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Closing the policy gap for small-scale farmers in Guatemala

Posted by Celeste Molina Regional Sustainable Food Systems Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean

30th Aug 2013

A Guatemalan woman sorts corn at her home in the village of Willywood. Credit: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

In the second of a series of posts exploring the impact of government policy on small-scale agriculture, Celeste Molina asks what is needed for Guatemala's small farmers to fulfil their potential to fight poverty and hunger?

In 2012 Oxfam and IIED joined forces to create Tipping the Balance a global report exploring the connection between the policy and practice of investment and market governance in small scale agriculture in four countries: Nigeria, Tanzania, Guatemala and the Philippines. 

Today we launch the Guatemala country case study, the second case study from the research to be released; following the Nigeria country report, which was published last week. 

Guatemala's marginalised groups - especially indigenous peoples, rural dwellers and women - are in theory protected by a remarkable legal framework. Laws such as the Land Fund Act, the Law on Dignity and Integral Promotion of Women and the Agricultural Policy 2011-2015 are all largely the result of the 1996 Peace Accords and aim to ensure the inclusion of the most vulnerable. 

There is a widening gap between policy intent and implementation

However, despite this remarkable policy framework, Guatemala continues to have one of the highest GINI coefficients in Latin America (almost 80% of arable land in the hands of 8% of producers), a deficit of productive rural infrastructure and technical assistance for small-scale farmers and a high dependence on food imports which increases their vulnerability to international price fluctuations. How can this be explained?

There is a widening gap between policy intent and implementation due to: a lack of public investment, weak and insufficient social protection and a systematic dismantling of state support for family farming since the 1990s. In addition, pro-poor policies co-exist with policies favouring indiscriminate market deregulation and private investment in large-scale plantations and natural resource exploitation, all to the detriment of rural communities and their territories. 

Pro-poor policies co-exist with ones favouring... market deregulation, private investment in large-scale plantations and natural resource exploitation, all to the detriment of rural communities...

The Land Fund Act (Fontierras) provides a very clear example of this. The fund established financial mechanisms to help small-scale producers obtain access to land ownership by providing credit to help poor families to buy land, technical assistance to help make the land productive and a land regularization scheme, which provides land titles to individuals or families. In practice, although titles have been distributed to landless peasants through the regularization programme, there has been no significant effect on reversing land concentration mainly because only State land (often marginal) has been distributed. 

Once individuals receive the benefits, there is no way to ensure the land will stay in the hands of smallholder farmers. In the northern Petén department, an estimated 30% of farmers have sold their land (that is over 60,000 acres). A recent study shows that 46% of land distributed in Petén after the peace agreements has been re-concentrated by large scale farmers (mostly Guatemalan investors, sometimes in partnership with Latin American or international corporations). 

Many families who have sold their land have then been unable to buy new land in other locations, which results in the loss of livelihoods and food insecurity. This phenomenon has forced smallholders to become wage workers with poor employment conditions and spurred land conflicts throughout the country, especially along the Northern Transversal Strip, the Polochic Valley and in Sayaxché, in the Northern department of Petén. According to official figures, at the end of 2011 there were 1,288 land disputes in the country.

In support of small-scale farmers in Guatemala

The study Policy Options for Agricultural Investments and Governance of Markets: In support of small-scale farmers in Guatemala or  Opciones de política para las inversiones agrícolas y la gobernanza de los mercados: en apoyo a la agricultura a pequeña escala en Guatemala by IDIES (Instituto de Investigaciones Económics y Sociales) is the result of the global synthesis report published by Oxfam and IIED in December 2012: Tipping the Balance: Policies to shape agricultural investments and markets in favour of small-scale farmers. It intends to promote the discussion between policy makers, academics and civil society organisations by mapping out the current agricultural policy framework and analysing whether current policy levers tip the balance towards or away from women and men smallholder farmers.

What is the way forward?

So what is the way the forward? There is a lot of room for discussion here. However, the conclusions of this study point towards the need to strengthen the supervisory role of the state, both to assess impact of large-scale investments on small-scale agriculture and to stop reversal of land distribution. This is not likely to work without establishing both effective local community consultations and also clear government actions for settling land disputes, recognising local forms of land tenure and regulating the use of the country's natural resources.  There is also a strong need to ensure direct property rights for women and to strengthen the rural institutional framework. The latter was proposed in the 40-84 initiative 'Integrated Rural Development Law', but this met strong opposition from many private sector actors and remains shelved in Congress.  

So what next? Without the policy levers that can influence both big business and the State in support of the most vulnerable, how will Guatemala's small-scale farmers ever be able to fulfil their potential as key actors in the fight against poverty and hunger?

Read more

In 2012 Oxfam and IIED joined forces to create Tipping the Balance a global report exploring the connection between the policy and practice of investment and market governance in small scale agriculture. 

This week we launched the Guatemala country case study, you can also download the Nigeria country case study, launched last week. The Tanzanian case study will be next up - so watch this space!

Read Jike Amah and Tomi Ademokun's blog on Nigeria: Mind the gap: why aren't policy levers helping small farmers in Nigeria?

Blog post written by Celeste Molina

Regional Sustainable Food Systems Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean

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