Posts Tagged ‘access to land’

Photo: Jeff Abbott.
Martín Zapil stands among the lettuce plants growing in one of his plots of land on June 10, 2021, in the village of San Martín la Calera in Zunil, Guatemala. He chose to build a future in Guatemala instead of migrating to the U.S.

It was with considerable disappointment but not much surprise that I heard the message that our vice president was dispatched to relay to Central Americans: Stay home.

But, you know, people leave home only as a last resort. If you want them not to, you have to help make it possible to stay. Today’s article indicates how that might work.

Jeff Abbott and Whitney Eulich reported the story from Guatemala and Mexico for the Christian Science Monitor.

“Martín Zapil crouches down and examines the lush green leaves of a lettuce plant growing on one of his small plots of land here in Guatemala’s western highlands. Access to this land – parcels that he rents from neighbors and family – has given Mr. Zapil the opportunity to build an organic agricultural business, supplying restaurants and local markets with his fresh vegetables.

“And it’s done something else that few in rural Guatemala can claim: It’s given him hope, and alleviated his drive to migrate to the United States. 

“ ‘I’m tied down here; these lands have absorbed me and told me living here is possible,’ says Mr. Zapil, taking a seat on a nearby boulder where he surveys his onion, lettuce, and spinach crops.

“Guatemalans make up one of the largest groups of migrants apprehended on the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years. Many are fleeing rural areas, where climate change and lack of access to land and food have severely limited opportunities to thrive. Rates of chronic malnutrition are some of the highest in the world, racism is rampant toward the nearly 44% of the population that identifies as Indigenous, and corruption is rife, with high rates of violence and crime.

“U.S. conversation about halting migrants and asylum-seekers along its southern border tends to center on ‘push-pull’ factors. Crime, violence, hunger, lack of public services, and limited formal job opportunities push migrants away from home, while promises of employment, family reunification, safety, and education pull them north. But rarely does the conversation focus on learning from cases like Mr. Zapil’s: those who fit the profile of someone prone to migrate, yet decide there’s a way to build a future at home.

“It’s a perspective migration experts say could make or break the success of new U.S. initiatives. …

“Kamala Harris visited the region – her first international visits as vice president – and was criticized for telling Guatemalans, ‘Do not come.’

“ ‘The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders. … I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back,’ she said at a press conference.

‘It’s not about telling people not to come to the United States; it’s about explaining or showing them why they should stay’ in their home countries, says Nicole Kast, head of programs in Guatemala for Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

“The international aid organization, which receives the vast majority of its funding from the U.S., recently published a study exploring factors that tend to decrease someone’s likelihood of leaving Guatemala – like education and training opportunities that feed into formal employment, access to fertile land, and a sense of connection to one’s community.

“The U.S. has traditionally looked at migration from Central America ‘as what are the problems that exist in those countries that are pushing people out, and not from an opportunity or resilience perspective,’ Ms. Kast says. She’s hopeful there could be a broader shift in the future to focus on what’s keeping people at home and tailoring aid initiatives accordingly.

“ ‘People don’t migrate because they want to,’ says Juan José Hurtado, executive director of the migrant advocacy group Pop N’oj, based in Guatemala’s western highlands. ‘The lack of hope, the despair is something that pushes [migration].’ Like most people, Guatemalans want to remain in their communities, he says – if they can.

“Mr. Zapil, single and in his 20s, fits the profile of many Guatemalans who head to the U.S. in search of opportunity. He estimates four of his seven closest friends have left in recent years.

“He half expected to do it himself. Zunil is an agricultural town, where children can attend school locally through junior high. If they want to continue studying – as Mr. Zapil did – they have to travel to a nearby city, making a diploma a sometimes cost-prohibitive prospect.

“His father migrated, like many before him, when Mr. Zapil was just 2 years old. The elder Zapil couldn’t read or write, and spent 10 years in the U.S., driven by poverty and a desire to provide for his family. The children’s grandfather raised them, while their father sent paychecks home to put food on the table and keep them in school. When Mr. Zapil was 13, a cousin proposed they migrate north together, and he considered the offer. But his dad had just returned home, and his grandfather raised him with an emphasis on the value of working the land and connecting to his K’iche’ Maya history.

“ ‘I don’t know what would have happened if I had gone,’ he says. ‘My connection to the land helps maintain me. … This is what opened opportunities for me,’ he says. …

“His access to land is key to building what he refers to as the Guatemalan dream. It allowed him to develop his company, Sorel Granjas Ecológicas – a project he’s been working on and dreaming about for at least five years. The pandemic shuttered many markets and restaurants, but he’s continued making connections with potential partners.

“ ‘Those who have sufficient land to live on will not migrate,’ says Mr. Hurtado.”

More at the Monitor, here.

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