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Guatemala's Indians sink deeper into poverty

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Unbalanced land tenure, grinding poverty, and inadequate public farm programs have spurred growing Indian dissatisfaction and increased the possibility of open civil war.

Here in Santa Catarina Palopo, a highland town set on the shores of Lake Atitlan 80 miles northwest of Guatemala City, 1,500 Cakchiquel Indians barely eke out a subsistence living 10 months a year. When the rainy season ends each October, leaving the smell of rotting corn behing, families begin to run out of money and food.

Out of desperation, about 200 men are forced to go into debt peonage by December and migrate from Santa Catarina Palopo hundreds of miles in open trucks to cotton and sugar plantations on the southern coast. Some 500,000 Indians do the across the nation do the same thing.

"My family doesn't have enough land," said Manuel Gonzales, a 28-year-old migrant who clings to his Cakchiquel tongue and wears traditional striped culotte-type pants. "I have no choice but to go. There is much pain on the coast and it is very hot."

Gonzales, who has a wife and baby daughter, shares less than an acre of land with three generations of his family. Years of intensive corn farming have left his mountain land cracked and dusty. Ironically, he looks out on the lake and volcanoes that surround it -- a view the wealthy pay thousands of dollars to see from weekend villas.

By the end of November, Gonzalez must contact contractors who offer him loans of between $5 and $15 to feed his family in exchange for a month or two of work on the plantations. He has little choice but to do this. Small farmers do not qualify for government rural credits and are regarded as poor risks.

"We can't give evryone money," said a spokeswoman for Bandesa, the government agricultural bank. "Our experts investigate applications and often find that applicants are farming the wrong crop on the wrong land. We try to advise them." The bank gave out $50.6 million in low-interest loans to 22,069 applicants in 1979.


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