Guatemala, Valle del Polochic: "Neither sugar cane nor African palm feed us"

Guatemala, Valle del Polochic:

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By Giorgio Trucchi

In the study “Plantations for agrofuels and the loss of land for food production in Guatemala”, Hurtado explains that “the loss of land previously used for food production due to the unprecedented expansion of plantations for food production The production of agrofuels, mainly African palm and sugar cane, is rapidly changing the appearance of Guatemalan agriculture and entails a considerable decrease in the national production of basic grains and food, which has been systematically weakened by the policies neoliberals in recent years ”.

A year ago, the Nicaraguan colossus Grupo Pellas assumed control of the Chabil Utzaj Sugar Mill, in the Polochic Valley, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Minority partners, sellers and landlords “cleaned the table” for him, evicting and leaving hundreds of Q'eqchi's families who for generations had lived and worked on their fertile lands. Their lives are now in danger and their fight is being criminalized.

A context of agrarian conflict

Thousands of people with banners and flags waving in the sun are mobilizing on the roads that lead to the Guatemalan capital. Men and women, young people, adults and the elderly travel more than 200 kilometers on foot. Nine days of march during which fears, hopes and dreams are shared, but also projects, firm intentions for change and demands from rulers accustomed to ignoring the clamor of native peoples.

“We do not accept crumbs from the government. We demand an immediate solution to the historical agrarian conflict that exists in Guatemala. A conflict that can only be resolved by passing a Comprehensive Rural Development Law, allowing access to land, stopping evictions and respecting our decision to reject mining, hydroelectric plants and other megaprojects. We want the agrarian debt that totals more than 300 million quetzals (38.5 million dollars) to be forgiven, that our communities be demilitarized and that the struggle of indigenous peoples and peasants cease to be criminalized, ”said Daniel Pascual, general coordinator of the Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC) (1), during the indigenous, peasant and popular March for the defense of Mother Earth, against evictions, criminalization and for Integral Rural Development, held in March 2012.

This mobilization forced three branches of the State, including the recently installed president and former general Otto Pérez Molina and his government, to sign commitments to solve the diverse and profound agrarian problems that the country has dragged on for many decades, and that have deepened with the massive implementation of large-scale monocultures.

Among the points agreed, the compliance with the Precautionary Measures (2) issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) (3) in favor of the 14 communities violently evicted a year ago in the Valle del Polochic, Alta Verapaz, as well as address with immediate priority the agrarian conflict in this area. In this sense, the government promised to use resources from the Secretariat of Agrarian Affairs, so that no less than 300 affected families a year have access to land.

He also undertook to guarantee that the private security companies hired by the Chabil Utzaj sugar mill, a brand new acquisition of the Nicaraguan colossus Grupo Pellas (4), nor any other group of irregular forces intervene in this area, respecting the right of the population of not be the victim of pressure and threats from these forces.

“The demands are clear. Failure to attend to them would further exacerbate the conflict, which would show the intentions to maintain an exclusionary system that has led this country to situations of profound contradictions, ”says a statement from the organizations that convened the march, which are pending the dates. ceilings set out in the Agreements (5).

"Clean the table" at Polochic

When in 2005 the Widmann family (6), one of the most powerful in the country and whose greatest exponent is Carlos Widmann Lagarde, brother-in-law of former Guatemalan President Oscar Berger Perdomo, decided to move the Guadalupe Sugar Mill from the southern coast of Guatemala to Valle del Polochic, giving life to Ingenio Chabil Utzaj (Good Caña in the Q'eqchi 'language), many of the Q'eqchi' ethnic communities that lived in the area did not suspect that, very soon, they would face the beginning of a new season of violence and repression.

The project, which included the acquisition of some 3,600 hectares and the lease of 1,800 more to plant sugar cane, the Widmanns obtained a loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) (7) of 32 million dollars, of which they were 28.5 million disbursed.

The situation was precipitated when dozens of farms, on whose land hundreds of Q'eqchi's families worked and lived under the colonato regime (8), became part of this monoculture project. “For these people there is no right related to the time of possession and the employers can dismiss them at any time. If the families remain, they are accused of usurpation, they are evicted and they are persecuted, without paying them labor benefits or recognizing their historical right over the land they have occupied for generations, ”explains Marielos Monzón, a columnist for Prensa Libre in a note.

This process of dispossession had begun at the end of the 19th century with the Liberal Reform, when the Guatemalan government was opened to foreign investment. German emigrants were concentrated in the Polochic valley, to whom lands already occupied by the Q'eqchi's populations were granted. “In this way, the former inhabitants became workers for the German settlers and those who are being evicted these days are their descendants. So the process of dispossession comes from very far, but it deepens more with the introduction of the monocultures of African palm and sugar cane ”, said Carlos Barrientos, executive secretary of the CUC.

According to the peasant leader, the interest of the Widmann and Ingenio Chabil Utzaj S.A. By buying land in the Polochic Valley, it generated a perverse mechanism to incentivize the sale or lease of farms, many of them of very doubtful ownership, such as the large tracts of land that belonged to the landowner Flavio Monzón, one of the main responsible for the Panzós massacre (9) of May 29, 1978, and which he inherited to his children.

The result was the massive eviction of young settlers who for generations had been living and working part of these farms. “The alleged owners began to remove the communities, despite the fact that with many of them they already had advanced negotiations for the acquisition of the land. They preferred to sell or lease to large companies and to do so they had to 'clear the table', evicting all these families who claim historical rights to the land, ”Barrientos said.

Monocultures and hunger

Laura Hurtado, a sociologist, researcher and profound expert on the impacts generated by the expansion of monocultures for the production of agrofuels in Guatemala, assures that there is a direct relationship between this phenomenon and the loss of sovereignty and food security of the population.

In the study “Plantations for biofuels and the loss of land for food production in Guatemala” (10), Hurtado explains that “the loss of land previously used for food production due to the unprecedented expansion of plantations destined to the production of agrofuels, mainly African palm and sugar cane, is rapidly changing the appearance of Guatemalan agriculture and entails a considerable decline in the national production of basic grains and food, which has been systematically weakened by the neoliberal policies of the last years ”.

Indeed, in the last decade, Guatemala went from being a self-sufficient country in terms of food, to a country dependent on food imports. According to data from FAOSTAT (11), between 1990 and 2005 the national production of wheat fell by 80.4 percent, that of beans by 25.9, that of rice by 22.7 and that of corn by 22.2 percent.

On the other hand, the National Statistics Institute (INE) (12) details that up to 2003, 49 farms were dedicated to the production of African palm with a total area of ​​31,185 hectares (has). The 2007 Agricultural Survey established that for that year the number of farms destined for this product would have increased to 1,049 and the cultivated area would have extended to 65,340 hectares. In 2011 it is estimated that the area planted with African palm was close to 100,000 hectares, with a production of 140 thousand metric tons of oil per year.

Regarding sugar cane, Hurtado's study reveals that in 2003 the national production covered a total area of ​​188,775 hectares. Only the department of Escuintla, on the southern coast of the country, accounted for 87 percent of total production. For 2007, the Agricultural Survey estimated that sugarcane production would have grown by 1.55 percent, increasing the area destined to this crop nationwide to 260,896 hectares, data that remained stable during the following years.

Hurtado also explains that the production and processing, both of African palm and sugar cane, are highly concentrated in very few companies and corporations (13), which generates processes of concentration and re-concentration of agrarian property, exacerbating this the problem of access to land for peasants.

“They are processes that expel the communities, suppress important areas previously destined for the production of basic grains and food in general, eliminate the forest cover and generate earthworks, drainage and drying out of swamps, lagoons and other sources of water. In other words, there is greater fragmentation or the total elimination of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity ”, points out the Guatemalan researcher.

For Barrientos, this monoculture model would enjoy the support and complicity of the State and the mainstream media. “There is an effective criminalization of the social struggle and protest through judicial persecution, the disqualification of peasant demands and smear campaigns against peasant leaders and leaders, by the media that are at the service of the companies. and the transnationals. In this way, they intend to create a public opinion that condemns the struggles for access to land and those who lead them, legitimizing the looting of natural resources imposed by the neoliberal model throughout the continent, ”said the executive secretary of the CUC.

A situation that Hurtado considers contrary to the spirit of the Peace Accords (1996) (14), where the State promised to promote the democratization of land tenure and peasant access to it. “What happened in the Valle del Polochic with the sale of land to agro-industrial companies - such as Ingenio Chabil Utzaj S.A. (Widmann-Grupo Pellas) or Palmas de Desarrollo S.A. PADESA y Grasas y Aceite S.A. (Grupo Maegli) - It has been an alignment of the institutional policies of the State and the resources of the international financial institutions to the interests of these companies, to the detriment of the food and nutritional security of the peasant population ”, Hurtado told ALBA SUD / Rel-IUF.

The researcher also underlined that, although the planting of sugarcane and African palm is today destined to the production of sugar, molasses, alcoholic beverages, edible and industrial oils and fats, what has truly stimulated the land grabbing process is the growing and promising international market for biodiesel and ethanol (15).

"It may be that now the international price is low and that companies are better off other types of production, however it is clear that these large investments are aimed at the agrofuels market," he said.

Evictions and death

On the road to Cobán, the San Julián detour opens the way to the Polochic Valley. Coming down from the mountains through a winding road we come to the coast of the Polochic River, one of the main rivers in Guatemala that crosses several municipalities in southern Alta Verapaz and empties into Lake Izabal.

As we move towards the bottom of the valley we enter dirt roads that open between vast expanses of sugar cane and African palm. From time to time, small cornfields are seen between the palms. “They are the landowners who give permission to the peasants to plant their milpa. In exchange, they are required to clean the palm trees without paying them anything and in that way they exploit the local labor force and save costs ”, explains SC, who was born in the Polochic Valley, has grown up between repression and evictions and is now an activist of the CUC.

Like many of the people who had the courage to share their stories with this correspondent, S.C. He preferred to remain anonymous "because hit men are everywhere," he says.

After having obtained the loan from CABEI and having started an experimental phase of planting sugar, the Chabil Utzaj sugar mill project failed. In 2010, the Industrial Bank (BI), trustee of the guarantee trust, put up for auction 37 farms and all the machinery, on a base price of 30.2 million dollars. In addition, the Ingenio accumulated a large debt with the municipality of Panzós in respect of the Single Property Tax (IUSI), which it never paid.

Despite the fact that the auction was temporarily canceled due to an appeal filed by Chabil Utzaj S.A. himself, the news gave new hope to the hundreds of families who had been suffering repression and evictions in recent years.

“Several organizations went to CABEI and the government to present a proposal, in which the State would assume the debt and develop an ambitious program to meet the demand for access to land by peasant families. However, we were not taken into account and the communities returned to recover the land and plant food, ”Hurtado explained.

Faced with pressure from the Q'eqchi's families to return to live on the lands to which they claim historical rights, a negotiation table was opened in March 2011 and the Widmanns made a proposal to relocate the communities to other places. Apparently, the landowners and the government and judicial authorities did not care that the families presented a counterproposal, rather they initiated a violent eviction of 14 communities.

The repression began on March 15 and was carried out by more than a thousand troops, including the military and the police, and with the participation of members of the Chabil Utzaj private security. It was brutal and prolonged, culminating days later with the expulsion of some 800 families, the destruction and burning of houses and crops and a result of a murdered peasant, Antonio Beb Ac (16), from the Miralvalle community, and several wounded and detained.

Once the table had been "cleared," CABEI announced the restructuring of the loan (17) to the owners of Chabil Utzaj for more than 20 million dollars, supposedly "to boost a vulnerable area that has poverty rates of 84.1 percent and 41.2 percent. percent of extreme poverty ”, reads a note (18) of the digital economic magazine CentralAméricaData (19). At the same time, the Widmanns announced the incorporation of the company Guatemala Sugar State Corp. - an investment vehicle of the Pellas Group in the area - as a new investor in the project.

In June 2011, company executives formalized the acquisition by the Pellas Group of 88 percent of the share package of Chabil Utzaj SA, as well as a multimillion-dollar investment during the 2011-2012 biennium, which includes the disbursement of between 30 and 40 million dollars for a 12 MW power generation project.

“There is a very close relationship between last year's evictions, the reactivation of the Chabil Utzaj project, and the multi-million dollar investment of Grupo Pellas. The project was bankrupt and the farms were being auctioned to pay off debts. With these brutal evictions, the Widmanns manage to float and the Pellas Group receives a 'clean' product without occupied farms, a necessary element to implement its expansion plan for monocultures and businesses (20) in Central America ”, said the executive secretary of the CUC .

Despite repeated attempts to contact Grupo Pellas in Nicaragua, several calls were made, and emails were sent to the communication area requesting their version of events, the company ignored our request.

Precautionary measures

After the evictions and being left without a house or food, thousands of homeless people began to roam the area, seeking support. On many occasions they were subjected to reprisals, harassment, persecution, threats and even murder (21). “They were violent, disproportionate and irrational evictions, in clear contravention of international standards regarding evictions and which represented an evident violation of the human rights of the Q'eqchi’s families. Given this situation and the direct participation of the Chabil Utzaj private security forces in the repression, several organizations (22) decided to request precautionary measures before the IACHR, constituting ourselves as petitioners and requesting that the evictions be stopped and that the population that she had been left with nothing, ”said Martha García, lawyer and coordinator of the Latin American Union of Women (ULAM).

On June 20, 2011, the IACHR resolved favorably and asked the recently installed Guatemalan government to adopt the necessary measures to guarantee the life and physical integrity of the members of the 14 communities, as well as humanitarian measures –including food and shelter– by arranging them with the beneficiaries and their representatives. Finally, the IACHR asked the government to report on the actions taken by the State to investigate compliance with the measures themselves.

Despite the urgency of the situation, García assures that the provisions of the IACHR have only been complied with in a minimal part by the Presidential Commission that coordinates the Executive's Policy on Human Rights (COPREDEH) (23).

“The State wanted to carry out a census to identify the beneficiary families and finally ignored the data that we had reported to the IACHR, regarding the number of families and the need for housing. In October we had to go back to the IACHR to raise the need to immediately begin distributing food for a minimum period of five months, ”explained García.

The State's response did not meet expectations. COPREDEH delivered minimal quantities of food, incomplete and of poor quality and only for three months. Currently, the petitioning organizations have not been able to meet again with state officials and the food deliveries have been suspended. Neither could progress be made in the area of ​​housing and community security.

“In the report it sent to the IACHR, COPREDEH claims to have complied with the precautionary measures, which is totally false. In our report we ask the IACHR to maintain the measures and to rule on the issue of access to land. It is clear to us that although the responsibility for what he is doing lies with Chabil Utzaj, the State is helping him to act with total impunity and in flagrant violation of human rights ”, concluded the lawyer.

"Let them go from Polochic"

After having left the Chabil Utzaj facilities and the cane fields that are lost far beyond the imperceptible line of the horizon, we reached the 8 de Agosto community, where several members of the communities evicted last year have gathered. People approach in fear. Ask my guide and translator the purpose of the visit. They talk among themselves, while dozens of boys and girls look on curiously.

They finally decide to talk. We take refuge between the wall of a building and the parked vehicle so that no one can look at us, especially the security guards of Chabil Utzaj, many of them former soldiers and policemen who have participated in the bloody events of the 1980s. Little by little people gain confidence, approach, begin to speak and the river of words comes out in an impetuous, unstoppable way.

“My family and I suffered three evictions between 2008 and 2011. Hundreds of police, military and members of the Chabil Utzaj private security arrived and evicted us by force. They burned everything and destroyed our crops, leaving us with nothing. The threats and persecution have not stopped either. They accuse us of invaders and in my case I have an arrest warrant for aggravated usurpation of land and I can even go out to look for work. However, we are not the ones who have come to invade the land where we were born and raised. It is there that we want to live, grow our food and that is why we have to continue fighting, otherwise what are we going to leave for our children? ”Said J.M.C.C. from the community of Bella Flor.

O.B., a young Q'eqchi 'girl from the community of Río Frío, the memory of the last eviction is imprinted in the depths of her mind and her eyes get wet. “The morning of the eviction, I left early and went to the garden to collect beans to feed my children. Suddenly they came to tell me that they were evicting the Agua Caliente community and we understood that the same thing was going to happen to us soon. The military and the guards from the sugar mill gave us a few minutes to remove some of our belongings and burned everything. They made fun of us and told us that we had nothing to do there because we were invaders, ”he recalled between sobs.

A O.B. It hurts her a lot to remember those moments, but the pain turns into despair when she thinks of her 5 children who are in a state of serious malnutrition. “A year has passed and the State has not fulfilled what it promised. We are not the invaders, but these millionaires who come from other countries to get us from where our families have lived for centuries. Leave us alone! Because we are not asking for alms, if not that our right to the land to grow our own food is respected, because we do not eat sugar, much less African palm ”, he concluded.

The families of the 8 de Agosto community regained their land after the eviction and with the support of different organizations, including the CUC and the Guillermo Toriello Foundation (24), they are promoting a housing project that would change their lives. According to various documents in the hands of the CUC, these lands would belong to the State and a lawsuit has already been filed for them to be awarded to the community.

“It is absurd to think that we were evicted just because our community was included on a list, that it was prepared by Widmann themselves, and that it was not even consulted with the judge's eviction order. Hundreds of policemen, soldiers, private guards from Chabil Utzaj and hired crews entered to destroy our crops. We no longer endure so much violence and we are reliving the dark moments of the 70s and 80s, ”said A.P. of August 8.

J.T. and G.T., both from the same community, claim to have been repeatedly harassed and threatened by members of the Chabil Utzaj private security. “They throw stones at the houses, they shoot us and they even tried to kidnap our two children. We ask that the Widmann, the Pellas and the government be pressured internationally to let us live in peace, because they have only brought more poverty, pain and hunger, "said the Q'eqchi couple.

"Where was…"

We entered the reed beds and traveled I don't know how many kilometers to reach what remains of the Paraná community. During the long journey, S.C. He pointed out the point where a year ago the communities that were brutally evicted emerged: Midalvalle, El Recuerdo, La Tinajita, Paraná. Now, the sugar cane hides any memory of those settlements. Nowadays no one could realize that there, in these lands, hundreds of families lived their lives freely.

“When preparing for an eviction, the Ingenio announces on local radio stations that it will need personnel to integrate work crews. They gather up to 300 or 400 people and take them to the communities to destroy the crops with the machete. Later, always with the protection of the police and while the armed forces evict the people and burn the houses, employees of the sugar mill pass by with the machines to turn the land and plant sugar cane. They take advantage of the misery of the people to entrust them with the dirty work. In a short time there are no more traces of the life that animated these communities, ”explained S.C.

In Paraná nobody is waiting for us. At the edge of a dirt road are the semi-destroyed champas where the families relocated after the eviction. Chabil Utzaj's private guards attacked again a few months ago and dispersed people.

While we wait in the vehicle, a man approaches. He glances at us, asks our driver questions, looks at us again. He is the chief of the security guards in the area. People get scared and tell us by cell phone that we are going to meet somewhere else. We moved towards the area of ​​the champas and there, surrounded by cane, some of the members of the Paraná began to arrive.

“They destroyed and burned everything, including 48 apples of corn and beans and 80 bags of ears that we had in storage. We moved to live on the side of the road, but a week later the military and the guards arrived to shoot us and wounded two companions. They say it is a lie that there were deaths and injuries, but here are the bullets with which they persecute and kill us, ”said FC, showing me several bullets of heavy-caliber weapons, supposedly abandoned in the place after the attacks, and several holes of bullet that destroyed the sheet roof of the champas.

Both for F.C. As for his father-in-law R.T., the families of the Paraná community will continue to defend their right to live in peace on the lands that belonged to their ancestors, where their grandparents shed their blood during the conflict of the 70s and 80s.

“Beyond, in the background, there is still a mass grave where the people of Paraná were buried, who were massacred by the military after being evicted in the 1980s. Today we are experiencing the same horror, just for the fact of recovering the land where we were born and that were stolen from us. Now we have nowhere to live, to feed ourselves and we are constantly threatened. Chabil Utzaj's legal advisor is doing everything to divide the people, saying that we are invaders and that no one should help us. The government is not helping us and they are no longer delivering food to us. Our martyrs have died fighting for the land and this is what we are going to continue doing, but we need a solution now and for the repression and murders to stop once and for all, ”said R.T.

Also in the Inup / Agua Caliente community, the violence was brutal. According to M.M. and M.E.P. the 78 families that made up the community were mercilessly evicted at the point of gunfire, beatings and tear gas, resulting in several wounded. “We need land to grow our food, just like our grandparents did here in the Polochic Valley. Now comes the Ingenio and intends to take everything from us. He arrives with security guards who are very violent and chase us at all times. People are even afraid to go out on the street for fear of being killed. Why is no one investigating what has happened? Why so much impunity? Asked M.M.

Faced with so much lack of protection, international pressure and the forceful peasant, indigenous and popular march last month are expected to achieve some concrete result.

“These companies harass, persecute and repress our people. It is necessary for the government to comply with the Peace Accords regarding land tenure and financing for peasants. It is not possible that it only benefits millionaires, because Mother Earth must serve the peoples and not for a single person who sows monocultures. Unfortunately, what we see now is more extreme poverty and malnutrition, because palm and sugar cane do not feed us. What the people need is our sacred tortilla, our sacred bean. Como pueblos indígenas tenemos que rescatar nuestra tierra y nuestros recursos naturales”, concluyó G.A.C de la comunidad Papal Ha.

Reportaje de Giorgio Trucchi, en el marco del convenio de colaboración entre ALBA SUD y la Rel-UITA, sobrela represión desatada en torno al Ingenio Chabil Utzaj, Guatemala, en un conflicto agrario provocado por la expansión de los monocultivos.









8. El colonato es un sistema donde a los trabajadores, llamados “mozos colonos”, se les concede el usufructo de una parcela que se va heredando de padres a hijos.





13. Según Laura Hurtado el cultivo de la palma africana descansa fundamentalmente en seis grandes productores, mientras que la cañicultura se concentra en quince ingenios azucareros, algunos de los cuales extienden su radio de operaciones a otros sectores productivos y geográficamente a Centroamérica y Sudamérica.








21. El 21 de mayo 2011, guardias de seguridad de la empresa Chabil Utzaj asesinaron a Oscar Reyes, miembro de la Coordinadora Nacional Indígena y Campesina (CONIC) y de la comunidad Canlun. En el ataque se reportaron cinco campesinos heridos de gravedad, identificados como Santiago Soc, Mario Maquin, Miguel Choc, Marcelino Ical Chub y Arnoldo Caal Rax. El día 4 de junio 2011 fue asesinada a balazos María Margarita Chub Ché, lideresa de la comunidad de Paraná, municipio de Panzós, por hombres fuertemente armados que llegaron en una moto y le atacaron en el patio de la casa en donde se encontraba.

22. Unión Latinoamericana de Mujeres por el Derecho a Defender Nuestros Derechos (ULAM), Fundación Guillermo Toriello (FGT), Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC), Equipo Comunitario para Acción Psicosocial (ECAP) y Derechos en Acción (DA).



Créditos foto 1: Cañaveral en Telemán. Fotografía de Giorgio Trucchi (ALBA SUD/Rel-UITA).

Créditos foto 2: Orilla de la carretera en la comunidad de Paraná.Fotografía de Giorgio Trucchi (ALBA SUD/Rel-UITA)

Video: Five tips for Chapin who want to Invest in Real Estate back in Guatemala (July 2022).


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