Others argue the palm plantations have not provided the jobs—nor quality of life—promised or anticipated at the time that the land transfers were executed. "The palm company pays them eight [U.S. dollars] for one day of labor," says Ernesto Tzi, manager of SANK, an NGO working with Maya rural communities to preserve their land and their traditional family agriculture. "The work is getting harder and harder all the time, and if we can't make it, they bring in outside workers. Is that the benefit to the community they promised?
At the root of the problem—outside of forced evictions and other pressure—is a lack of clear land laws or policy at the federal, regional and local levels. "We want a state of law to apply," Widmann says of these land conflicts. "We don't want to live like savages, according to the law of the strongest. We wish to live in peace."
Sales negotiations, if they occur at all, are usually one-sided, peasants and their advocates say. "Negotiations for land acquisition often take place behind closed doors, quickly and in a context of unequal power," explains Lorenzo Cotula, a legal researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, an independent international research organization specializing in sustainable development.
Many such sales in Guatemala occurred after local rural families were granted rights to a parcel of land as part of a post–civil war governmental program known today as Fontierras and supported by The World Bank. Each family received land rights to a parcel, but large landowners and agribusiness typically moved in to purchase the land from peasants, who wound up with little in the way of recompense and no land then to feed their families.
"These policies have created a market of access rights to land," says Oliver De Schutter, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food. "Over time, they are in favor of great landowners who have the means and the power to acquire those lands from the hands of little peasants once he has a formal title. We therefore witness a process of agrarian reconcentration into a few elite hands."
Despite this array of challenges, some Guatemalan peasants have held on to their land. Amalia Luc from Semuy village in Alta Verapaz still farms 10 hectares in the traditional way—small parcels of various tree and plant crops, such as bananas, pineapples, cardamom, avocados, coffee and cacao as well as a handful of medicinal plants and beehives. "I will never give up my land for palm," she says. "After I feed my family, I still have enough surplus for those landless and poor families who have nothing and come to me. The excess is sold on the local market."