From the Publisher, Amandala

Several times in the recent past, con permiso, I have used this column to feature subject matter which I suspect many readers would ordinarily be tempted to skip. The fact that such matter is included in this column makes it more likely to be perused, I believe.

Last week while leafing through old material, I found a copy of BELIZEAN STUDIES, Vol. 15, No. 3, of 1987. BELIZEAN STUDIES used to be published by St. John’s College. The editors were Lita Krohn and David Price (deceased), and the advisory board was comprised of Leo Bradley (deceased), Homero Escalante, Charles Gibson, Fr. Charles Hunter, S. J. (deceased), Fr. Lloyd Lopez (deceased), and Larry Vernon.

One of the papers in that specific issue of BELIZEAN STUDIES was entitled “The Kekchi and the settlement of Toledo District.” It was written by Richard Wilk, who was described as “an anthropologist, presently an assistant professor at New Mexico State University.”

I intend to reproduce Professor Wilk’s paper in three parts. I am hoping to pique your interest enough for you to look forward to the next two parts. The subject is a very, very important one.

The Kekchi and the settlement of Toledo District

by Richard R. Wilk

The Kekchi in Guatemala

The Kekchi of southern Belize are a small splinter group from a much larger population that has its homeland in the dissected plateaus and rugged mountains of the Alta Verapaz Department of Guatemala. In 1950 there were over 150,000 Kekchi in Guatemala, and this number is undoubtedly much higher today. The 3000 or so Kekchi in southern Belize, however, are ethnographically much better known than those in Guatemala.

The location of the Kekchi at the time of the Spanish conquest is not precisely known. Stoll (1884,1958), Rambo (1964), and Thompson (1938:586) all consider Cajabon, which is definitely in the highlands, to have been the northeastern-most Kekchi town. Roys (1972) on the other hand believes that the Kekchi inhabited the lowland town of Chacujal, east of modern Panzos, which was visited by Cortes on his famous march through the lowlands in 1524-25. Sapper (1985) also places the Kekchi in lowland areas to the east of the highland towns, and Dieseldorff (1909) mentions old land titles in which colonial Kekchi claim ancestral ownership of lowland properties to the north and east. Today, unlike other indigenous groups in Guatemala, the Kekchi are continually expanding into new areas, colonizing rain-forest areas of Peten and Izabal Departments in Guatemala, as well as continuing to move into southern Belize.

The pressure to move

During the 1860s and 1870s a land boom occurred in the Alta Verapaz, driven by numbers of German, English and Ladino coffee planters who flooded into the area, many coming from Belize (see Falcon 1970:10-11). The slow erosion of Indian rights became an avalanche in 1871, when a Liberal regime took power under Granados and Barrios. This regime openly served the interests of export producers, many of whom were foreign. The Verapaz went from a logging area to a leader in the kind of “development” that the new government favored (McCreery 1983:12-18.) Incentives were again offered to immigrants, including land and tax exemptions, and repressive labor and land laws were enacted. In 1877 forced labor for Indians was reinstituted, and with it a land law that allowed the government to confiscate untitled land, defining most Indian lands in Alta Verapaz as untitled.

The process that took place in Alta Verapaz over the next 25 years deserves the name of a “second conquest” (McCreery likens it to a “second serfdom” 1983:12). The economy became dependent on coffee, and most coffee production was in the hands of a few German firms. By 1900 four German companies controlled almost all trade, including coffee exports and commodity imports. Over 61% of all Guatemalan exports went through the hands of Hamburg merchants (King 1974:32-38). In 1890 German companies owned over 300,000 hectares, and a single German firm owned over 50,000 acres of coffee in the Verapaz (Cambranes 1985:143). There were German courts to handle labor disputes, and German social institutions to buffer the planter class from the surrounding Indian ocean. This economic domination had political effects. By 1930 the Verapaz was virtually a territorial possession of Germany, paying little heed to Guatemalan laws, refusing even to report the number of Germans present in the Department to the central authorities.

The Indians lost most of their land. Precolonial titles were voided on the same day, coincidentally, that the export tax on coffee was removed (1877). In the following land rush many large parcels went straight from the government into the hands of speculators, foreign planters, and even the land surveyors themselves (Cambranes 1985:289-290). Communities that had access to the law and to some cash were able to buy property as a group – communal landholding as a dominant institution in Kekchi life seems to date to this time. Often the communal lands were then subdivided to individuals, or foreigners would buy up inherited rights to communal lands and then manipulate the court system to get these rights recognized. Many individual Indian’s parcels were lost to foreigners in default of tiny debts. Many communities never managed to buy land – particularly after 1880 when a form of auction became the dominant practice for granting titles. Indian communities would raise the money for survey and go through protracted legal proceedings to define a land claim, but then would have to bid against foreign investors for the parcel. When they lost, the village itself became the “property” of the planter. In these direct ways, as well as through more indirect routes, Indians were driven out of independent farming and into plantation labor.

Indian labor was put at the disposal of coffee producers by a number of legal and illegal means. Coercion and cheating, bribery and corruption were rampant under the mandamiento laws, as well documented by Cambranes (1985). In 1894 when the mandamiento was eliminated, the new Reglamento del Servicio de Trabajadores gave the planters everything they could want, ushering in an era of debt servitude and serf-like plantation work. Habilitaciones – cash advances against future work – were given out by plantation owners, beginning a familiar cycle of endless debt. This typical colonial picture came complete with plantation stores charging inflated prices, corporal punishment, rights of pursuit and capture for those fleeing debts, and planter-controlled courts to enforce the law. The cost of catching a runaway laborer was added to his debt.

Life for the “Mozos” who lived on plantations was like that of a medieval serf. Adult males were required to work for two weeks a month on the plantation, except during the harvest when all family members including women and children had to work from sunrise to sundown, until the picking was finished. Women were favored for the exacting task of sorting beans, and children were employed in light work beginning as early as age seven. Finqueros successfully resisted the law’s requirement that they provide schools well into the 1930s, when some token efforts were made. In this, as in other aspects of life, the finquero had almost unlimited control over those who lived on his plantation.

Many Kekchis opted out of the plantation economy altogether. Some became wandering itinerant traders, spending months at a time carrying goods on their backs from highlands to lowlands and back, or from the Verapaz to other parts of the highlands. The more common alternative was and still is flight. In the most remote villages of the highlands and lowlands, labor, land, and tax laws were hard to enforce and the cost of forced labor was more than its worth. With the reinstatement of the mandamiento in 1877, large numbers of Kekchi fled the densely populated highland region around Coban for the remote forests north of Lake Izabal and in the Peten. Many highland villages were virtually depopulated and were unable to provide their quotas of workers. Loss of communal lands must have also driven many Indians into the unoccupied lowlands in search of subsistence. When the period that forced-labor teams had to work was lengthened from 30 days to 45 in 1892, many more Indians found the burden intolerable, and another wave of emigration began, this time to even more distant areas. Even Izabal and Peten were no longer safe; the construction of the abortive “Northern Railway” through Peten beginning in 1884 depended on forced labor from Indian communities in the area, prompting many Kekchi and Mopan to move east into Belize (Cambranes 1985:188,225). According to the Jefe Politico of the Alta Verapaz, following the lengthening of the work period in 1892 “ … a large number of families … have gone to live in Punta Gorda in the Colony of Belize and in San Luis in Mexican Territory” (Cambranes 1985:199).

(To be continued: THE KEKCHI IN BELIZE.)