Members of rural Central American families are regularly faced with the decision to leave their communities to search for work abroad [1
]. The root causes of these individuals’ migration are complex, with insufficient land access as one the most pressing underlying causes [3
]. Farming families are often unable to produce or buy enough food, which renders them food insecure [5
]. The interlinking factors of hunger and limited land access underpin many decisions to migrate. In this article, we explore the nexus between land, food insecurity, and international migration in two locations in Guatemala and Nicaragua. In both countries, decades of agricultural policies and land governance regimes favoring export agriculture and natural resource extraction have concentrated arable lands, directly displacing some small-scale farming families from lands [7
], but also setting off processes leading to a more general “slow displacement” of people from these rural places and from agricultural livelihoods.
Our study draws on in-depth interviews and focus groups that we carried out from 2013 to 2015, together with a survey of 317 households, at two rural sites in Guatemala (Caballo Blanco) and in Nicaragua (Somotillo). Rural residents in both countries heavily rely on small-scale agricultural production to secure food and livelihoods but are failing to achieve food security. To attempt to persist on the land, often on small parcels, families supplement and finance farm production with family members engaging in labor migration. Outcomes, however, are uneven and reflect differences in migration processes as well as national and local political economic processes around land.
Building on the concept of “slow violence”, [13
], which forwards a nuanced, long-term understanding of violence, we argue that structural, political-economic conditions are provoking a kind of displacement from the land that is unfolding slowly over years—a “slow displacement”. While displacements from the land and forced mobility in general may be reduced to a fixed place, time, and action, viewing both phenomena as processes facilitates drawing connections and a fuller understanding of consequences.
In the study communities, displacement from the land does not occur at a definite point in time, yet unfolds over years and in some cases across generations. Slow displacement from the land, with shrinking land access, yields consequences including the truncated ability to engage in small-scale agriculture leading to hunger and ultimately migration. In this context, migration is at once evidence of displacement, as well as a strategy for families to prolong remaining on the land to produce food.
2. Slow Displacement from the Land
Bakewell argues that “[t]he process of displacement remains largely outside the realm of social scientific theory” [14
] (p. 21). With regards to rural mobility, displacement has been used to describe involuntary migration after natural disasters [15
] and climate change [16
]; eviction for state projects, such as conservation areas [17
]; and land expropriation [18
], among others. Forced migration is also described as displacement, but is generally discussed in relation to conflict, war, and more recently, climate change. The literature on displacement as eviction or forced migration generally conceptualizes displacement as forced removal due to a singular cause (disaster or war, for example), occurring at a specific point in time.
Other literature describes forced migration as a displacement from livelihoods as a result of uneven development. Delgado Wise, Covarrubias, and Puentes maintain that uneven development has produced structural conditions leading to dispossession and exclusion. Labor migration in this case is “characterized by extreme vulnerability and exploitation [4
] (p. 13).” In this sense, labor migrants share many of the characteristics of displaced peoples or refugees. The argument by Delgado Wise et al. draws the connection between structural changes to the rural economy and migration. Building on this argument, here, we propose a deepening of the theorization of displacement as a process, arguing for “slow displacement”, drawing on Nixon’s slow violence. Nixon first introduced the concept of “slow violence”, in order to understand the true repercussions of environmental disasters. Violence tends to be viewed as a finite event with tangible, immediate consequences. However, Nixon proposes that the consequences of slow violence unfold gradually, “invisibly”, and over many years [13
]. This concept provides a powerful framework for exploring the processes of displacement, caused by insufficient land access, insufficient state support for smallholders, among other factors experienced in our study communities. In our research areas specifically, entrenched neoliberal agricultural policies that undermine small-scale producers’ means to participate in markets as well as secure adequate access to land trigger slow displacement [4
3. Land and Displacement in Nicaragua and Guatemala
Deep, historic inequality in land distribution in Nicaragua and Guatemala was a principal driver of both countries’ civil wars. While the war’s end in Nicaragua led to a 10-year revolutionary period, the formal end of conflict in both countries ushered in new eras of neoliberal reforms to the rural economy. Today, land concentration into the hands of a few seems to again be on the rise in both countries [8
]. In both cases, forced migration due to war gave way to new waves of migration beginning in the 90s, in response to neoliberal restructuring, resulting in today’s large-scale migrations [20
]. In this section, we briefly summarize the political and economic factors driving the slow displacement of rural people from the land. Slow displacement is provoked by structural reforms mixed with long-held practices, leading to waves of emigration that provoke disjuncture from the land while simultaneously reinforcing connections for some families.
Currently and historically, Guatemala’s economy has been based on an agro-export model that prioritizes extractive, large-scale production over small-scale, family production [10
], and is linked to the historic poverty and inequality experienced in this country. Despite attempts to redistribute land during the Arevalo and Arbenz administrations of the 1940s and 1950s, which were halted by a military coup, Guatemala has never implemented an effective land reform to benefit the rural poor. Since colonial times national land distribution has remained extremely skewed and unequal. According to the US Agency for International Development, two-thirds of the agricultural land is dominated by 2.5% of the country’s farms [21
]. Land rights, along with poverty, deep ethnic and racial inequality, and a lack of attention to these issues by landed elites and the government drove the country’s armed conflict between varying guerilla groups and the state spanning from 1960 to 1996. In 1996, the war ended with the signing of the Peace Accords, which included the adoption of a market-based land reform. The market-assisted land reform, however, failed to redistribute land—Guaster and Isaakson argue that the beneficiaries of the land reform were mostly the rural middle class, and that as of 2007 only 18.8% of applicants had received credit to purchase land [22
]. Today, the agro-export model continues to dominate, with extractivist production of sugar cane, African palm, and rubber re-concentrating land [9
Forty-nine percent of Guatemala’s population is rural; however, landlessness among rural dwellers is widespread. Residents rely on semi-subsistence production of maize for food security, yet 27% of rural dwellers do not own land, and instead must rent or borrow land if they wish to produce [21
]. Average landholdings have been shown to be insufficient to meet basic subsistence needs [22
]. The resulting rural poverty and hunger is a key driver of migration from Guatemala’s rural spaces north to the United States.
The war in Guatemala eventually produced between 500,000 and 1.5 million displaced people. The later years of armed conflict spurred migration to the USA, migration that then remained in place and grew in the context of post-conflict neoliberalism and the failure of the state to address the underlying structural inequalities. In 2015, there were 928,000 Guatemalan immigrants residing in the USA [23
Although Nicaragua’s path diverged sharply from Guatemala’s after the Sandinistas toppled the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, rural residents continue to struggle with poor land access, poverty, and hunger as well. After Somoza’s removal, the new Sandinista government initiated land reform, expropriating largely the Somoza family’s sizeable landholdings across the country. The expropriated land was divided and given to cooperatives formed by landless ‘campesinos’. Cooperatives were provided with ample credit, machinery, and technical support. As the US-funded Contra War debilitated the Sandinistas, enthusiasm for the revolutionary government declined. In 1990, Violeta Chamorro was elected president, ushering in neoliberal reforms to the economy that made the maintenance of rural cooperatives difficult and led many to subdivide and sell lands—leaving some rural dwellers landless again. The latest data available suggest that the richest 9% of landowners hold 56% of farmland in the country, while an estimated 38% of the rural population owns no land at all [24
]. Many small-landholders also lack official titles to their land, or in some cases multiple claims exist for certain parcels [25
]. In 2001, despite the gains of the Sandinista Revolution, smallholders had about the same amount of access to land as they did before the revolution [26
]. Since then, the number of mid-sized farms has grown, with smallholders still lacking access [7
Similar to Guatemala, Nicaragua encourages the commercial, export-oriented growth of the agricultural sector. The end of the revolution in 1990 initiated the deregulation of agricultural markets, and disassembled state credit and extension services. This model continues today under the Ortega regime, even though the government has created social programs and some supports for small-scale farmers [7
]. Martí i Puig and Baumeister argue that the Ortega government, which claims to be socialist, has coopted the rural poor with targeted assistance, rather than addressing rural poverty through structural reforms [7
]. Aguilar-Støen posits that, currently, Nicaragua is undergoing a re-concentration of land, with the growth of neo-extractivist agriculture, including sugar cane, peanuts, and cattle ranching [11
The history of contemporary Nicaraguan migration, like Guatemalan migration, began during the country’s civil war, when official and non-officially recognized refugees fled to Costa Rica, Honduras or the United States. Migration, especially to Costa Rica, intensified with the restructuring of the economy in the early 1990s and again after Hurricane Mitch devastated the region in 1998. Unlike Guatemala, Nicaraguans in large part migrate to neighboring countries, like Costa Rica and El Salvador, making South-South migration, rather than South-North migration, a key livelihood strategy.
Hunger is intrinsically linked to poverty, which in both countries is especially a rural problem. In Nicaragua, for example, with about half of the population living in rural areas, 25% of the households are classified as extremely poor and suffer food insecurity [27
]. In Guatemala, poverty is reported to be very high—in 2014, 59.3% of the population lived in poverty [28
]. More than half (52%) of the indigenous population, most of which lives in rural areas, is affected by poverty. The experience of food insecurity, or hunger, in Caballo Blanco and Somotillo reflects these wider rural patterns in Guatemala and Nicaragua, as our study results below demonstrate.
4. Study Sites and Methods
The villages of the study site in Nicaragua are located in the northern part of the country in the municipality of Somotillo, located in the low lying, coastal department of Chinandega, bordering Honduras (See Figure 1
). Somotillo is part of the so-called “dry corridor”, which covers approximately 34% of the national territory and where 80% of the country’s population lives [29
]. Over the last five decades, the climate in this region is becoming drier, with less frequent but more intense and unpredictable rains (see [28
]). The population is mainly made up of ‘mestizos’—or people of mixed indigenous and European descent.
The villages in the aldea of Caballo Blanco in the Guatemala study site are located in the Pacific lowland department of Retalhuleu (See Figure 1
). Climate and soil conditions for agricultural production are generally good, with a mixed system of large-scale commercial sugar cane and cattle ranching and smallholder maize production. Retalhuleu has a short but intense dry season and experiences rain during most months, with average annual rainfall of 3154 mm. The population in Caballo Blanco mostly identifies as non-indigenous ‘ladino’, although many of the original and contemporary settlers include members of both K’iche and Mam Maya indigenous groups, who themselves were displaced from Guatemala’s western highlands and came to Caballo Blanco in search of land.
Field research was conducted in both Nicaragua and Guatemala between 2013 and 2015. We carried out in-depth interviews, focus groups, and household surveys to collect data on the themes of agriculture, land tenure, migration, and food security, among other topics. We surveyed random samples of households drawn from community censuses identifying all households in each community and the migration status of each household. A stratified sampling method was used to ensure sufficient participation of both migrant and non-migrant households. In Nicaragua, this resulted in 121 households surveyed across six small villages. In Guatemala, we surveyed 196 households in five Caballo Blanco villages.
The qualitative interviews and focus groups both deepen and broaden our understanding of the same themes covered in the household survey. In-depth interviews were carried out with both survey participants and non-survey participants, using a snow-ball/purposive sampling technique. In total, we conducted 20 interviews at the Nicaragua site, and 17 interviews at the Guatemala site. We organized small focus groups in select communities in both countries. The focus groups used a cross between traditional focus group discussion techniques and more participatory research methods—such as making use of visuals, timelining, and brainstorming, in order to respect local knowledge and practices. In total, we conducted two “dynamic” focus groups in Nicaragua and four in Guatemala, with groups of women and men and mixed groups, with five to 15 participants each.
The resultant qualitative and quantitative datasets were analyzed separately, as well as in conversation with each other. We used bivariate statistical analyses to assess differences between migrant and non-migrant households. For categorical variables, this consisted of chi-squared tests to evaluate a null hypothesis of no difference between household types, while for continuous variables this consisted of t-tests for differences in means. We conducted all statistical analyses using the software package SPSS. The bivariate statistical analyses, used on their own, do not reveal cause-and-effect relationships; however, their use in conjunction with robust qualitative data analysis provide strong evidence for understanding the relationships among migration, land, and hunger in the context of our case studies. Qualitative interviews were transcribed and subsequently processed using a thematic coding method. Coding was facilitated by Dedoose qualitative analysis software. Interview transcripts were read, coded, and then analyzed based on patterns and themes that emerged during the coding process. We integrated across the datasets through an iterative process by which hypotheses emerged from qualitative data analysis and were then tested using the survey data and survey data analysis results identified relationships for further coding and exploration using interview and focus group data.
We have argued that decades of agricultural policies and land governance regimes that favor agricultural and natural resource extraction and export, and that foster land concentration, drive slow displacement from the land. Experiences in Guatemala and Nicaragua have been different. In Nicaragua, there was at least some serious attempt (the 1979 Sandinista Revolution) to change land distribution, but the contemporary agro-export model, with accompanying land re-concentration, does not favor smallholders. In Guatemala, land reform was abandoned after the overthrow of Arbenz and later replaced with more “modest” market-based attempts at land redistribution that never helped most of the rural poor. The market-assisted reforms promoted by the World Bank did not achieve any meaningful land re-distribution, as mostly unsuitable lands have been offered on the land market [22
]. Land holdings and land access in both of the case study sites are insufficient for long-term livelihood viability through farming.
Our results suggest that although ownership of adequate amounts of land for production has never been widespread among community members, change in forms of access to land is slowly squeezing rural producers out of the countryside. Borrowing and renting are two important means by which community members both historically and currently access land. As opportunities to rent (much less borrow) become more limited, semi-subsistence food production is impacted negatively and food security deteriorates.
Current food insecurity, common across the study communities, reflects this reality of insufficient access to land. Limited land access is exacerbated by difficult access to other farming inputs. Thus, what our findings demonstrate for the Nicaraguan and Guatemalan sites is that slow displacement, manifest as this insufficient land for farming livelihoods, results in seasonal hunger. Our research suggests, as we also have demonstrated for the Somtillo case with findings published elsewhere [3
], that migrant households in both sites employ earnings from migration to persevere in semi-subsistence agricultural production. While migration mitigates hunger for some migrant households, food insecurity persists for many families, even for many of those engaging in migration or receiving remittances. These Guatemala and Nicaragua case studies furthermore show that migration outcomes can be uneven and can reflect locational differences in migration processes, as well as the differences in national and local political economic processes around land. To further understand the relationship between migration and food security-related small-scale agriculture, additional research might apply inferential statistics and multivariate analyses to illuminate patterns across larger geographic scales, with sampling taking into account these important but geographically uneven processes.
In both Somotillo and Caballo Blanco, ultimate displacement is slow, as families are squeezed progressively from their land, driven by extractivism and re-concentration of land. Displaced individuals (migrants) at once can help families to stay on the land (subsistence migration) for more years but can also contribute to furthering the cycle of displacement, as we see in Caballo Blanco. Ultimately, for many families, the persistence of food insecurity suggests that migration can only delay the slow violence of the contemporary processes of agrarian change that lead to the displacement of semi-subsistence producers from the land.