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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Guatemala's agrofuel plantations feed land dispossession

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Guatemala's agrofuel plantations feed land dispossession, 28 June 2012, available at: [accessed 25 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Ever since the Spanish Crown granted colonial land titles for what were ancient traditional Maya lands, indigenous communities in Guatemala have been involved in a continuous struggle for land rights.

In mid-March 2011, hundreds of Guatemalan army and police anti-riot personnel using live ammunition and tear gas, evicted thousands of residents of 14 small Maya Q'eqchi' villages located in the municipality of Panzos, Alta Verapaz, in the fertile Polochic River Valley. According to the Guatemala Solidarity Project (GSP), the affected Maya Q'eqchi' – who were regarded as 'land invaders' – were given an hour to gather all their possessions and were not allowed to salvage their crops, which were close to harvest. Following the government security crackdown, masked paramilitaries hired by a privately owned sugar cane company reportedly dismantled and burnt hundreds of homes and destroyed crops.

With nowhere to go, some 800 Maya Q'eqchi' families – including thousands of children – were left to camp out in the rain with no shelter or food; many on the sides of roads. According to local leaders, the raids came just one day after a community delegation had met with the big land-owners in a government-negotiated meeting. The impending eviction was never discussed.

While this can be seen as another clash in the long-running post-colonial struggle between the indigenous people of the area and settler families of European origin, there is now a bio-fuel element involved. At issue is access to traditional Maya Q'eqchi' ancestral land in one of Guatemala's most fertile river valleys. During the 36-year Guatemalan civil war, the Maya Q'eqchi' of Panzo – like many other indigenous communities – experienced massacres and were driven off ancestral lands into the Sierra de las Minas mountains. The subsequent post-conflict peace accord allowed for return and the promise of territorial security. By 2000, with credit available to allow rural communities to buy land, dozens of Maya Q'eqchi' communities believed they were close to finally gaining land deeds. However, the bio-fuel boom was about to change all that.

This came in the form of Guatemalan sugar-cane refining interests, reportedly with strong links to the sitting government. They were able to secure large loans of up to US$ 31 million from regional and multilateral development banks, which enabled the company to move sugar and ethanol refining operations away from traditional cane-producing zones on Guatemala's south-west coast and relocate them across the country in the Polochic Valley. Meanwhile, between 1998 and 2006, palm oil production was introduced into the valley. According to estimates by the Guatemalan National Institute for Agrarian and Rural Studies, between 2005 and 2010 the area of the country given over to oil palm plantations increased by 146 per cent.

In the Polochic Valley, both palm oil producers and the newly arrived sugar ethanol interests began a systematic land assembly process. According to Oxfam, this often involved negotiating sales or rental of small farms accompanied by thinly veiled death threats to discourage refusals. The agrofuel producers then appropriated the farms and evicted the indigenous residents to create the large sugarcane and palm oil plantations. Along with the displacement of thousands of indigenous peasant families, the need for large amounts of irrigation water has prompted diversion of the Polochic River. Environmentalists claim this has destroyed wetlands and ruined surrounding farms, when unprecedented annual floods result as the river tries to regain its channel.

According to local media, in 2009 the sugar-cane planting initiative went bankrupt and the lands were left abandoned. This encouraged the historically dispossessed Mayan Q'eqchi' to begin moving back down from their refuge in the near-by mountains. They re-established settlements on the lands they formerly occupied before the consolidation process and began sowing subsistence crops. In a region with high rates of malnutrition, this cultivation is vital to ensure that the impoverished families barely avoid starvation.

However, in late 2010 a solution was developed for the bankrupt sugar company involving recapitalization with investment by the largest exporters of sugarcane-produced ethanol in Central America – who have also expanded into palm oil cultivation. As a result, in February 2011 local radio stations began running advertisements reportedly paid for by the sugar company calling on former cane workers to evict the indigenous families from the plantation lands. A few weeks later, in mid-March 2011, the armed government security forces and plantation paramilitaries moved in to get the job done.

Between March and August 2011, private helicopters were used to drop grenades on the cornfields that survived destruction, aimed at intimidating the families trying to harvest the crop. Community land rights defenders were also threatened and murdered and families attacked at night by masked paramilitary forces.

In June 2011, the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission and a coalition of local and international organizations petitioned the IACHR which approved precautionary protective measures for the 14 communities. It called on the Guatemalan government to take concrete steps to 'prevent irreparable harm' to the communities and persons at risk.

In addition to questioning the social disruption of indigenous people in the Polochic Valley, critics have accused Guatemalan bio-fuel producers of being more interested in profiting from climate change subsidies than in meeting climate change goals. These subsidies include the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's 'Clean Development Mechanism' (CDM). Since 2008 almost all the palm oil extraction companies in Guatemala have received CDM certification, allowing access to the available financial credits and making it possible to expand their activities.

With recognition that bio-fuel production was actually devastating environments and communities around the world, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank placed a freeze on bio-fuel loans while they prepared so-called 'sector strategies'. One of these strategy mechanisms – the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – is supposed to help identify 'environmentally friendly' palm oil producers. Two of the large Polochic Valley producers have received RSPO certification. This allows them access to additional financing, thus making it potentially possible to expand production even more – onto land claimed by indigenous people. Even less favourable for the displaced in the Polochic Valley is that the new version of the programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+) allows palm oil plantations to be considered as green 'forested' areas and earn carbon capture credits. It therefore also provides an additional incentive for Guatemala growers to keep expanding sugarcane and palm oil acreages under cultivation.

Meanwhile, in the Polochic Valley at the end of October 2011, the intimidation, sporadic attacks and displacement were still continuing, and the Commission of Petitioners for Preventative Measures was forced to denounce the failure of the Guatemalan government to comply with the precautionary measures recommended by the IACHR. No aid had reached the affected families, and nothing had been done by the government to resolve the land conflict.

By year's end, as Guatemalan bio-fuel enterprises continued to position themselves to benefit from multi-million dollar international climate change reduction payouts, the evicted indigenous Mayan Q'eqchi' of the Polochic Valley were left landless, homeless and at the mercy of whatever charitable handouts they may happen to receive from those sympathetic to their plight.

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