The kettle boils coffee over a wood burning stove in the kitchen adjacent to Candalaria’s thatched roof house. Young crops sprout in the late afternoon sun in the Polochic Valley of Guatemala’s Izabal department.
She birthed 11 children, but it was her youngest son of 13 years who built their new house made of fresh cut planked wood.
In 2016 Candalaria Baj, 50, watched police set her house on fire and cut her crops with machetes. She is among 80 families from three communities who resisted a court ordered forced eviction by a banana plantation company, Inversiones Cobra SA, that sought to kick out workers and their families after they allegedly occupied land procured to produce bananas and African palm.
Armed with their tools – machetes and pesticides sprayers – the farmers won. A rare success among indigenous people’s struggles with land rights in Guatemala. But their fight didn’t happen without sacrifice. Many of Candalaria’s neighbors lost their homes and crops, burned by police.
“I never imagined a conflict this big with the land,” said Candalaria, in her native Q’eqchi language spoken in this region. “But life is better because now I have my fields and I have my seeds.”
The change brought more opportunity to harvest, she said. “I grow chili peppers, banana, yucca, corn, and malanga.”
In Guatemala, only four percent of producers control 80 percent of the land. Approximately 60 percent of citizens live in poverty but rises to 80 percent among the indigenous communities.
“The indigenous population was always seen as cheap labor and this persists to this day,” said Alvaro Pop, Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “They are seen as a tool and are not the focus of public policies.”
According to a 2006 UN report on “The right to food,” Guatemala’s land policies were deliberately designed to create cheap labour forces by reducing the land available for indigenous people’s own subsistence activities. The country has a long history of exclusionary development that has left indigenous communities without land or labour rights and subject to pervasive racial discrimination, the report said.
For Candalaria, soon she will plant beans when the season arrives. Just one more opportunity for a bountiful harvest.