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Expert Opinion

Guatemala: structural violence driving displacement and disrupting indigenous communities, especially women

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Central America often appears to be awash with migrants.  At times, it may appear that most of the population in the region would readily pack up and leave in search of better opportunities elsewhere if they could. The violence and lack of opportunities in Central American countries may tend to reinforce this perception. It could be argued however that, given the choice, a majority would much rather remain and seek a better life in their homeland. This particularly applies to indigenous people who feel a strong attachment to their land and ancestral heritage. 

Identifying the various forms of violence and coercion driving displacement   

The violence that people in Central American countries experience is often understood as being limited to acts of physical violence, particularly various forms of armed violence. Yet this represents a narrow understanding of the diverse manifestations of violence in the region. For example, what Johan Galtung, the founder of the Peace Research Institute-Oslo, termed structural violence, which refers to structures and mechanisms that prevent access to basic human needs, is also highly prevalent in Central America. 

In Guatemala, the threat of physical violence in the form of homicides and femicides related to interpersonal bloodshed, gang rivalry and organized crime is so pervasive that it easily obscures the existence and threat posed by structural violence. Consequently, the structural and physical forms of violence have become so enmeshed that it is difficult to distinguish between them. Examples of this include the use of the military to subjugate or force populations to leave their homes. In such cases structures and mechanisms supported by the military are put in place preventing access to basic needs.

‘Development’ projects deprive indigenous communities of their ancestral homelands and means of livelihood

The Guatemalan context is fraught with multiple examples of measures that prevent the population from securing their basic needs. Here our specific focus is on populations whose basic needs are being stripped away by efforts to further develop the country. The contradiction inherent in this statement is not an oversight. Indeed, in Guatemala, large development projects approved by the state have led to a brutal disruption and breakup of whole communities. Discussions with indigenous women living in areas where the government has authorised major development projects often highlighted that their respective husbands (if they had one) had been jailed for protesting against the government, or had left to secure supplementary income for their families. In other cases single mothers were the sole source of income or sustenance for themselves and their children. Indeed, despite existing legislation which requires men to provide financial support for their children, economic violence is a commonplace experience for Guatemalan women across economic strata. For indigenous women with no access to alternative income sources, and whose husbands have either left them or been jailed, their land is a resource of incomparable value. Without it they lack food and a place to establish their shelter. Moreover, leaving their homes and land also means the loss of their social networks ‒ not to mention the cultural value that ancestral lands have for indigenous communities.

Defining the true nature of the violence affecting indigenous women

When examining displacement in Guatemala, and specifically how it is driven by the violence endured by indigenous women, we must redefine what we mean by violence to include not only physical violence, which many experience, but also violence in the form of hardship induced by the forced loss of a home and ancestral land that serves to grow food to feed the family. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer indigenous women now have access to work their ancestral land, or are able to benefit from and honour the cultural and traditional heritage of their ancestors. 

The struggle that more and more indigenous women in Guatemala face does not have one source or one solution. It is the product of a long and complex sequence of actors, events and history. The situation today can be described as the result of two distinct developments. On the one hand, the land itself has been used and abused and is worn out. The crops that it yields are no longer substantive and climate change threatens soil degradation through rainfall deficiency or over-supply. On the other hand, the land has continued to shrink incessantly. More recently, land has been used for industrial development, which in turn strains available water supply and contaminates the soil with chemicals that will outlast us all.  According to the women living off the land, the chemicals render the land infertile, though it was not very productive to begin with.

Why focus on women? Do men not experience the same hardship?  Arguably yes, but in a society where most women have children, where family break-ups and household abuse are commonplace, ensuring that women have some form of independence is a paramount concern. This independence can be sourced from the land and from the communities women live in. Indeed, there are good examples of indigenous women’s mobilisation, but this is only possible if women are able to retain access to their land.

Where does this place us? Does the development of a country justify limited population displacement? What are the alternatives? How can the rights of women, particularly indigenous women, be further protected so they are able to meet their basic needs and be safe from harm? 

We focus here on indigenous women because they are one of the most vulnerable groups in Guatemala. They often lack education, the ability to converse in Spanish, and are the least worldly, making them even more vulnerable than other segments of the population. While great strides have been made to recognise physical violence against women, much more needs to be done to protect them from structural violence.