Livelihoods and environmental degradation in the Jocotán hills, Guatemala

In Guatemala, close to the Honduras border, the municipality of Jocotán corresponds to the southern catchment of the Copán-Ch’orti’ watershed. Its territory is very rugged and sloped, with altitudes ranging from 1 800 to 300 m above sea level. The total population is 37 000 people, with 5 000 settled in the pueblo (small town) and 32 000 in small aldeas (hamlets) scattered throughout the countryside. With a total municipality territory of 148 km2, rural population density is about 216 people per square kilometre: too many people, with too little land, in a very dynamic and fragile ecosystem

Spanish soldiers founded the town of Santiago de Jocotán in 1539, after defeating the last military resistance of the Maya Ch’orti’. At that time, most of the Copán-Ch’orti’ watershed was covered by forests - subtropical in the valley, acacia on the sloped hillsides and ocote pinewoods in the highlands. During colonization, the valley’s fertile alluvial land was intensively exploited by Spanish encomienderos to produce cocoa, tobacco, sugar cane, salzaparilla, indigo and cattle. Ch’orti’ campesinos who could not be absorbed into colonial production were forced to establish subsistence maize plots on the sloping, stony, fragile and dry hillsides. As this poor land had to be rotated every few years, campesino hillside agriculture became a major cause of deforestation in the watershed.

During the nineteenth century, liberal reform cancelled the encomienderos’ land privileges and transferred indigenous communal land titles to the municipality. This enabled Jocotan’s Spanish entrepreneurial elite to increase its control over arable land and campesino labour. By the end of the century, Ladino and European immigrants had expanded towards the uplands, where iron mines and coffee plantations were established. The Ch’orti’ retreated towards the less accessible and less productive areas of the territory and diversified their household economies. Subsistence agriculture on small plots (sometimes rented from Ladino landowners) were complemented with sales of small agricultural surpluses, handicrafts (textile, pottery and fibre work), and sharecropping or wage labour for landowners.

During the 1920s, after two centuries of continued deforestation, the land could no longer maintain a consistent rotation pattern, and the pressure on soil intensified. Less and more erratic rainfall was reported in the region. In the 1950s, in response to the increasingly arid environment, hillside campesinos began to sow drought-resistant sorghum as a security crop associated with traditional maize and beans. In the same period, men began to migrate seasonally to fruit plantations on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts or the big estates in Petén, where daily wages were higher than those paid by Jocotán landowners.

By incorporating sorghum and seasonal migration, campesino livelihood strategies have continued to satisfy immediate needs and keep campesino families on their farms, but unfavourable terms of trade have prevented most families from adopting an efficient capitalization process. Instead, for the last three or four decades, households’ natural, physical and financial assets have continued to decrease under the pressure of population growth and the subsequent increase in land tenure fragmentation. Shrinking land has led to soil overexploitation and a progressive decrease in yields, which have been only partially improved by the use of chemical fertilizers. Moreover, lack of cash, labour and expertise have prevented most campesinos from investing in soil conservation and water harvesting works. The few patches of ocote forest still covering the mountain tops are being damaged by small-scale timbering and daily fuelwood collection.

Vegetation cover is now inadequate to retain rainfall, humidity and soil. Delays in the start of the rainy season, and pauses in rainfall when it comes, are increasingly long and frequent. When the rains do come, vast amounts of fertile sediment are washed away, and landslides threaten infrastructure, crops, property and life. Under these circumstances, campesino livelihoods in Jocotán are increasingly at risk, and local people and institutions recognize the need to identify sustainable development alternatives.

Adapted from P. Warren. 2005. Between the household and the market. A livelihoods analysis of SPFS-promoted seed multiplication in eastern Guatemala. Livelihoods Support Programme, Working Paper No. 20. Rome, FAO.

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last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007