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A seat at the table: Empowering women in land-conflict mediation

Guatemala, April 23, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    When world coffee prices collapsed in 2000, bankrupt plantation owners dismissed tenant farmers who had worked and sometimes lived on the land for generations. When communities resorted to occupying farms and demanding retroactive payments, violent altercations and evictions often followed. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps piloted its first mediation program in 2003, and since then has peacefully resolved more than 300 land conflicts that have benefited more than 15,000 families. It’s a more accessible, cheaper alternative than taking a case to court — especially for people who often live on only dollars a day. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    In nine years, fewer than 5 percent of participants in the resolution process have been women — not surprising considering the machismo culture that pervades Guatemala. Here, half of all respondents to a 2005 newspaper survey agreed that the ideal woman is “meek, docile, sweet and submissive.” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Our newest mediation project in Guatemala, "Empowering Women's Leadership in Conflict Resolution," specifically addresses the gender imbalance at the negotiating table. Mercy Corps has trained eight female mediators to lead conflict resolution efforts and empower indigenous women to join the dialogue for their communities. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Since the program began last year, the eight mediators have resolved three land conflicts and trained more than 150 women in topics such as self-esteem, alternative dispute resolution, local governing structures and land issues. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    If indigenous women understand and are supported to protect their land rights, resolve related disputes and register land, more women will participate in the process and reap the benefits of ownership. Says mediator Adela Cucul, "I want women to be able to say, 'I will be a leader in this community.'" Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    In a country where more than half of the population earns a living from agriculture, holding title to land means both personal and financial security. Finally realizing land ownership gives farmers the incentive to invest in their property, and banks the collateral to invest in the farmers. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mediator Vilma Quim, 28, helped widow Doña Rosa settle a 10-year dispute over farmland she owned but lacked the means and access to government officials to resolve. “As a woman she couldn’t solve the problem,” explained the village’s mayor. “But with a group of women, she could.” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mediator Amanda Sacul, 21, leads a community meeting with members of San Antonio de Cuevas in an effort to propose a solution to their land conflict with neighboring San Antonio de Flores. The two communities have overlapping land boundaries, and the government will not issue land titles until the dispute is resolved. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Guatemala's government established mechanisms to help indigenous families gain ownership of land following the end of the country's civil war in 1996. But they remain poorly funded. The local office of the agency charged with resolving boundary disputes lacks even a GPS device, so Mercy Corps relies on its own. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Construction of a new highway connecting Guatemala's Atlantic Coast with Mexico has heightened sensitivities around land. Most residents say the project is not only displacing families, but also attracting drug traffickers and agribusinesses interested in developing palm-oil plantations and other large-scale enterprises. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mediator Adela Cucul, 34, helped mediate a conflict between a large landowner who claimed land that a community thought belonged to them. A local mediator with the government agency was initially skeptical that Adela could mediate the “very serious” conflict, but now sings her praises: “The support we’ve received from Mercy Corps has been considerable.” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Most of the community governing councils, known as COCODES, have little female representation. We asked participating communities to select women for trainings in land issues and also represent the community at the mediation table. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mediators write scripts to broadcast weekly on two radio stations, reaching even more women across the area. Here, mediators Adela Cucul and Vilma Quim prepare to speak to listeners in their native Q'ue'chi' about the importance of women's role in resolving land conflicts peacefully. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    More than simply resolving disputes over land, the mediators — all of whom are indigenous Maya — are building momentum for a cultural shift. “We see a lot of machismo, and a lot of discrimination against indigenous women,” says Amanda. “This is what motivates me.” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    “For many years the men have been the head of the household, the authority, and the woman has remained behind — in education and in many other social areas,” says Amanda. “So for women to move forward, so everyone can advance — that's my biggest dream." Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Guatemala's economy depends on agriculture. Yet 70 percent of cultivable land belongs to only 2 percent of the population. Historical inequalities and the lack of official land-registration mechanisms have led to thousands of current property disputes, which sometimes turn violent. Mercy Corps has been at the forefront of a movement to resolve these land conflicts through productive dialogue. Today we’re working to ensure women have a seat at the mediation table.


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From our series: A Woman’s Worth