Grassroots Development: Not Just Organic Farming and Good Faith

Grassroots development - the term has a fresh, wholesome, democratic ring to. A group or a community takes control of the reins of change and works to determine its future, on its own terms.

The imagery it evokes contrasts with that of large-scale national development and the international funding it usually requires. Cultural Survival Quarterly has illustrated numerous cases in which national development is the outcome of decisions that are not only imposed on small societies but often violate their rights to land and natural resources. By contrast, one thinks of grassroots development as local initiative unencumbered by the political considerations and compromises that perceived to be an improvement in a particular group's economic condition, and the means as their own industry. As such, problems and needs are usually understood to be technical or managerial rather than political, and thus more easily resolved. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

While most outside observers and development specialists would acknowledge that "grassroots development" does not occur in a hermetically sealed environment, the broad political implications of a particular project are rarely mentioned. Such factors clutter the analysis and complicate the evaluation. Modernization, progress and "community development" are the more acceptable terms of reference. However, for those tribal people and ethnic minorities who hope to benefit from their own initiatives, economic improvement and human rights often are inseparable. For example, because use serves to demonstrate and preserve tenure, land use projects - agriculture, animal husbandry or forestry - becomes land rights projects as well. When Cultural Survival considers support for any activity, human rights implications and the strengthening of local organizations to defend such rights strongly influence any decision, as illustrated by the following cases from Guatemala and Colombia.


In late 1986, Cultural Survival surveyed the Guatemalan Indians' situation to assess the status of their human rights and to evaluate the possibilities for development assistance. Briefly, despite a sharp decline in the violence that was endemic in the early 1980s, Guatemala's Indian population is probably worse off, economically, than ever. Crops, animals natural resources and homes have been destroyed. Large sectors of the population had fled their communities, disrupting subsistence agricultural cycles and market production. At present, many of those displaced internally have returned, while about 45,000 refugees in Mexico still evaluate that possibility. Under such circumstances, almost any grassroots economic development program would appear to be beneficial and warmly welcomed. However, present political conditions and memories of recent violence complicate decisions. An account from one municipio, Comalapa, illustrates a common pattern.

In 1871, newly installed President Justo Rufino Barrios awarded previously untitled Indian lands in the department of Chimaltenango to several of his ladino (non-Indian) supporters. The new ladino landowners established haciendas, engaged Indian labor from neighboring communities, but resided mainly in Guatemala City. Six years later President Barrios decreed that departmental governors should force Indians to labor for these and other landowners, an act enabled by the legalization of debt peonage that same year. In 1884, "vagrancy laws" added further stimulus for Indians to provide their labor to landowners. Such legislation and increased expropriation of Indian lands progressively transformed subsistence farmers into dependent wage laborers.

Urban growth also reflected increased ladino presence and power. The municipal seat gradually expanded from a small setting for ritual activities, civil administration and exchange to a relatively large commercial center. Here, while the rituals and internal politics of Indian society were maintained by Indian cofradias, ladinos dominated most of the economic and political life. This distribution of power and authority was typical of many communities in the Indian highland.

The situation began to change in the 1950s and 1960s with the nationwide emergence of the Catholic Action movement, which combined orthodox Catholicism and social action. The Guatemalan situation was part of broad "liberation theology" movement within the Catholic Church. By the early 1960s a progressive Mexican priest who for several years had been focusing much of his attention on the Indians of the Comalapa parish encouraged some of them to organize into cooperatives and to undertake group activities other than those run by the cofradias, which he interpreted as little more than drunken rites. This movement angered the local ladinos, who recognized the new forms of Indian organization as a threat to their economic and political dominance. It also alienated those Indians who regarded the cofradias as essential expressions of their culture. In 1967, this political and philosophical movement within the church split the entire community into two distinct congregations - the "new" and the "traditional." In response, ladinos and Indian traditionalists joined forces to elect an alcalde (mayor) who supported their interests and was able to temporarily remove the priest. The recent grassroots initiatives of the priest, however, had taken hold.

Nearly a decade later, following the 1976 earthquake, economic assistance flowed into the country, enabling the new Indian organizations to finance activities for which they were already mobilized. With improved agricultural training and credit, Indian cooperatives flourished. In Comalapa, whenever possible, Indians either rented or purchased the lands of absentee ladino owners, for whom they had previously been working as either wage laborers or tenants. Through this process, some of Comalapa's Indians increasingly met their economic needs through what could be called grassroots development. This economic independence led to a decline in seasonal labor migration, a diminished labor pool for local ladinos and, by extension, the emergence of a local Indian political force.

This progress, however, was stalled by a combination of events in the late 1970s. Nationally, a pattern of political unrest, the demands of new labor organizations and the emergence of class-oriented political organizations triggered a campaign of state terror in both urban and rural areas. In Comalapa, for example, one's affiliation within the split congregation marked one more or less for repression. The "new" group, with its program of cooperatives and other grassroots development, was the principal target. Although progressive, Catholic Action initially was strongly anticommunist and many of the followers remained so. Others, particularly a small segment of the university students, became convinced that they were involved in a class struggle that could only be resolved through violent action. In Comalapa, this led to yet another split and subsequent internecine violence among younger members of the "new" Indians initially brought together by Catholic Action.

All became easy targets for repression through guilt by association or, in many cases, by convenient accusation. For example, landowners whose labor supply and political hegemony had been eroded by the cooperative movement were quick to label members of the "new" church - Indian and clergy alike - as subversives. Similarly, the Indian traditionalists were angered both by Catholic Action's efforts to submerge the cofradias with orthodox Catholicism and by feelings of discrimination and isolation within a church where they had previously been the principal Indian authorities. Consequently, they began to ally themselves with the ladinos in opposition to certain church officials. One foreign priest and an agronomist who worked with him were forced out of the community and later found killed in the capital.

For Indians, the situation was the worst in rural aldeas (outlying hamlets), where the population was forced to aid both the government security forces and an emerging guerrilla movement, depending on which was pressuring them at the moment and suffering the wrath of the other when they did so. Insecurity was compounded by long-standing local animosities manifested by false accusations. In some cases, state security forces responded violently to any accusation, but some residents claim that there was a clear pattern. One member of the "new" church related how, during the peak years of the violence (1980-1982), assassinations in his group became so common that a large sector of the "new" church fled to Guatemala City, despite the insecurity there.

During the peak of the violence, Evangelical Protestants began to enter the community and proselytize. They talked of salvation through faith, not of cooperatives or grassroots organizations. People noticed that few of those who joined this new church died or disappeared. One resident said that, out of fear of death, others began to convert. He indicated that for those in the aldeas the pattern was even more obvious; those who refused to join the new church were shot as subversives. One 14-year-old boy said that masked men entered his house one night; those in the house who accepted Evangelical Protestantism were allowed to flee before the building was burned. The boy's father refused and was shot.

At the time of our visit (October 1986), the violence appeared to have ended. But the memories did more than linger; they haunted. Most families, we were told, had returned, with the notable exception of the widows, who were still afraid for their lives. Largely due to fears of guilt by association, the community has ostracized and abandoned many widows, thus forcing them to resettle in the capital city.

In the rural areas, despite the need to rebuild the agricultural economy, men continued to contribute about one day a week to the civil patrols. Although Guatemala's new constitution has made regular participation in the civil patrols voluntary, men did so largely to demonstrate that they are above suspicion. Most of the ladinos had sold their land and moved away out of fear of vendettas; and in brief, the fear of latent violence dominated the activities and attitudes of the population.

To imagine that any sort of grassroots development or pan-community organizations to promote that work would obtain support under such circumstances would be to presume that people are willing to risk their lives in a political environment where violence, they suspect, could run out of control as quickly as in the past. People had been killed simply because they were beginning to organize and working toward economic independence, or because they were helping others to do so. Most feel that, for the moment, it is emotionally and physically safer to avoid such activities. As such, most "development" programs now simply provide services, for the development workers cannot endanger the people they aid through programs which support or encourage a greater degree of independence and initiative.

The municipio of Comalapa is not an extreme case. In fact, the consequences of grassroots development there have been mild by comparison to those in department such as Quiché and Huehuetenango which are still under close surveillance and control by national security forces. In each area the Indians' desire to use one's or, more dangerously, a group's initiative to improve economic conditions is impeded by the fear of violence. When aspirations are secondary to survival, a low profile is the safest posture to assume.


In Guatemala, though mass organizations such as the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) were able to unite plantation workers, Indian mobilization for grassroots development in their highland homeland rarely moved beyond the community level. By contrast, since 1970 Colombia's Indians in the department of Cauca have gradually incorporated themselves into the Regional Indian Council of Cauca (CRIC), which now claims over 50 affiliated communities and a broad program of grassroots economic development activities for its members. In the process, CRIC has become a significant political force within the department and would be extremely difficult to dismantle or destroy. Nevertheless, although international attention to violence in Colombia has focused largely on drug traffic, the department of Cauca is laced with fuses leading to different powder kegs, any one of which could explode with CRIC as a target.

Since its formation, CRIC has fought with local landlords in an effort to regain the lands of Indian communal holdings, resguardos. Recently, large-scale lumbering and pulp companies have worked to convert Indian lands into pine forests. At the same time, the region has the active presence of the nations numerous guerrilla movements. Illicit drug trade also thrives in the isolated interior. And finally, to combat the guerrillas, the Colombian army has increased the size of its forces and the sophistication of its weaponry in the area. Within this complex arena CRIC has few allies.

All of this has affected CRIC's approach to grassroots development. A forestry project supported by Cultural Survival clearly illustrates the multiple layers of analysis that enter into the organization's decision to undertake a specific activity. In this case, erosion control and increased firewood are the expressed, principal aims of the project. By encouraging communities to plant trees, and providing them with technical assistance, CRIC hopes to stem the destruction of topsoils, provide cheap fuel, and eventually generate a source of income either from timber or fruit tree. At this level of analysis, the project fits neatly into the apolitical imagery of grassroots economic development As such its success can easily be monitored and evaluated. However, if these were the sole criteria, support for the project could easily be questioned. After a year of funding, CRIC's technical team had established only two experimental nurseries, undertaken modest reforestation in five communities and developed a plan to expand their activities.

Nevertheless, Cultural Survival recently agreed to continue its support of the work for at least another year. From that standpoint of cost/benefit analysis, no forestry project can be expected to produce results quickly. Relative to agriculture, trees take a long time to produce and, for that reason, generate far less enthusiasm within communities as poor as those federated by CRIC. Nonetheless, at the annual CRIC Congress the community representatives unanimously supported the work of the resource management project and recommended its continuation.

There are several reasons why the forestry team members weren't able to implement their program in a greater number of communities; and most of them relate to broader political questions. The small project is competing with one of South America's largest, multinational pulp corporations, Carton de Colombia, which is providing economic and other incentives to communities that agree to either plant pine trees or lease community land to the company. Critical of this approach, CRIC cites tests which indicate that these species will rapidly degrade the soil and render it useless for agriculture. Moreover, land tenure is threatened any time corporations obtain a claim over land or production on that land. The communities are aware of this, but they are also poor. CRIC must be able to provide an alternative that is economically sound. Otherwise community members, tempted by the incentives, would perhaps destroy their soil and then be willing to sell what will have become worthless land. The CRIC project is experimental; it works largely with native species, and introduces only trees that are compatible with local soil types and climate. This takes time.

Some other entrepreneurs would like to see Indian lands put to use in a different manner. The isolated, mountainous terrain of the eastern sector of Cauca is ideal, climatically and strategically, for growing both coca for cocaine and poppies for heroin. As such the department has become a prime area for illicit drug production and trafficking. Like Carton de Colombia, the traffickers are anxious to convert Indians into producers or lease their land for production. And the incentives used by the drug dealers are far more persuasive than those of the pulp manufacturers.

The presence of drug traffickers has brought in both the national drug enforcement agency and the army. Local non-Indian landowners see this as an excellent opportunity to regain land that they had once whittled off from Indian communal holdings. CRIC has been progressively reclaiming this land for the communities through court battles, yet all of these gains are in jeopardy if it can be proven that the owners have used their lands for illegal production. The CRIC forestry project works to prevent this situation by introducing tree crops onto lands where coca and poppies could easily become the principal income source.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, the mountains to the east provide a staging and refuge area for at lest four guerrilla movements that seek Indian support. They have been largely unsuccessful and consequently some have attacked Indian communities that refuse to join or otherwise support them. CRIC has become a target for at least one guerrilla movement, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC); and members of the forestry project team are threatened when they travel to work sites. Since another guerrilla group M-19, opposes FARC, it has tried to recruit CRIC support. CRIC denies links with any group. But since M-19 has not responded violently to this rejection, rumors circulate of a secret collaboration. This, in turn, has brought CRIC under police and military surveillance. Amidst all of these forces, to assume that even so innocent an effort as reforestation can function without consideration of the potential political implications and physical risk of each activity is to grossly misinterpret the nature of grassroots development.


The cases selected here may seem extreme, but they are not unrepresentative of the problems faced by any group involved in grassroots development. When Catholic Action began its work in Guatemala, no one expected what would occur a decade later. And although CRIC's reforestation project was, in part, a response aggressive corporate expansion onto community lands, the other actors who clutter the economic and political landscape were unanticipated. In both cases, independent initiatives got caught in much larger national and international concerns. And the Indians, with few exceptions, got caught in the middle. While there is no formula for avoiding violence or guaranteeing economic improvement, some efforts at grassroots development illustrate ways to protect human rights as well, and thus demonstrate that one can support the other.

To illustrate, the situations in Guatemala and Colombia are in some ways analogous, yet there is a significant difference between the Indians of Colombia's department of Cauc and the Indians of Guatemala. CRIC is a pan-ethnic organization whose member communities have elected a sophisticated leadership and obtained an international reputation. When problems have arisen in the past, CRIC has been able to mobilize a high degree of international support. In the late 1960s, CRIC was the subject of an Amnesty International investigation following the detention of some of the organization's leaders. As present problems in the area accelerate. CRIC has already begun to mobilize yet another international support network. This access to international response makes massacres on the level of those that occurred to Guatemala unlikely, even in a country with Colombia's history of massive rural violence.

In Guatemala, when communities were attacked or destroyed, many neighboring communities, quite understandably, fled into exile. They had no alternative, no organized recourse. Violence there had been carried out for years before its impact on the Indian communities became public knowledge. By the time it was exposed, most of the human rights work lay in an effort to accurately document the nature and scale of a tragedy, not to prevent it.

In Columbia the situation is different. CRIC has mobilized communities not only for economic development but to support their human rights. Any attack against any member community is regarded as an attack against the organization which, in turn, is mobilized to seek recourse and resolution. Understood in this way, Indian federations are not only an excellent mechanism to extend a program of grassroots economic development, but to present a united defense against rural violence as well. Grassroots development then becomes, to a large extent organization building, which can improve both economic and human rights. The ability of such an organization to form in Guatemala will determine whether assistance becomes empowerment or patronage.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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