Development, decolonisation, and territorial defense in the Xesiguan watershed, Guatemala
Department of Agroecology and Society
El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Chiapas, Mexico
How do communities develop economic and livelihood alternatives centered on local values within a context of entrenched political hostility and imposed development? What do these alternatives look like, and what is their potential for building social capital and defending territory, along with tackling regional problems such as migration and environmental degradation?
In this blog I briefly touch on these questions by presenting a case from the Xesiguan watershed, in the Maya-Achí territory, Guatemala. More specifically, I examine the critical work employed by one local organization, ACPC (Association of Committees of Community Production), in their struggle for community wellbeing through agroecology, ecological restoration, and the recovery of ancestral practices and principles.
The Maya-Achí are one of 25 linguistic groups in Guatemala, with approximately one hundred thousand inhabitants. Located in the highland department of Baja Verapaz, the territory is predominately rural, and agricultural – though due to its propensity to drought and isolation, production is largely subsistence/infra-subsistence, rather than industrialized for export products, as is the case elsewhere in the country.
Similar to other indigenous groups in Guatemala, the history of the Achi is embedded with numerous attempts at domination by the European minority, often through state-sponsored repression and violence. The most recent episode, which occurred during the Guatemalan Armed Conflict, resulted in the loss of 20% of the Achi population, mainly between 1980-83 (CEH 1999). This caused a total rupture in the social fabric, local customs and forms of production. Following the official end to the conflict and signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, the implementation of neoliberal development plans centered on temporal labor, aid, and short-term projects. These were often designed and executed by external NGOs and institutions and contributed to processes of dependency and community division with limited improvement to the critical economic and environmental situation (Einbinder 2017).
Development ‘from within’
Since the early 2000s, a number of local grassroots associations and community development organizations have formed with the intent to recuperate Achi society and culture by offering alternatives to the imposed development programs initiated by the state and international partners. As a traditional agrarian community with deep ties to specific crops and varieties, harvest and planting rituals, along with customs related to holistic land management, the focus of these projects are generally on agricultural production and food. However, most groups seek an integrated framework, utilizing a diversity of activities to move toward common goals of equality and wellbeing (which also include economic improvement and poverty reduction).
Located in the Xesiguan watershed, ACPC works in ten communities with the mission to increase sustainable agricultural production while simultaneously protecting the Xesiguan River, the principle source of water for the town of Rabinal, also the political and economic center of the territory. Projects include reforestation with native species and agroforestry, irrigation and water catchment, sustainable animal husbandry focusing on ancestral practices and natural feed production, farmer to farmer exchanges emphasizing soil management, fabrication of organic inputs, and seed saving; and recent efforts surrounding the development of regional agroecological markets.
As expressed by ACPC director Alfredo Cortez, the guiding principle of their work is to “initiate development processes that come from within, rather than having it brought to us.” This framework mirrors that of other indigenous organizations in the quest for self-governance and sustainability (see Jacobi et al 2017). In contrast to projects directed by outside institutions, which often involve aid or some compensation, provoking dependency, ACPC strives for long-term accompaniment, while emphasizing voluntary action among participants. Additional emphases include horizontal knowledge transfer, in place of those considered top-down, as well as the recuperation and revalorización of traditional and/or ancestral practices and principles, thus strengthening processes of decolonisation. This trend is also visible in this testimony by Cortez: “The objective is to become conscious of the resources we have at hand while relearning how to utilize them sustainably… initiating development that protects Mother Earth, rather than harming Her.”
School lunch project
One example of ACPC’s integrated development approach is found in the recent agreement between its committee of women producers and the local primary school. After a year of negotiations and consultations, the committee has negotiated a fair market price for their organic produce, and eggs, to be prepared (also by local women) in school lunches.
This achievement touches on several key objectives in ACPC’s alternative development strategy. First, it gives economic incentive to women in the association by offering a guaranteed market for their goods, all of which are produced agro-ecologically (see Gliessman 2015), through the assistance of other local farmers and workshops. It is a driver for the up-scaling of agro-ecological practices (Einbinder et al. 2019), which contribute to the recovery and use of cultural/ancestral practices and heritage varieties, many of which are recognized for their high nutritional value and contribution towards enhancing agrobiodiversity. Secondly this agreement contributes to better diets and food sovereignty principles, a strong focus of ACPC’s work. Until now, the food provided for students at school (the state provides a modest allowance for lunches and snacks) was packaged and bought at the local dispensa, or grocery. With increasing concern nationwide over malnutrition, obesity, and food insecurity, this agreement ensures youth adequate nutritional and culturally appropriate food, and in theory, will influence better choices at home.
Resistance and territorial defense through development
Notwithstanding the myriad of challenges ACPC confronts in implementing projects, as well as attracting adequate members to sustain the movement, they offer an interesting and promising case study of how endogenous development might resist the neoliberal model. By incorporating agro-ecology along with environmental and social restoration into its framework, they engage in processes of territorial defense, through the building of social and natural capital. As stated by Cortez, “the idea is to offer alternatives; to keep people from abandoning their lands and their families.” Whether or not this objective will be achieved will ultimately rely on, as Cortez put it, “changing people’s minds,” with respect to the revaluation of food, production, and resources, along with the recovery of more ancestral perspectives of wellbeing, including the quality of relationships, connection to Mother Nature, and reciprocity among neighbors.
Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH) (1999). Guatemala: memoria del silencio. Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification Conclusions and Recommendations. Available at: https://hrdag.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/CEHreport-english.pdf (Accessed: 20 November 2019).
Einbinder, Nathan (2017). Dams, development, and displacement: Perceptions from Río Negro, Guatemala. New York, NY: Springer-Palgrove. Springer Briefs in Latin American Studies.
Einbinder, Nathan; Morales, Helda, Mier Y Terán-Giménez Cacho,Mateo, Aldasoro, Miriam, Ferguson, Bruce G. & Nigh, Ronald (2019). Agroecology on the periphery: A case from the Maya-Achí territory, Guatemala. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 43(7-8): 744-763.
Gliessman, S. R. 2015. Agroecology: The ecology of sustainable food systems. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, USA: CRC Press.
Jacobi, Johanna; Mathez-Stiefel, Sarah-Lan; Gambon, Helen; Rist, Stephen; Altieri, Miguel (2017). Whose knowledge, whose development? Use and role of local and external knowledge in agroforestry projects in Bolivia. Environmental management, 59 (3), 464-476