Conservation Corner: Lack of land ownership equals poverty

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, April 26, 2017

At this moment I am sitting in a crowded airplane on the way home from Guatemala. I came as one member of a group visiting sister churches in Guatemala.Several Presbyterian churches in our area have sister churches in Guatemala. Tryon and Saluda both have sister churches; I came as a representative from Saluda Pres.

So, what does this have to do with conservation? Since you probably know that I am interested in land use and the repercussions/results of mankind’s use, or misuse, of land and natural resources, I thought that you might be interested in my observations in Guatemala on this trip.

Guatemala is a country of extremes: beautiful mountains and vegetation, with rivers and streams full of plastic trash. Outside of a few high end neighborhoods around Guatemala City and Antigua, poverty is everywhere.

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And, where there is poverty, there is trash. Guatemalans come from a historic culture where everything consumed is organic – fruit, vegetables, goats, chickens – from which all refuse will quickly become compost thanks to the warm, moist climate. As a result of cheap, pre-packaged food from the US, the streets and ditches are covered with non-compostable plastic bags and bottles.

Most of the natural water is contaminated, which means that poor people must now pay for that which was free for their forefathers, and then there’s more non-biodegradable waste. Need I say that there is no such thing as trash pick-up service or recycling? In short, poverty is a waste all around.

It is my opinion that a main cause of poverty is inequitable land ownership, which in turn promotes systemic income disparity. Guatemala’s land is primarily owned by US corporations and a few “founding” families of Spanish origin. For a Guatemalan earning a (good) salary of $8/day, buying a piece of land, in addition to feeding and housing his family, is nearly impossible.

Land is sold in quarter-acre increments, costing between $250 and $1,000, depending upon location. Can a person earning less than $3,000 a year afford to buy land? The answer is “no.” So, a few powerful families and US corporations make profits and poor Guatemalans do their best to survive.

There are many groups trying to change this cycle of poverty. One of the most hopeful projects is creating small farming co-ops. Land can be purchased by means of interest-free micro-loans. Some groups are building composting toilets, efficient cook stoves that reduce wood consumption by 60 percent and thus combat de-forestation, and home water filtration systems that reduce illnesses and trash. All of these initiatives are coming from the ‘bottom up’ rather than from the ‘top down.’

A representative from an organization named Healthy Communities, which is partnering with families in rural Guatemala to build healthy communities, came to speak to our group just before we left for the airport. His message to us is what I want to relate to you.

Healthy Communities is guided by four basis steps. Keep in mind that this group is church-based, so the words and thoughts are not what we’d see in the average business management plan.

1. Every step must be spiritually based, all work and programs designed towards serving the greater good for all of God’s creatures.

2. Develop knowledgeable leaders – invest in their training and guidance.

3. Empowerment – each family and individual must be involved in the overall mission.

4. Reconciliation (the hardest directive with the most facets) – reconcile humans with each other and with their environment. This is easier said than done. Progress in one area brings to light problems in another area.

So, what does this have to do with Polk County? What I witnessed in Guatemala may be our own future if we don’t change the direction that we’re heading in right now.

Polk County is losing affordable farmland at an alarming rate. We’re losing forestland and wildlife habitat just about as fast, five to 50 acres at a time. Local food and produce requires only small parcels of arable land, and those mini-farms are disappearing. Land prices are soaring. Affordable housing was found to be the number one need in the last visioning survey, much of that being the result of rising land prices.

This is not a political problem. It’s a community problem, and it’s our problem. It is a problem that we might want to address using these four guiding principles as a guideline, starting with #4. We’re all in this together.

We either all win or we all lose. Personally, I prefer the first option.