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March 2, 2010

"The Land No Longer Gives": Land Reform in Nebaj, Guatemala


In 1988-1989 my wife, our toddler, and I spent a year in Nebaj, a counterinsurgency zone of Guatemala. Living in Nebaj was not as risky as it might seem, at least for researchers enjoying the usual North American immunities and careful not to test the sensibilities of the Guatemalan Army. Backpacking tourists, many of tours of Central America, arrived daily, coming to Guatemala to find oppression and to Nicaragua to find liberation. Of oppression there was plenty in Nebaj, but we did find something else as well. Just as revolutions that win usher in staggering new problems, revolutions that lose can turn out to have accomplished some of their goals anyway.

Until recently, the Ixil (pronounced "ee sheel") Maya of this corner of the Department of El Quiché were known to the outside world mainly for the spectacular red dress of their women. Anthropologists came to consult with Ixil calendar priests, who represent one of the most conservative traditions of the contemporary Maya. In the late 1970s, reports of government assassinations began to filter out of the area, followed by reports of a Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) that was occupying villages and tearing down jails. Suddenly, the Ixils appeared in EGP pronouncements as a revolutionary people in arms. Ten years later, the survivors are a showcase for the Guatemalan Army.

The massacres for which Nebaj became famous have diverted attention from longer-term trends than a temporary drop in population. The good news is that, despite occupation by the Guatemalan Army, Ixils have recovered control of the Nebaj town hall from non-Indians. They have moved into new commercial occupations and are recuperating land from colonists run off by the violence. The bad news is that the war has accelerated a preexisting ecological crisis. A rapidly growing population is exhausting the land base. As a result, the majority of Ixils are becoming more dependent on working for plantations for as little as a dollar a day. No matter how entrenched death squad government is in Guatemala, I find it easier to visualize political reform than how to deal with the population and resource dynamics I witnessed. One possibility is that Ixils, like other Guatemalans, will increasingly see migration to the United States as the solution to their problems.

The Politics of Survival

The details of the Ixil tragedy have been reported sufficiently [see CSQ 12(3): 11-17, CSQ 8(4), CSQ 7(1) to not need repeating here. But I should describe the perspective forced on me by living with the large majority of the population under government control. Everyone agrees that the Guerrilla Army of the Poor was started by outside revolutionaries - Guatemalans but not Indians - who had survived a counterinsurgency bloodbath in the eastern part of the country. To organize local people, they appealed to grievances against plantation owners, labor contractors, and political bosses. Numerous Ixils eventually joined the guerrilla movement. But I no longer believe that the movement grew out of local social struggles, because the guerrillas did not recruit many Ixils until after the Guatemalan Army lashed back with indiscriminate reprisals. The EGP's success was not the result of Ixil peasants pregnant with revolutionary impulses, but of provoking repression on them.

For several years, until early 1982, the Guatemalan Army's reprisals backfired. Ixils began to flock to the guerrillas, who became a predominantly Mayan force. Then the army launched an offensive from which the guerrillas were unable to protect their supporters. Thousands of people were killed, and all rural settlements were destroyed. Forced to hide in the mountains, the majority of survivors have gradually been captured or forced to surrender. By the late 1980s, the army controlled most of the population in a typical counterinsurgency scheme of closely watched, concentrated resettlements, compulsory military service for males, and periodic offensives against the remaining guerrillas and refugees in the mountains. Army death squads were active elsewhere in Guatemala during our stay, kidnapping suspects and dumping their tortured bodies. But in Nebaj, the army was content with ominous warnings. If Ixil men stopped serving in the army's mandatory antiguerrilla patrols, a captain might warn, Don't come to us for help when the kidnappings recur.

The most popular way for outsiders to interpret these events through Mayan eyes has been through I, Rigoberta Menchu (Burgos-Debray 1983), the story of a Quiché Maya survivor from the same mountain range inhabited by the Ixils. Rigoberta Menchu's testimony was taped by a foreign journalist in January 1982, just as the army was gaining the upper hand against the guerrillas. Forced into exile by the murder of her family, Rigoberta believed that army massacres were galvanizing her people to new levels of militancy. Certainly there are peasants who fit Menchu's description, especially refugees in Mexico and with the guerrillas in the mountains. But among the 90 percent of the Ixil population under army control, a population reputed to have been a revolutionary stronghold in the early 1980s, the expectations raised by I, Rigoberta Menchu are sure to be disappointed. Most Ixils have chosen a very different strategy for survival. They have decided to cooperate with the stronger side - the Guatemalan Army.

Take the Ixil attitude toward the Civil Patrols, the army's system for conscripting the entire male population into periodic, unpaid military duty against the guerrillas. Father south in the Department of El Quiché, a major human rights struggle erupted in 1988-1989 when thousands of men insisted on their constitutional right to refuse to patrol. Among the Ixils, however, there was no such defiance. Nearly everyone resents the patrol; some have become adept at dodging it; yet many describe it as an unfortunate necessity. Why? Because four columns of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor operate in northern Quiché, in contrast to the south where there are none. If they stop patrolling, Ixils explain, guerrillas will be freer to approach people to buy supplies, and the army will start killing suspected collaborators again. As a result, many Ixils reluctantly support the patrols as a way to protect themselves from both sides.

A majority of Ixils have also acquiesced to the army's concentrated resettlement plan. Misnamed "Model Villages" and "Development Poles" for promised development projects that never materialized, the settlements have often been described as concentration camps. Yet when captured refugees are released from army custody, many ask the army for permission to organize new concentrated villages. So long as the guerrillas hang on in northern Quiché, the army and its resettlement plan are the only chance for Ixil peasants to return to their land and a semblance of their former lives. As for the guerrillas, Ixils have complicated feelings about them, but the most frequent declaration is, "They deceived us." There are also signs that Ixils are increasingly focusing their impatience over the hardship of war on the insurgents. Militarily the guerrillas continue to hold their own, but politically I believe they have been defeated.

But let us give the Guerrilla Army of the Poor its due. It toppled a local power structure that had oppressed Nebaj and the neighboring Ixil municipality of Cotzal for most of this century. When I inquired after the Ixil political bosses who used to run Cotzal, the answer was a monotonous litany of "lo mataron" ("they killed him," with "they" referring to the EGP). The transformation is also dramatic in Nebaj, where Ixils now control a town hall that used to be dominated by ladinos (non-Indian Guatemalans). Ladino labor contractors have been entirely replaced by their Ixil foremen: when asked why they no longer prosecute laborers for debts, contractors laconically point a finger at their heads like a pistol. It would be suicidal.

Counterinsurgency Land Reform

The Guerrilla Army of the Poor also reversed the accumulation of land in outsiders' hands - not directly, but by undermining the old power structure in northern Quiché. Intimidated by the army as well as the guerrillas, the largest landowners have put their land up for sale, allowed it to be expropriated by the government, or retrenched in other ways, prompting the largest-scale reallocation of land in living memory.

The Ixils lost the majority of their best land around the turn of the century to a mixed bag of colonists from their own country, Spain, and Italy. The ladinos came to Nebaj on behalf of coastal plantations, in search of labor. The best way to get it was to sell Ixils hard liquor and put them into debt. Succumbing to alcoholism, Indian men offered their land as collateral for loans and lost that, too. The better-connected ladinos also took advantage of the new land titling system established by Guatemala's Liberal Revolution after 1871 to override the Mayan system of use rights. Although Ixils fought the expropriation of their best valley land, they were no match for finca (plantation) owners when it came to buying influence in the capital. Archival research by Elliott (n.d.) indicates that the Ixils of Nebaj lost approximately 5 percent, the Ixils of Chajul 15 percent, and the Ixils of Cotzal one-third to one-half of their respective municipal land bases to finca owners.

The EGP's opening shot was into the gout-ridden body of Luis Arenas, lord and master of one of the two largest coffee plantations in northern Quiché. His Finca La Perla is located in a lush valley between the high, cold Ixil country and the hot tropical jungles of the lxcán. According to the EGP's oft-quoted account of Arenas' assassination, the assembled workers - waiting in line for wages - reacted to his demise with deep-throated cheers (Payeras 1981:90-1) - a claim recently denied by several of the men in question. What is certain is that La Perla's permanent workers - a dependent population of ladinos, Ixils, and Q'anjob'al Maya - were not gladdened by the finca's subsequent bankruptcy, which cut off their pay, nor did they join the revolution. Instead, they became a mainstay of the army's counterinsurgency drive. In 1982, civil patrollers from La Perla accompanied soldiers to nearby villages and helped them commit the worst massacres inflicted on the Ixils. When I visited seven years later, the army had such confidence in the La Perla Civil Patrol that it had withdrawn the last of its troops, in contrast to the heavy garrisons to the north, south, and east.

These were not the only ironies in the EGP's liberation of the Finca La Perla. To rescue their property, in the early 1980s the Arenas family entrusted day-to-day administration to a worker's committee. The new soviet was part of the family's reorganization of the finca as an asociación solidarista, a scheme to harmonize worker-owner relations that business reformers have imported from Costa Rica. The Arenases are also selling 40 percent of the firm's stock to the 500 permanent workers, although the finca is so heavily indebted to banks that they have yet to receive earnings. Not sharing in the worker's association are the 500 seasonal coffee pickers from surrounding Ixil villages who still consider themselves the land's rightful owners.

The other large coffee plantation in Ixil country is the Finca San Francisco, owned by the Brol family. If there was ever a Guatemalan version of the television show "Dallas," it would probably star the Brols, Nebaj's great seigniorial family prior to their recent evacuation. Guerrillas killed two of the Brols - one by mistake - and obtained a large ransom for the safe return of a third. Faced with bankruptcy, the family turned down an invitation from their rivals the Arenases to reorganize the Finca San Francisco as a solidarity association. Instead, they are selling off peripheral land, much of it still in cloud forest, over which they used to dispute with families like that of Rigoberta Menchu. "The land belongs to those who work it," one of the surviving heirs told me solemnly. Fifty-six hundred of the family's 6,800 hectares have gone on the market, he claimed - all but the heavily planted coffee groves - in 11-hectare parcels. The finca's resident workers have been given first rights to buy them for only US $200 each. Sales have been slow, however; this was a dark and bloody ground at the height of the violence, and it is still occupied by the Guerrilla Army of the Poor.

Land disputes in northern Quiché are the fruit of a century of contradictory claims ratified by obliging surveyors, notaries, and judges. A further impediment facing the Brols is that some of their sales have been interrupted by a government agency, the National Institute for Agrarian Transformation (INTA), which claims that the land belongs to the national patrimony. INTA's functions include land redistribution (which sounds like an oxymoron in Guatemala), and it has the kind of record to be expected in a country where saying the words land reform can get you killed. Still, INTA became active in the Ixil area under President Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983), whose evangelical advisers wanted to distribute any vacant holdings to the shell-shocked survivors of the army's pacification program. One plan was to give refugees in the Model Villages their own titles to nearby fields. The previous smallholders had never registered with the national government, and during the army offensive they had mysteriously vanished. Eventually INTA surveyors and army officers were impressed by the silent masses of Ixil owners and heirs gathering to defend their land; "ready to kill" is how their state of mind is described, and the plan was never carried out.

Another INTA program has been more successful: transferring the local fincas of one of the largest land-owning families in the country, the Herrera Ibargüens, to their resident workers. The various Herrera properties were not lucrative coffee plantations, even though several were located in the warm valley below Cotzal on the road to the Finca San Francisco. Instead, they provided seasonal labor for the Herreras' vast plantations on the southern coast. In return for cutting sugar cane every year, Ixils living on the fincas received subsistence plots to grow maize for their own consumption.

It is unclear exactly what triggered the Herrera family's abandonment of its Ixil holdings: the decision was apparently made in the late 1970s, after the EGP kidnapped a Herrera as cabinet minister and obtained a large ransom for his release. Since the worst of the violence, approximately 350 families in three Model Villages - San Felipe Chenlá, Bichibalá, and Santa Abelina - have received individual titles to former Herrera land in exchange for legal fees of US $10-20 each. Two other villages, Villa Hortencia I and Villa Hortencia II, are in the process of receiving title to Herrera land.

An INTA official attributed the expropriation to a tax on idle lands that quickly mounts to confiscatory levels. The Herreras' loss of the fincas was forzovoluntario ("forced and voluntary"), he said - a term we have long needed to describe Guatemalan political culture. But none of the heavily cultivated Ixil properties had actually been idle; rather, the Herreras gave them up to keep more valuable property elsewhere.

Another INTA intervention was in Las Pilas, the village with the longest continuously running land dispute in Nebaj. After more than 80 years of appeals, litigation, and defeat, the people of Las Pilas - who happen to be Q'anjob'al Maya - had taken advantage of the violence to stop paying rent to a ladino family. Now the INTA supervisor was encouraging the owners to make the best of a bad situation with another "forced and voluntary" sale. "What good is it to have displaced people at the edge of your finca, in a zone of conflict, where you can go in there and maybe not come back?" he pointed out helpfully. "This is why we tell people to invade fincas, because if the owner doesn't want to sell, he doesn't have to. But if there's an invasion, there is pressure" - and suddenly the owner wants to sell. "By the grace of God" was the INTA official's explanation for why his personnel had not suffered reprisals from landlords.

The Las Pilas villagers were not as lucky as the Herrera peons, however. When the village committee made the long journey to the department capital to close the sale, the owners failed to appear - apparently because their deed was tied up in probate and by back taxes. Owing to the prohibitive cost of clearing the deed, it was not likely to be transferable this side of the Second Coming. A Las Pilas representative estimated that the village had spent more than US $2,000 on arduous trips to petition the numerous levels and branches of authority. It is not unusual for the cost of such legal purgatories to go beyond the market value of the property. Yet peasants have little choice because the land is basic to their survival.

Revolution in the Counterrevolution

Ixil advances in the Nebaj town hall, in labor contracting, and in land tenure indicate that the social order has not been frozen by the victory of the Guatemalan Army. Usually we think of counterinsurgency as a defense of the status quo; but counterrevolution may entail some of the same changes as revolution does. Over the last decade, the Guatemalan Army has been more interested in defending its own prerogatives than in any abstract conception of a wider Guatemalan ruling class. Certainly the army has not been able to preserve the authority that ladinos used to exercise over Ixils in prewar Nebaj, and it may not even have tried to. The most abusive figures in Nebaj's prewar power structure - various labor contractors, finca owners, and military commissioners - either did not survive the EGP's revolutionary justice or were forced to flee.

As violence increased, ladinos dropped out of the contest for the town hall. None were willing to stand for election in the awful year of 1980, and over the following two years the majority left town. Even as the army exterminated local leaders suspected of subversion, the death or departure of power brokers forced it to rely on a new class of Ixil leaders. In 1982 the Ríos Montt Administration appointed an Ixil as mayor. Since then, ladino candidates have been easily defeated by Ixils running on the Christian Democratic ticket. The last three mayors have all been bilingual promoters from a pre-primary program supported by the US Agency for International Development to help Mayan children learn Spanish.

The revolutionary movement took on the appearance of an ethnic uprising because the population of the western highlands is mainly Mayan, as were the people mobilized. But the violence did not pit Ixil and ladino ethnic blocs against east other, even if some ladinos did suffer for their past activities. Instead, the violence seems to have brought together many Ixils and ladinos, as the latter found themselves treated like indios by a brutal counterinsurgency force. Remaining finca owners do not commend the army for defending their property: they are more likely to complain that the army destroyed it along with everyone else's. The army's scorched-earth tactics did not exclude their country houses and strings of mules.

Many Nebaj ladinos have since returned, and their numbers have been further replenished by new government employees assigned from the capital, to perhaps 15 percent of the population in the town center. Some continue to have great influence through working as teachers, serving on committees, or knowing influential figures in the capital. But ladinos have lost the near monopoly they used to have on mediation with national power. Now the army-appointed military commissioners are Ixils. All but one of the men on the municipal council is Ixil, and so are a growing number of schoolteachers, not to mention the leaders of the Civil Patrol and most evangelical pastors.

A new commercial elite is also emerging. The Ixils are known for their devotion to growing maize. Since land was abundant, subsistence agriculture used to thrive, and Ixils could be forced to work on far-off plantations only through coercive mechanisms such as debt-peonage. By the 1950s, a growing population and the subdivision of land through inheritance were squeezing the Ixils into "voluntary" seasonal migration. To avoid going to the coast, a few opened stalls in the Nebaj marketplace, then dominated by Quiché Maya from outside the area. With the violence, everyone who had a place to escape did so, leaving the market almost exclusively in the hands of Ixils, who now occupy nearly 100 permanent stalls. The size of the weekly Sunday market has increased enormously, partly because of the new accessibility offered by the army-expanded network of roads.

A huge marketplace is not necessarily a sign of prosperity: in a situation like that in Nebaj, mushrooming petty commerce reflects the lack of alternatives. But a few of the most successful Ixils are buying pickups, buses, and trucks, as well as real estate around the town plaza lost to ladinos early in the century. Now there are various ways for Ixils to work their way up in the world: labor contracting, administering refugee programs, schoolteaching, and opportunities for corruption in the town hall and Civil Patrol.

Land Redistribution Is Not Enough

However well a new elite of Ixil teachers, labor contractors, and merchants is doing, out in the resettlements everyone is worse off than before. Living in a Model Village makes school more accessible - postwar enrollment has more than doubled - but the concentration of households has disrupted Ixil ecology. The settlement pattern used to be dispersed, with families living amidst their land five or ten minutes' walk from neighbors. Now that everyone lives packed together, it is harder to build back the domestic animal stocks that the army destroyed when it burned down the previous settlement pattern. Many families also face an exhausting trek to their fields, which are too far to protect from wild pigs. "There's no way to make a living" is the refrain.

Maybe it is a sign of progress that subsistence, not political violence, is once again the biggest problem on the minds of the Ixils. Ever since the United States destroyed Guatemala's agrarian reform in 1954, commentators have stressed the need for redistributing land. But even if all ladino fincas were returned to the Ixils, the benefits would be limited, one reason being that such properties are already covered with the subsistence plots of finca dependents. On the 3,600-hectare Finca La Perla, far more appears to be planted in maize than in coffee.

The other reason benefits would be limited is that the Ixil population is growing so rapidly. If it grows at the same rate as the Guatemalan population, the current total of roughly 55,000 in the three Ixil municipalities will nearly quadruple in the next 35 years. Even if live births plummet from 6 to 2.5 per woman, the Guatemalan population will still double (Arias de Blois 1986:19-21). Available figures for Nebaj (1,555 on-time birth registrations in 1988 for an estimated population of 27,000) suggest an extremely high birth rate - 57.6 per 1,000, well above national rates (in the 41-43 range).

When church philanthropists buy out a finca owner to redistribute his land, they must choose only a few beneficiaries from among the multitude in need. In the case of the Finca Chemalá, the North Americans involved chose not to give the land to the cooperative at the nearest Model Village because it did not include the poorest households. Instead they divided it into 220 parcels, one-sixth of a hectare for each family. Although this was the most equitable solution, it also guaranteed that the land would be planted entirely in maize, then cultivated to the point of exhaustion.

Anthropologists usually defend subsistence agriculture against experiments with new cash crops, which carry risks that can easily wipe out peasant farmers. Slash-and-burn agriculture, employed by the Ixils on mountain slopes, is another practice anthropologists have defended against modernizers. But now the population has clearly outstripped the carrying capacity of the land at the current level of technology. Fallow cycles are being shortened to the point of exhaustion. "The land no longer gives" has become another Ixil refrain. When INTA performed agronomic surveys of six fincas and aldeas in the early 1980s, it reported that only about 40 percent of the land was suitable for cultivation, and most of that only for certain perennials. Yet most of the land had already been deforested for growing maize.

Expanding cultivation has devastated the pine and cloud forest that used to cover Ixil country. The fincas that took so much of the best valley land from the Ixils bear part of the blame, but not commercial logging; the clearing was all done by undernourished peasants swinging axes. As a result, treeless slopes plunge for miles; the charred cadavers of forest giants crisscross fields sprouting a few anemic cornstalks. At first I thought the Guerrilla Army of the Poor might function as a group of "ecology guerrillas," with its presence serving to fence off certain areas from deforestation. That theory failed to take into account the many thousands of refugees with the EGP, however. Some of the most extensive clearcutting this observer saw is in a deep ravine on the way to the Finca La Perla, where thousands of Ixils sheltered from army rampages. Now other remnants of forest are being eliminated by local woodcutters exploiting new penetration roads. Often forest cover survives on land that was fenced off in ladino-owned fincas, but it is not likely to survive subdivision for Ixil farmers. Surveying the slash and mess of Ixil agriculture, my sympathies as a tree hugger collided head-on with my obligations as an indigenous rights advocate.

Maize and Impoverishment

It seems indecent to complain about the growth of a population that survived the rage of the Guatemalan Army. In a comparison of the national census' projected population of the three Ixil municipalities for 1988 (98,825) with the government health centers' count (roughly 55,000), 44 percent of the population appears to be missing. (At one point, I thought that at least genocide would improve the person-to-land ratio.) But even if anything like 44 percent of the population is dead, in hiding, or in exile, which I currently doubt, the Ixil homeland remains too crowded for subsistence maize agriculture.

In a survey of 261 leaders and household heads in the Nebaj town center, they reported owning an average of less than two hectares each. At an average age of 40, they also reported an average of four living children. In the next generation, therefore, inheritance will roughly have the average landholding in these families to less than one hectare - far below what is needed for subsistence at current levels of productivity.

No one advocates abandoning maize, but more Ixils are joining government extension agents in decrying it as a dead-end economic strategy. Quiché Maya agriculture to the south is more diversified, both for home consumption and for the market. The most obvious way to experiment with new crops and keep landholdings from fragmenting is to organize cooperatives, but co-op membership is usually limited to those households with enough income to buy shares. People as far below the level of subsistence as most Ixils may not have the wherewithal for economic experimentation. Helping them to do so should be a critical priority for the development agencies buzzing through the area.

The usual response to Malthusian anxiety is to point to Guatemala's southern coast, currently monopolized by ladino plantation owners, whose land could support hundreds of thousands of campesino families. Land reform would also boost the purchasing power of the poor and stimulate Guatemala's internal market and create new urban jobs to supply it, thereby reducing the number of heirs requiring land to survive. Unfortunately, the Guatemalan bourgeoisie shows no sign of allowing this to happen. Impoverished families will probably continue to produce large numbers of children in the hope that each will provide another scrap of income - a family survival strategy that worsens the overall situation.

Faced with such a constricted horizon, Ixils increasingly view their salvation as a job in the great nation to the north. Few Nebajeños have managed to reach the United States, but the most adventurous are hatching plans. One young labor contractor said that he was either going to run for town mayor or "get wet," the local expression for crossing the Río Grande. Now that Guatemalans are coming to the United States in record numbers, Ixils have heard of the wonders of Los Angeles, a name they breathe reverently as if the place was really inhabited by angels. A place which we regard as the problem, they see as the solution. They have my address in California, and since leaving Nebaj I have been waiting for them to show up on my doorstep.

David Stoll is currently writing his dissertation on Nebaj at Stanford University. He is the author of Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? The Wycliffe Bible Translators in Latin America (Cambridge, MA: Cultural Survival and Zed Books, 1982) and Is Latin America Turning Protestant? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).


1. In 1988-1989 Nebajeños living in the town center were increasingly able to dodge the Civil Patrol, but out in the villages and in the other two Ixil municipalities the patrols remained obligatory. Perhaps because the Civil Patrol in the town center has been weakening, since our stay at least three people in Nebaj have died in army-style nocturnal executions.


Arias de Blois, J.

1986 La educación y las tendencias demográficas: Impactos mutuos. Guatemala City: Asociación Pro-Bienestar de la Familia de Guatemala.

Burgos-Debray, E., ed.

1983 1, Rigoberta Menchu. London: Verso.

Elliott, E.D.

n.d. A History of Land Tenure in the Ixil Triangle. Antigua, Guatemala: Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamerica. Unpublished ms.

Payeras, M.

1980 Los días de la selva. Mexico City: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo.

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