Guatemala and the curse of abundance

In just fifteen years, Sayaxché, in the department of Petén, in northern Guatemala, has undergone drastic change. Oil palm has become a thriving business, already representing one per cent of the country’s GDP, and monopolises 74 per cent of the economy in Sayaxché. One of the leading companies in the sector, Grupo Hame, congratulates itself, on its official website, for being “proudly Guatemalan”, and working “to generate environmental, social and economic value for Guatemala”.

Small farmers, on the other hand, maintain that, since the oil palm plantations arrived, they have been stripped of their lands, the rivers and lagoons that used to provide them with food and water have been polluted, and their harvests have been destroyed by the plagues and agrochemicals associated with palm plantations.

Similarly, the sugar cane that has been taking over the south coast of Guatemala for decades has diverted rivers and led to a severe water crisis, as well as polluting the air, water and land. More recently, sugar cane has been gaining new ground, alongside oil palms, in the Valle del Polochic region. In 2011, 74 families were violently evicted by state and private armed groups. The Inter-American Commission on Human rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) condemned the evictions, but there has been no reparation for the Mayan Q’eqchí community affected.

The Guatemalan authorities and the palm oil and sugar industry companies defend the advance of agribusiness, arguing that it generates employment and takes development to ‘backward’ regions. According to a study by Central American Business Intelligence (CABI) – housed on the Grupo HAME website – some 25,000 direct jobs and 125,000 indirect jobs have been generated by the sector, which has “created permanent jobs in rural areas with no employment opportunities”.

What is not quantified is how many campesinos, who once made a livelihood from farming and artisanal fishing, have lost their lands, or have seen how polluted waters stopped providing them with fish. Stripped of their way of life, they now find themselves dependent on the punishing, poorly paid work on plantations.

Two development models are at odds in rural Guatemala: the advance of the extractivist model, with massive investments controlled by multinational companies linked to global value chains, and the peasant economy, in a country where the much longed-for agrarian reform never came. Because in 1996, after 36 bloody years of war, the peace accords finally arrived, but the endemic inequality that led to the rise of the guerrilla was left unresolved. Guatemala continues to be one of the countries with the highest concentrations of land ownership in the world.

Efficient or subsidised?

The government and business interests defend the advance of extractivism with the mantra of efficiency and profitability. Yet the companies in the various extractive sectors are able to make such profits thanks to generous subsidies and funding. In 2008, for example, the IDB granted millions of dollars in financing for oil palm production feasibility studies in Guatemala. The World Bank, for its part, lent US$60 million to Pantaleón, the biggest company in the sugar industry, which controls 19 per cent of production. And during the government of Alvaro Colom (2008-2011), the Guatemalan state launched PINPALMA, the programme to promote and develop oil palm growing, which provided assistance such as agricultural insurance.

Meanwhile, the small farmers complain they have been totally abandoned: “There is no money when it comes to helping us or repairing the damage caused by agribusiness, but when it comes to repressing us if we protest, there is money to send in the army,” says a campesino from the El Triunfo Champerico community on the south coast.

In April 2017, an investigative report published in the Salvadorian daily El Faro revealed that Grupo Campollo, which owns the Madre Tierra sugar mill complex, set up 121 offshore companies through the Panamanian company Mossack Fonseca. Another nine of the biggest Guatemalan sugar mills, behind which are the country’s most powerful landowners, have links with complex financial networks for tax evasion. But these illicit practices present no obstacle to the support that these businesses receive from supranational organisations.

Between 2008 and 2010, for instance, Pantaleón, which is based in the Virgin Islands, and whose owners are linked to eight companies in Panama, received two loans totalling US$130,000 from the World Bank’s private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), through its parent company in the Virgin Islands. In other words, the World Bank gave financing to a company based in a tax haven.

The benefits are reaped by major companies, and the costs are borne by small-scale farming communities and the environment. The 2008 report Caña de azúcar y palma africana: combustibles para un nuevo ciclo de acumulación y dominio en Guatemala (Sugarcane and African Palm: fuel for a new cycle of accumulation and domination in Guatemala), analysing the sugar and palm production chains, concludes that the gross value added (GVA) generated by these crops does not remain in the areas where they are grown.

“Okra and rice generate much more wealth for the local economy than sugarcane and palm,” which also create less employment. According to the report, 50 per cent of irrigation water is consumed by large sugarcane plantations, while 55 per cent of the rural population does not have access to drinking water.

Big business not only monopolises the value chain, it also strips small-scale farmers of their role as food suppliers. What is at stake is food sovereignty and the very survival of indigenous and peasant communities. And the process generates winners and losers: the communities lose, and big national and multinational companies like ADM, Cargill, Dreyfus, Bunge, Monsanto and Bayer win.

In response to the rhetoric regarding meritocracy, rooted in neoliberal subjectivities, Carlos Paz, of the Comité de Unidad Campesina (Committee for Peasant Unity - CUC) recalls that “the industrialists do not win based on their skills or effort, but because the state protects their monopolies. Corruption is structural and has taken on a legal form: wealth is based on fiscal privileges, amnesties and all types of advantages. It is legal theft.”

From co-opting to persecution

The companies try to win over the communities with corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, through which they undertake social commitments that come under the responsibility of the State. “What they do is paint our schools and communal halls with the colours of the company,” denounce the communities. They also explain that they use the money they take to the communities to try to divide them and to co-opt their leaders.

One of the strategies companies have used to impose their development model is to buy private land titles in areas where land was always held in common, in line with ancient Mayan tradition. In Sayaxché, for example, the IDB financed the issue of individual land titles on the San Roman estate. By 2008, 60 per cent of the property, previously communal, was in the hands of palm companies. The campesinos in the region say they were deceived; they had been told, among other things, that they would be given work for life on the plantations.

When co-opting and deceit do not suffice, and resistance to these projects emerges, threats and murder are used to silence those defending their territory. Resistance, moreover, is increasingly being judicialised and criminalised. In Polochic, for example, Manuel Xuc Cucul was sentenced to ten years in prison for misappropriation and aggravated theft.

For researcher Ricardo Zepeda, his true crime was to have demanded respect for his rights. Six people were killed, during 2016 alone, for defending their land in Guatemala, reports Global Witness.

In spite of everything, resistance is growing and new strategies are being adopted, such as popular consultations on megadams and mining projects. In the municipality of Barillas, Huehuetenango, the community voted against the hydroelectric project on the Cambalam river, on which their life depends. Following a long battle, and the unpunished murder of community leader Andrés Miguel, the community managed to oust the Spanish company Econer Hidralia Energía.

Women often play a leading role in these resistance processes. A member of Sagrada Tierra - Sacred Earth Foundation explains: “They worry about the future of their children and know that they have to defend their access to the land. We have observed that the success of resistance relies very much on women playing an active role in these movements.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.