Santa Cruz, Guatemala – The road winds through a steep mountain pass, as our pick-up truck swerves around debris from rockslides on the way to a reclaimed farm in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.
We are traveling to a large farm or finca that has been abandoned by absentee German landlords, after the main owner died in the 1970s. The peasants, who used to work for the landlord, now work for themselves.
Today, families on the Prima Vera farm are performing a Mayan fire ceremony, asking god- or the creator – for the right to stay.
They recently received an eviction notice, telling them to get off the land that sustains them.
Justino Xllim Telum was born on this farm, but he has no formal rights to the property.
“Ever since the owner died, we have been struggling for our right to stay on this land,” says Justino Xllim Telum who was born here in 1955.
Around 300 families have been living and farming corn, beans and coffee here, without formal title to the land, for more than 30 years.
“God willing, every family would have their own title to their own plot of land,” Telum says, as villagers gather for the ceremony near the large dilapidated farmhouse where the formal owners once lived.
Outsiders normally aren’t allowed at these rituals. But today is different, as the ceremony is political, not just spiritual. God might answer their prayers, but they hope a foreign journalist will relay the message to other Guatemalans and the politicians.
Community leaders begin the ceremony by pouring white sugar onto the brown earth in a circle, with an “x” in the middle. They place cigars, candles, chocolate, charcoal and wood inside the circle.
One community leader, a man who used to work as a labourer in New Jersey before the global recession sent him back to the village, leads the ceremony with a prayer.
As the fire burns, sending smoke with the smell of chocolate and cigars wafting into air, the people turn to face each one of the four points of the “x” respectively, praying at each turn. Leaders conducting the ceremony switch between Spanish and Mayan languages at various points.
Towards the end, as the fire dwindles, one man opens a bottle of rum and a bottle of tequila and pours them both around the edge of the circle, occasionally spraying booze onto the flames and coals.
“He’s pouring a drop for his dead hommies,” my translator jokes, relaying a western conception of sacrifice which seems to capture the mood at the Prime Vera farm.
Such a ceremony would have looked different when Mayans ruled these lands. But cultures always change, adopt and incorporate new ideas and practices. That’s not a bad thing—the ceremony is the essence of 21st century authenticity.
“I remember the original owner, his name was Oscar, he owned the land when my grandfather farmed here,” says Aurelio Lem, who thinks he was born in 1935.
With a face weathered by years of hard toil, Lem remembers earning two Quetzals, about 25 cents, for six days of work cutting sugar cane.
Carlos Morales, an organiser for farmers’ rights in Alta Verapaz who helped lead the ceremony, says that two-thirds of the land in this state is controlled by three German families.
Statistics from Guatemala’s government do not back-up such levels of inequality, but few dispute that a small majority controls most of the good land in these parts.
After the ceremony finishes, the people hug and shake hands, some walk-back to their shacks, located near the dilapidated farmhouse. Others follow us down a dirt path and climb into the back of the awaiting pick-up truck.
The formal owners left the farm when Aurelio Lem’s grandfather worked on it more than thirty years ago.
The whole event takes place under tense circumstances as Guatemala’s government has declared a state of siege, allegedly to battle Mexican drug cartels in the area.
But according to Father Igor Gigene, a priest in the near-by town of Santa Cruz, drug gangs are not the biggest threat to peace in the area.
“The most severe problem is land and the conflict over it,” Gigene says, during an interview is office, adjacent to the town’s church.
“But people have become more aware of what is happening around them,” he says, adding that the very existence of farmers’ organisations is a major victory in this region, where many social justice activists were murdered during decades of military rule backed by the US.
“There is a strong spirit in the people for doing things together here – to work in groups – it gives a lot of hope.”