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December 20, 2018

This week, many people in the United States were saddened and angered by the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, the seven-year-old Mayan girl from Guatemala detained by the U.S. Border Patrol. Few noticed, however, that on Tuesday the United States and Guatemala were two of only eight countries that voted against the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Rural People, which was supported by 121 nations. It’s long past time that we as a country recognize that the death of Jakelin Caal, and many others, is closely linked to the U.S.’s relationship with Central America and our policies toward rural and indigenous people.

In the wake of Jakelin’s death, concerned members of Congress rightly went to the border and denounced the conditions in which children and adults are detained. CNN and AP reporters also made the trip to Jakelin’s Q’eqchi’ Maya village in the municipality of Raxruha in northern Guatemala and located her mother and grandparents. However, their reporting hardly told the full story of why the village is so impoverished – and why Jakelin and her family found themselves in a desperate situation that led them to migrate.

ActionAid works in Raxruha to support Q’eqchi’ communities in their struggle for their economic, social, cultural and political rights. Jakelin’s village is on the northern side of the Raxruha town center, only five miles from a vast expanse of palm oil plantations that dominate the landscape to the north and to east. We supported a study of land tenure in the municipality and are partnering with communities that are taking steps to defend their land and water from the encroaching plantations.

Indigenous communities are working together to defend their rights, and in some cases to take their land back. However, powerful business interests have used a corrupt justice system to intimidate communities by issuing arrest wants for hundreds of indigenous people. Q’eqchi’ leaders such as Bernardo Caal and Abelino Chub have been imprisoned for months and years on false charges. During 2018, at least 21 indigenous rights defenders have been murdered throughout Guatemala.

From colonial times to the present day, the Guatemalan Maya have suffered from marginalization, discrimination and violence in a racially divided society. Guatemala is the wealthiest country in Central America, and it is also the most unequal. In Guatemala, indigenous people make up over half the population, and they mostly live in rural areas where extreme poverty is common. In Raxruha, 86% of the population lives in poverty or extreme poverty. Yet most of the land – especially the best land – is in the hands of a few agribusiness companies. According to USAID, 2.5% of the farms in Guatemala control two-thirds of the land.

The U.S. has been intimately tied into the Guatemalan economy. U.S. companies have been buying from and supporting wealthy plantation owners in Guatemala for many decades. Right-wing governments have dominated Guatemala in the decades since the U.S. sponsored a military coup in 1954 to overthrow a government that attempted to address inequality in landholdings. The inequality in Guatemala led to a civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996, during which the U.S. supported Guatemala’s rulers. More than 200,000 people were killed.

In 1999 the UN Truth Commission on Guatemala found that the U.S.-backed government had committed genocide in its murderous military campaigns targeting Mayan communities. One and a half million people, mostly Mayans, were displaced by the war. As part of the 1996 peace deal, the Guatemalan government agreed to address land equality and poverty in rural areas, and the U.S. pledged to support this in conjunction with the World Bank and others.

However, these promises were soon manipulated by global agribusiness interests. A large-scale World Bank land titling program in the north of Guatemala was turned into a vehicle for large palm oil companies to take over vast areas, displacing many Q’eqchi’ Maya communities, including in Raxruha where Jakelin was born, and requiring more people to depend on less land.

Palm oil plantations do very little for local development, providing only poorly paid seasonal jobs with horrible working conditions. Economic studies show that small-scale farming of corn and beans has a better potential to support indigenous livelihoods and provide food for Guatemala. But the economic development and trade policies of both Guatemala and the U.S. have undermined this potential. U.S. companies such as Cargill and Pepsi buy the products of plantations while flooding Guatemala with food products, undermining indigenous farmers who lack adequate access to healthcare, education, roads, markets, and social safety nets.

In addition to acknowledging the role we have played in the bloody history of Guatemala’s indigenous people, the U.S. must:

  • support the freedom of people to choose to migrate or to be able to stay in their home communities, and to be together with their loved ones in communities both old and new;
  • work with global institutions to protect the land rights of indigenous peoples and marginalized rural communities, and to redistribute land to people who have lost their livelihoods by being made landless; and
  • work to implement economic and social policies that enable family farmers and communities to produce food and live well. These policies are needed for U.S. farmers, and we should support the same in countries like Guatemala.

Our government needs to assume a responsible role in the international community with respect to human rights, climate change, migration, and the rights of rural people. Otherwise, we will continue to have blood on our hands – that of Jakelin Caal and countless others who are forced to leave their homes only to be confronted with further violence upon reaching our borders.