UC Berkeley researcher examines climate change effects in indigenous Guatemalan farming community

Michael Bakal/Courtesy

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Michael Bakal, a UC Berkeley doctoral student funded by the Center for Latin American Studies and a researcher taking part in an ongoing project in Guatemala, has suggested that climate change could fuel currents of northward immigration in his research.

Bakal conducts his research in a small rural community in Guatemala called Rabinal, located in the central region of the country. Over 10 years, he has worked in this community and has observed drastic changes in the local climate, he said. Now suffering from a drought, the community faces difficulties in maintaining its traditional crops.

Bakal co-founded an organization called Voces y Manos, or “voices and hands.” The organization’s mission is to empower indigenous youth and promote health across the community, according to the organization’s website. This project has included cultivating sustainable farming practices, bettering child nutrition and giving youth educational opportunities. Voces y Manos also provides scholarships and internships to local youths, opportunities that involve taking leadership in their own communities, according to the website.

“A big part of the reason that we’re here is that we feel that the United States has a historic debt that it hasn’t paid to Guatemala,” Bakal said. “We feel like that’s necessary.”

These programs are a response to historical events that have deeply affected the local community, according to Bakal. In the 1970s and ’80s, Guatemala’s government perpetrated a violent genocide against indigenous Guatemalans, an effort backed by the United States government, according to Bakal.

In Rabinal, where Voces y Manos is located, many were massacred by their own government during the civil war with the support of the United States, Bakal said. At Rio Negro, for example, 177 people were massacred after the river was dammed in a project supported by the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, according to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission.

According to Bakal as well as undergraduate student and Voces y Manos summer practitioner Marbrisa Flores, the indigenous communities were demonized as enemies of the state.

If the land does not receive enough rainfall, Guatemalans, including those in the Rabinal community, could be displaced and forced to move north, according to the Voces y Manos website. Already, Guatemala has seen rivers run dry and widespread crop failure. The problem of climate change is much larger than this one community, according to Bakal.

In Guatemala, the ramifications of climate change are a present reality, not a future concern. Farmers who have relied on corn as their staple crop for millennia are facing extremely low crop yields, losing more than 70 percent of their corn, according to Bakal.

“Farmers (are) living on the front lines of this crisis. … It’s not a matter of providing a handout. It’s a matter of justice,” Bakal said.

Salvador Gutiérrez Peraza, a graduate student in the department of ethnic studies, conducts research on Haitian migration to Mexicali, a border city and the capital of the Mexican state of Baja California.

Gutiérrez Peraza has observed the reception of Haitians by Mexican society in comparison to the society’s reception of Central Americans. The difference, he said, is that Haitians are seen as a population that is keen to assimilate, while Central Americans are stereotyped as a “transient population” that demonstrates “criminality” and “deviancy.” Guatemalans are among these Central Americans looked down on by the Mexican state as they migrate north to escape situations like the drought in Rabinal.

“(Climate change) is a global problem. It’s only logical that you have more people economically displaced because of the global changes,” Gutiérrez Peraza said. “You might get more caravans.”

Gutiérrez Peraza noted that northward migration occurs as a result of the American dream, which is a hope that people outside of the United States still believe in.

Voces y Manos is fighting locally to combat climate change, based on implementing Mayan farming techniques and sustainable ecological practices. Although influencing a single community is only “a drop in the bucket,” efforts at “mitigation and adaptation” to the effects of climate change need to be taken seriously by the nations responsible for exacerbating these effects, Bakal said.

Contact Sasha Langholz at [email protected].

A previous version of this article misspelled Marbrisa Flores’s name.