Industrial monoculture oil palm plantations have expanded significantly in Guatemala in recent years. One of the areas that has seen the greatest increase in these plantations is the municipality of Sayaxché, Petén, where companies have determined that the land is optimally suited for oil palm production.
During a recent visit to Guatemala (1), WRM interviewed Lorenzo Pérez Mendoza, coordinator of the National Council of the Displaced in Guatemala (CONDEG), an organization that is providing accompaniment and assistance for communities in Sayaxché for the defence of their land and labour rights.
The population of Sayaxché is made up by displaced persons from different parts of the country. In the early 1960s, families arrived here in search of land that the government was distributing to landless peasant farmers and indigenous people through colonization programmes. During the bloody 36-year civil war in Guatemala, they were joined by families who had survived massacres perpetrated against entire communities and were seeking new lands on which to settle. At the end of 1990s, during the peace process that ended the war, the government regularized land ownership, granting all of the peasant and indigenous families legal title to the land they occupied.
Lorenzo told WRM, “These communities are currently suffering a second displacement, which is forced in most cases, provoked by oil palm plantation companies. During the last decade, Sayaxché has been the target of land grabbing by these companies. Using different strategies, the companies have been buying up land from peasant and indigenous families, cattle ranching companies, and even entire communities. They frequently use pressure and threats to achieve their goals: ‘If you don’t sell us your land, we’ll negotiate its sale with your wife,’ which is an indirect way of saying, if you don’t agree to sell it, we will kill you and then negotiate with your wife. Most of the lands are joint-owned; the sale of a property requires the signature of both the man and the woman. As a result, when men are pressured by the companies to sell, they in turn pressure their wives to sign. This leads to serious family conflicts.
“The families who refuse to sell are left surrounded by oil palm plantations. When the companies buy properties, they close off the public rights-of-way, preventing neighbouring residents from accessing their own lands along the roads they have traditionally used to reach their crops. They are forced to use other longer routes, or roads that are in poor condition, which means they may have to walk for several hours to reach their destination. This makes it almost impossible for them to get to their fields to plant crops and to get out to sell the crops they harvest or to buy basic supplies. Peasant farmers have also been subjected to other methods used to push them into abandoning or selling their lands. There have been reports of the burning and fumigation of their parcels of land and crops, and of crop theft.”
According to the CONDEG coordinator, “The root of the problem lies in two facts. One is the policy on the operations of companies, which have the full support of the state, from the governor up through to the Ministry of Labour and right up to the national government. We find this extremely troubling. The other is that the state institutions that legalized ownership of the land did not provide even a minimum of technical assistance as to how to manage the land, nor any incentives to promote food production. The people who settled in the area began to adapt as well as they could to life in the countryside, but at the same time, the companies began to arrive with promises of development and employment.
“As time passed the people came to see that these promises are never kept. Of the families who sold their parcels of land, some left, others ended up leasing small parcels of land to grow food for their own subsistence, and others became workers dependent on the palm oil companies, which take advantage of populations who are poor and face serious economic difficulties.”
Lorenzo highlighted the fact that May 8 marked a full year since 13,000 peasant farmers and plantation workers from the municipality of Sayaxché staged a mobilization against the palm oil companies of the region to demand better working conditions and decent wages. Up until now, the government has yet to deliver on its pledge to respond to the demands presented.
“Mother Earth can live without humans, but humans cannot live without Mother Earth,” reflected Lorenzo. “The oil palm companies have established plantations on lands where peasant farmers used to grow corn, beans and squash, among other crops, and in places that were used as pasture lands for raising cattle. Now it is private property, no one can pass through it because there are private armed guards. People have lost access to water, to firewood, and public rights-of-way are closed off. The companies have destroyed what was left of the forests; oil palm is not like coffee, which can be integrated into the forest. They clear away everything to benefit the monoculture plantations.
“We have a serious problem in Sayaxché with cases of deforestation and violations of labour rights and the right to access to the land (2). Now that everything is covered with oil palms, the people realize that you cannot eat oil palm, not even animals eat it; it is only of use to the companies.”
(1) WRM visited Guatemala in coordination with SAVIA, the representative in Guatemala of RECOMA (the Latin American Network Against Monoculture Tree Plantations) and with the collaboration of Redmanglar, to participate in information-sharing activities and gather testimonies on the impacts on local communities of the expansion of monoculture oil palm plantations.
(2) For more information, see the reports produced by CONDEG: “Investigación y documentación de casos de violaciones de derechos de paso de las personas y/o comunidades del municipio de Sayaxche, departamento de Petén” available at http://www.wrm.org.uy/es/files/2013/05/CONDEG-derecho-de-paso.pdf, and “Aproximación a las prácticas de violación a los derechos laborales en las fincas de palma africana, Sayaxche, Peten. ¿Neocolonialismo?” available at http://www.wrm.org.uy/es/files/2013/05/informe-CONDEG-empleo.pdf