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Of Cotton and Corn: Guatemala’s Struggle to Define a Sustainable Agro-Ecosystem (1952-1964)

Fri, March 31, 10:30am to 12:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Venetian


Between 1952 and 1954, thousands of indigenous peasants gained access to land in Guatemala’s most fertile agricultural zone, the Pacific Coast. In two years, peasant production reversed a dependency on imported corn and allowed Guatemala to export grains to Mexico and Honduras. The Agrarian Reform was overturned by a US-backed coup in 1954. Peasants were violently displaced before they could collect their harvest, creating an acute grain shortage that was temporarily allayed with food aid from the United States. The new government encouraged exports like cotton instead of corn, which perpetuated underproduction of basic grains and chronic malnutrition became common inimpoverished Indigenous communities. After the 1954 coup, Guatemala became one of the world’s most productive per capita cotton producers. This highly productive agro-ecosystem exploited the soil fertility of newly cleared land and the labor power of Indigenous migrants struggling to feed themselves. Yet it was a highly unstable system that collapsed abruptly in the mid-1980s because of escalating costs associated with pesticides, declining soil fertility in cotton producing areas, and explosive labor conflicts. Using agrarian census data (1932, 1954, 1964) and extensive land use maps created during the Agrarian Reform, this paper reconstructs dramatic changes in land-use that occurred between 1952 and 1964. Landowners accused indigenous peasants of wasting productive land by deforesting areas and planting them with corn or letting cleared land return to nature. Failure to use land wisely was framed in a discourse that valorized large scale, market-oriented production above family-based, subsistence production. My paper challenges this discourse, and argues that Indigenous peasant production was responsive to modernization and promised a more sustainable and equitable future for Guatemalan agriculture that prioritized food over exports.