The Pacific watershed of Guatemala comprises 17 river basins. Most of the rivers in this region have a relatively short length of around 100 kilometres, from their source in the upper reaches of mountains and volcanoes to their mouths on the Pacific coast. One of these rivers is the Coyolate, which begins in the mountains of the department (state) of Chimaltenango and flows through numerous municipalities and communities. In the middle portion of the Coyolate river basin there are large areas of land used for monoculture plantations and livestock raising.
Sugar cane and oil palm plantations have been established in the region for decades, due to its fertile volcanic soil and abundant water resources. But the sugar cane and oil palm production system, like that of many other monoculture crops, requires huge amounts of water, which is obtained by partially or totally diverting rivers towards the plantations. This is done by building a series of walls and dikes to create channels that carry and distribute the river water to the plantations for irrigation. This practice has serious consequences for local communities: during the dry season, the rivers can dry up completely, affecting small and medium-sized livestock producers, local farmers, and the more than 15,000 people who live in the Coyolate River area and depend on its waters for their daily needs.
During the rainy season, the open channels can overflow and flood local communities, leading to states of emergency, evacuations and serious losses and damages. The diversion and over-use of the waters of the Coyolate modify and alter the natural course of the river, affecting the people and ecosystems that depend on it. This situation is combined with other impacts caused by large-scale sugar cane production, such as aerial spraying of chemical products to speed up the growth of sugar cane which also affect crops of beans, corn, peppers and coconuts, among others.
The drive for expansion has led sugar cane plantations and refineries to cut down large numbers of trees, which are also used as fuel for the refinery furnaces. Riverine forests are also affected by deforestation and the impact of soil erosion. The river banks have become increasingly fragile and cannot tolerate the abrupt changes and poor use of the soil in general.
The Coyolate also carries and supplies water to a mangrove system at its mouth. When water is diverted from the river, it does not reach the mangroves, which could lead to the systematic death of this ecosystem.
The case of the Coyolate River illustrates something that is happening to almost all the rivers on the southern coast of Guatemala, where the common denominators are the irrational exploitation of the area’s resources, including water resources, and the widespread contamination caused by agro-industrial production.
The communities affected, such as Santa Odilia, have denounced this situation for years, but no real solution has been offered to them. Although they are grateful for the humanitarian aid provided to them, they are tired of depending on it. The solution to their problems is for agro-industries to respect the rivers, to stop diverting them, to use the water they need without depriving communities downriver of water and subjecting them to disastrous situations.
The diversion of the rivers and the environmental degradation caused by oil palm and banana companies have also been denounced by organizations like the Committee for Peasant Unity (CUC), which forms part of the Vía Campesina network. They have submitted complaints and demands for action to the corresponding Guatemalan government authorities with regard to the diversion of rivers in Ocós and Coatepeque, municipalities in the department of San Marcos. As a result of these demands, a high-level commission was created and has participated in monitoring activities in the plantations operated by the companies Bananera Sociedad Anónima and Palma del Horizonte. The CUC has called on the high-level commission to urgently issue a report on the inspections carried out, and to ensure that the report is objective, unbiased and fair. They have also asked the commission to propose effective solutions to deal with these problems.
Recently, a delegation from the Latin American Network Against Monoculture Tree Plantations (RECOMA) visited the community of Santa Odilia and gathered testimonies from the local population. Together with RECOMA, the community drafted a letter that will be sent to government representatives. The people of Santa Odilia hope to raise awareness among the international community, and especially the participants in negotiations around the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, of the local impacts of the false solutions to climate change being promoted as clean fuels or “biofuels”, as in the case of palm oil. The letter is available in Spanish at http://wrm.org.uy/paises/Guatemala/Carta_desvio_rio_coyolate.html, and can be signed by sending an email message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The government of Guatemala must take swift action to confront this situation, which affects thousands of Guatemalan citizens and violates their most basic human rights. Local communities are demanding that the rivers be saved, because saving the rivers will save thousands of peoples.
By Carlos Salvatierra, email: Salvatierraleal@gmail.com