Guatemala has a harsh history of inequitable land ownership. With just two percent of the population owning 70 percent of its productive farmland, those who worked the land lived as virtual indentured servants. They were stuck on the sidelines of the formal economy, with little prospect of earning enough to escape from poverty. It wasn’t until the country’s 36-year civil war ended in 1996 that poor farmers could even dream of calling their own the land they had worked for generations.
In 2003, Mercy Corps teamed up with a local lawyers’ nonprofit to help resolve documented cases of land conflict. In most cases, indigenous farmers gained the right to receive concessions or purchase the land they had been farming; in others, landowners established their fair title to property. Our aim throughout was to mediate fair solutions acceptable to all involved.
To pay for their land, farmers had to coax more profit from it. Growing beans and corn would not yield enough extra to purchase their plots. So Mercy Corps introduced the farmers to pineapple and citrus, crops that command higher prices. In just two seasons, household incomes shot up an average of 40 percent.
Mercy Corps then joined in a strategic partnership with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (the single largest owner of grocery stores in Guatemala’s fast-growing market), the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Guatemalan non-profit Fundación AGIL to help the farmers secure new markets for their valuable produce.
We first had to make sure they could meet discriminating buyers’ quality standards. We taught the farmers production and processing techniques that ensure consistency and comply with international food safety standards. We helped them access small loans to pay for fertilizer and irrigation, and invest in greenhouses, packaging equipment and storage facilities. We taught farmers how to participate in formal markets and improve their business management.
Next, we helped the farmers set up purchase agreements with local buyers from Wal-Mart, cutting out middlemen to lower their risk and earn premium prices. We help them meet everyday challenges. At all times, the farmers remain free to sell to any buyer.
Today this program includes 554 farmers and their families. They’ve sold $2.3 million worth of produce, $1.3 million of it – for the first time – to formal market buyers like Wal-Mart.