Protecting earth and identity

Decades of struggle for legal recognition of his land came to nothing for Don Francisco Siguic. Now the LWF and a Guatemalan human rights association hope to obtain land ownership titles. Photo: LWF/C. Kästner
Decades of struggle for legal recognition of his land came to nothing for Don Francisco Siguic. Now the LWF and a Guatemalan human rights association hope to obtain land ownership titles. Photo: LWF/C. Kästner

LWF supports Maya communities in Guatemala

(LWI) - If anyone knows about bureaucracy in Guatemala, it would be Francisco Siguic, 65. He has been trying to get a land title for more than 40 years.

Siguic, or Don Francisco, is a farmer. Like many of the indigenous Maya population in Guatemala, he has been working on coffee plantations for European farmers since he was 16. “You had to harvest 40 square meters a day for 50 cents,” he says. “If that plot was not completed, you did not get any money.”

It was a hard life - 15 days work in a row, then 15 days rest. If he worked in a different job or his own business during the rest period, he would lose his job without pay. Authorities could even take him to prison for that. The decision whether his work had been done well depended on the goodwill of the supervisor.

Promise of a home

“I realized it was really hard. There was a lot of suffering and exploitation in forced work,” he recalls. That’s how Francisco Siguic decided his family should have a different life. When he got married in 1975, he and his wife moved to Petén, the northernmost department of Guatemala. It consists of tropical forest and is considered the Maya place of origin. Every inch of arable land had to be prepared by the indigenous people who moved there. To the Maya, Petén held the promise of their own land, a place they could work and live while preserving their culture. Don Francisco walked for a week. When he arrived in Agua Negra, he asked the local community for permission and was granted a plot for subsistence farming. What he did not get was a legal title.

“The land legally belongs to the Guatemalan government, which effectively has meant the military,” says Michael French, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) program officer for Latin America. “The indigenous population at some point was granted a right of use for 20 years. That term has expired and not been renewed. If they are evicted because others are allocated the land, they lose their livelihood.”

Odyssey through the institutions

In 1976 Don Francisco applied for a land title for the first time. He walked for days to the land allocation office in San Juan, and when he got there, was handed a stack of papers. “They told me to get all the necessary documents and then to come back,” he says. “That took a lot of time, because there was no transportation.” When he had his papers together, he went back to San Juan, but was told that the office had moved to Santa Helena.

In my heart I own the land. It’s the only thing that I can leave for my children.
Don Francisco Siguic

Don Francisco walked for a week, with a pack of tortillas and a water bottle he filled in the rivers. In Santa Helena, his papers were accepted. “We will continue when the entire community has put in their claims,” he was told. “We will call you when that happens.”

Don Francisco trusted that promise, but the call never came. When he inquired the status of his land title in 1995, he was told to get the documents again, as the ones he’d handed in had expired. The same happened in 2004. In 2006 he went to the land fund, for the first time with paid bus transport, but they wanted the original file from 1976. “When I finally had everything they wanted, they told me requirements had changed again. It feels like I’ve been to the office at least 80 times,” he says.

“Knowledge of the land”

In 2007, the association Pop Noj started supporting the community of Agua Negra. ‘Pop Noj’ in the indigenous Kek’chi language means “knowledge of the land”. The association is a local implementing partner of the LWF. In Agua Negra they started with workshops on land rights. They then went about obtaining a communal title, to make sure the local farmers in Agua Negra could no longer be evicted. The second step would be going for the much more complex individual titles.

“We are an ancestral community,” the local Pop Noj spokesperson, Jaime Caal Tux  explains. “We recognize our own elected council, not some municipality or mayor. Therefore we know well how to take care of mother Earth, but very little about the law and authorities. Together with Pop Noj and LWF, we community leaders have now been working on the necessary documents to be granted a communal title.”

Government procedures are still as slow as Don Francisco experienced. Tux expects it will take about four years until the title is granted, but with the communal effort, chances are looking up. Pop Noj has already been successful in three other communities, and received communal land titles for those villages. “These three titles are an encouragement,” Tux says. “It is an example for others to see that it is possible. Our children learn that there is a way that nobody can take their family land away from them.”

Preserve identity

The world Don Francisco grew up in has changed. While he ran away from the coffee plantation as a young man, many young people today seek employment on the commercial African palm oil plantations which are spreading throughout Petén, threatening the Mayan people’s way of life. The fight of the Maya for their land has also become a fight to preserve the tropical forest, their traditional livelihood and their identity.

“In my heart I own the land. It’s the only thing that I can leave for my children”, Don Francisco says. His family now consists of two daughters and four sons with their children. “My sons want to farm here, that’s why I keep fighting. I know what exploitation means. I want them to have their own land.”

Children play on a makeshift cart at Petén, in the north of Guatemala. Photo: LWF/C.Kästner


Candles are lit to remember land rights grievances. Photo: LWF/C.Kästner