Since 2014, Central America has experienced a dramatic lack of rainfall, destroying grain crops and killing cattle. As of last summer, 2.8 million people were impacted by drought and 900,000 were at risk of malnutrition in Guatemala alone. The effects of environmental change have been especially acute in Guatemala because they are layering on top of existing dysfunction and instability, says Former Vice-President of Guatemala (2004-2008) Eduardo Stein in this week’s podcast.
Concerns that the Guatemalan government is not functioning in the face of crisis miss the nature of the problem, Stein says. “The state is working, but in favor of a chosen few.” Particularly when it comes to ensuring equitable access to water and other natural resources, the government “has failed to provide the services the constitution mandates to all of the people.”
Guatemala, like Nicaragua and El Salvador, suffered from an extended civil war over the second half of the 20th century, which has led to successive dysfunctional and exploitive governments. Stein identified three ways this violent legacy undermines the capacity of the government to address challenges like the drought.
First, political turnover is frequent, with parties only expecting to be in power for four. This leads to an emphasis on short-term results rather than long-term goals, such as building norms, strengthening institutions, and expanding infrastructure.
Guatemala also suffers from deep racism, with Spanish speakers ruling over Mayan-speaking groups and only offering government services in Spanish for many years. As a result, many rural areas where ethnic Mayan populations live have poor access to water resources and other state services, like health care.
Finally, naturally resources are treated as a specialized field that only takes on political significance in times of crisis, says Stein. By constitutional mandate, water is controlled by the national government as a strategic resource rather than devolving responsibility to local communities. These communities resent the centralized decision-making over resources they traditionally cared for themselves. “They claim to be of a tradition and a culture that knows how to care better for their natural resources,” he says.
Centralization also makes it easier for corporate actors to take advantage. Sugar, palm, and banana plantations often use a disproportionate share of water resources, even diverting rivers in some cases, a crime the government is too weak to find and punish.
In light of the ongoing drought, Stein sees the potential for violence. Already there is more internal migration as villagers leave dry areas and create friction with host communities.
But the struggle of local communities to regain control of their water is also gaining momentum in Guatemalan society. The spread of digital communications and social networks is helping communities work together, identify key sources of water inequity, and push for change.
“This is an agenda open to many groups to participate,” says Stein. “Of course environmentalists are very happy to support this, churches are very happy, social activists of different organizations are very happy, and opportunistic political parties as well.”
Eduardo Stein spoke at the Wilson Center on January 25, 2017.