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GUATEMALA
Expansion of monocultures expels peasants from their lands
Louisa Reynolds
9/18/2018
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Repression intensifies against peasant leaders opposed to land grabs, evictions and the pollution of water sources.

Juana Raymundo, 25, was a nurse and community leader from the municipality of Nebaj, in the highland department of Quiché. In a photo published by Prensa Comunitaria, she appears dressed in traditional Mayan Ixil attire — a white embroidered blouse known as huipil, a long, red skirt or corte and a black sweater — and smiles serenely as she looks straight at the camera.

With a self-confidence and political awareness that belied her years, Raymundo had joined the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA), five years earlier and had recently been elected to be part of the Executive Committee of CODECA’s political branch, the Movement for the Liberation of the People (MLP), which seeks to register as a political party and run for the 2019 elections.

On July 27 she left her parents’ home and headed to the local healthcare center, located in the village of Cotzol, where she worked as a nurse. From there, she intended to travel to Nebaj to hand in some reports, says her father, Pedro Raymundo, who also belonged to CODECA.

But the young nurse would never return home. The next day her body was found by villagers next to a small river that runs between Nebaj and the village of Acambalam. Her corpse bore signs of torture.

For activists in Nebaj, Raymundo’s murder brings back memories of the systematic abduction and torture of peasant leaders during Guatemala’s 36-year-long armed conflict, as it was here, in the predominantly indigenous department of Quiché, that some of the bloodiest massacres occurred, including acts of genocide against the Mayan Ixil people, according to UN reports.

Raymundo is the latest victim in a wave of violence and repression that has claimed the lives of 18 indigenous so far this year and peasant leaders, of which 13 were involved in land conflicts and nine belonged to CODECA. And around 600 campesino leaders are in prison or have arrest warrants for crimes ranging from trespassing on private property to electricity theft.

A history of land dispossession
Guatemala’s history of unresolved land conflicts, which dates to colonial times is the root cause of the peasant discontent that is being silenced by a wave of repression, say experts on agrarian issues.

“The agricultural exports model dates back to colonial times and persisted after Guatemala gained its independence.  Coffee became the country’s first agricultural export, then bananas in in the southern coast, followed by cacao and rubber, crops that took up the country’s most fertile lands. Now it’s sugarcane and African palm”, explains to Latinamerica Press Marcel Arévalo, coordinator of the poverty and migration studies department of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO).

Over the past 15 years, a growing demand for biofuels has driven the rapid expansion of monocultural farming in Central America — mainly African palm and sugar cane — intensifying the concentration of land in the hands of large corporations and driving peasants out of their homeland, especially in the Northern and North-Central departments of Petén and Alta Verapaz.

Helmer Velásquez, the director of the Coordinator of NGOs and Cooperatives (CONGCOOP), points out that multilateral organizations such as the World Bank have actively promoted the concentration of land in the hands of agribusiness companies under the argument that this would bring development and employment to rural areas when in fact it has aggravated rural poverty.

A case in point is the purchase of contested land in the Polochic Valley by sugar and African palm company Chabil Utzaj, owned by the Widmann family — one of the most powerful in Guatemala — with a loan granted by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). In 2011, three peasants were killed during the violent eviction of hundreds of Mayan Q’eqchi families from the area.

Peasants driven off their lands
Figures published by the National Institute of Statistics (INE) illustrates the extent to which agribusiness has encroached on peasant land and displaced subsistence crops over the past decade. The total surface area taken up by African palm monocultures increased by 33 percent from 2013 to 2014 and by a staggering 80 percent from 2003 to 2014 and the surface area taken up by sugar plantations has practically doubled in a decade (from 188 thousand hectares in 2003 to 378,900 hectares in 2014), whereas beans, a dietary staple for the rural poor, decreased by 70 percent from 2013 to 2014.

“Some families wanted to sell their land as the prices they were offered were really high”, says Velásquez  to Latinamerica Press. “But other families say they were coerced into selling and were visited by strangers who told them: ‘either you strike a deal with me or I’ll strike a deal with your widow’, which was a clear death threat. Other smallholders were left in the middle of plantations, forcing them to sell”.

A study conducted by the National Council for Displaced People (CONDEG) on peasant displacement as a result of the expansion of African palm monocultures in the municipality of Sayaxché, in Petén, illustrates the latter case.

In the village of Semuy, for instance, as palm oil companies such as Reforestadora de Palma de Petén SA (REPSA) acquired more and more land, the remaining peasant families found that paths and even small lagoons they formerly used to bathe in had been purchased by the company, depriving them of much needed water sources and forcing them to pay a fee every time they wished to leave the community in order to sell their produce in the local markets. Sometimes the company would forbid them from entering its land altogether or would charge fees that were too high for an impoverished peasant family to pay.

In many cases, palm oil and sugar cane companies polluted the water sources, depriving hundreds of families of access to this basic resource. One of the most notorious cases of water pollution linked to plantation activity was the ecological disaster of the Pasión River in the northern lowlands region of Petén. In June 2015, fishermen in the town of Sayaxché were horrified to discover hundreds of dead fish floating in the foul-smelling river.

Three years later, no legal action has been taken against REPSA, owner of an African palm oil plant located 74 miles upriver that has been blamed for the disaster by local environmental organizations. — Latinamerica Press.


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Juana Raymundo, indigenous leader victim of territorial conflicts promoted by the growing land grabs for monocultures. / Prensa Comunitaria
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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