Once more, it is hard to accept that I am back home in Santa Cruz del Quiché after a week on the road. One more time I feel like I am in VH1’s reality TV show “The Surreal Life,” though with a much different twist. It is surreal to think that I got home last night at 8pm after waking at 2am to hop on the only transportation out of Cimientos (full name Los Cimientos de la Nueva Esperanza), a community of returned former refugees buried deep in the Ixcan jungle.
Once more, it is hard to accept that I am back home in Santa Cruz del Quiché after a week on the road. One more time I feel like I am in VH1’s reality TV show “The Surreal Life,” though with a much different twist. It is surreal to think that I got home last night at 8pm after waking at 2am to hop on the only transportation out of Cimientos (full name Los Cimientos de la Nueva Esperanza), a community of returned former refugees buried deep in the Ixcan jungle.I laughed as we were at the end of our final bus ride yesterday since, as I said to my traveling partner Mateo, we now know how long it takes door to door from Cimientos to Santa Cruz (17 hours of travel, 18 if you count that we extricated ourselves from our hammocks at 2am so that we would be ready to leave by 3am). That was one long day on one mode of transportation or another. I, along with Mateo, spent the last week on the road. We visited the communities of Sepoc (in the Alta Verapaz dept.), Nuevo por Venir (on the edges of the Ixcan), and Cimientos. I noticed the difference in the air almost immediately on our second bus ride as we entered the immense plethora of plants, trees, and bushes, of the natural world out in the Ixcan jungle. You could just smell the difference, the pure lush green scent of the trees covering what seems to be every part of the landscape that is not the road. This scent lingers in the air. Every so often it mixes with some smoke wafting up from the fires, sometimes laced with the smell of whatever food is being cooked, and drifting into the air from the family huts along the side of the road. But just as quickly as you are trying to differentiate between the different aromas assaulting your senses, you race past that hanging mix of scents. All told we probably spent more than two entire days in buses, mini-vans, pickup trucks, and walking out to these communities for none of them is in a “convenient” transportation location. Of course, this is one of the reasons that we visited all these communities since they are so remote and they have ACG’s radios of communication. The trip, while taking us through some of the most beautiful parts of Guatemala, revealed a number of ugly truths about the continuing convoluted problems under which many Guatemalans are still forced to live daily. These problems popped up in front of me as rapidly and nastily as an unwanted pop-up ad on the Internet. I will tell you the short version of one of these pop-up problems.
Mateo and I leisurely climbed up a curving, very rocky and holey road in the community of Nuevo por Venir toward the radio location that Mateo had pointed out. As we rounded a corner we came upon a throng of people in front of what must have been the school. As my head crested the horizon, all eyes swung around and stared as “the gringo” entered the village. My pace slowed to the speed of a snail as my own gaze took in the hundreds of eyes fixed on my huge lumbering form. This all was definitely a little intimidating. This is the usual reaction of the people whenever I enter a village and yet, though I have become used to this response, it still makes me stare up into the sky as if there is something interesting to look at up there or find a rock on the ground that definitely needs careful scrutiny. This meeting turned out to be regarding a huge land dispute within the community. Before I could start feeling too awkward a woman came running at us since she recognized Mateo and whisked us off to her home. This turned out to be doña Maria and she took us down to, what was actually her parents home since we learned later that part of the land dispute in the community involved Maria’s home being taken from her.
Later that evening we huddled in the small kitchen with doña Maria, her mother, 6 children, and the usual array of chickens and dogs. . The family is so poor, that was evident from their home, their clothing, and the stories that Maria told us over the course of the next few hours. Yet Maria invited us in with no hesitation, with no thought of compensation (she turned us down when we offered to pay a little for dinner), with no ulterior motives, just to share a small bit of food and conversation. She invited us in with the simple yet prevalent phrase in Guatemala, “pase adelante, hay agua para lavar” (come on in, there is water to wash [your hands].) This one phrase would turn into many thoughts for me during the trip as I contemplated the hospitality and openness of Guatemalan communities. We shared a simple yet exquisite meal of scrambled eggs and tortillas while we talked. Maria talked a lot about the land problems currently going on in the community and Mateo and I discussed later, in depth, the problems. There are currently two different groups in the community. The first is a group of Q’eq’chi Maya who have lived on the lands and worked them (the land is a former finka, farm) for years. There are around 30 of the Q’eq’chi families on the land. The other group is the 84 families that returned from Mexico and were relocated by the government who bought the land from the finka owner years ago for the purpose of resettlement. A part of this purchase was a loan to the families relocating on the land with a 5 year grace period for the families to get situated before they began paying back the loan. That 5 years passed long ago but still no payments have been taken and the Q’eq’chi group is claiming that since they have worked and lived on the lands for so many years that the land is rightly theirs (I can see their point but it is a delicate issue). They have brought legal and notarized documents staking their claim. Mateo speculated that because of the presence of these legal documents he believes there may be a third party manipulating the people and urging them to take action. Could this be the government, the army, a mining company, who knows? But because of this dispute, Maria and family were evicted from their lands and the community is in turmoil. The meeting that we stumbled upon apparently saw one of the Q’eq’chi group arrive swinging his machete in anger before he was corralled by the people and put in jail where he asked them to douse him with gasoline and burn him so at least there would be attention drawn to the dire problems within the community. They did not do this and just turned him over to the police and authorities that we saw in the village both the days that we were there.
My short description of the issue here is just the tip of the iceberg. for those that know Guatemalan history, a huge reason that the armed conflict began in the 70s was because of land disputes and to see it still rearing its hideous face to divide communities was extremely difficult, a thorn in the side of the stunning jungle setting. Mateo and I talked for a long time on our walk out of the village about this issue. We discussed the Peace Accords and how they did not deal with the issue of land. Once more I could not understand why this incredibly important concern that helped to start a war had been left out of the documents signed to end the conflict. Though I realize that words on paper are meaningless unless applied as, unfortunately, is the case with many of the Peace Accords. On that note, Mateo made one poignant statement when he said, “hope does not come from outside but from inside the communities.” And with that, I will close this piece though the issue of land rights in Guatemala will, most likely, always remain open and bleeding…
Paul Pitcher is a missionary with the Christian Action of Guatemala (ACG). He serves as a communication and youth worker with ACG.