groundwork for further extraction and exploitation that would culminate into growing turbulence from the unjust land distribution that would lead to the outbreak of the Guatemalan Civil War. The violence from the war ruined crops and aid directed at combating food insecurity was systematically directed away from indigenous communities in the Western Highlands. Lastly, the impact of climate change has been detrimental to the already crippled food security within the region as it has ruined the yields of indigenous farmers. Thus, the colonial legacy and continued neoliberal interventions have increasingly worsened food security in the Western Highlands of Guatemala.
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