In the last ten years, the expansion of corporate sugarcane and oil palm plantations in northern Guatemala has encroached on the lands of Maya Q’eqchi’ indigenous people—many of whom fled to this region during the country’s 36-year genocidal war. These plantations have already displaced hundreds of families—even entire communities—leading to increased poverty, hunger, unemployment, and landlessness in the region. The companies grabbing land are controlled by European-descendent Guatemalan oligarchs who are benefitting from rising global commodity prices for food, animal feed, and fuel (biodiesel and ethanol). In the face of violent expulsion and incorporation into an exploitative system, peasant families are struggling to access land and defend their resources as the basis of their collective identity as Q'eqchi' peoples or R'al Ch'och ("sons and daughters of the earth").
Guatemala’s “Flex Crop” Boom
The convergence of multiple global crises—financial, energy, food, and environmental—in recent years has triggered a rush of corporate investments in land-based resources such as food, feed, agrofuels, timber, oil, and minerals. These resources have (re-)gained momentum as “global hubs of capital accumulation.” In Guatemala a mix of agrarian, financial, and industrial oligarchy-controlled corporations, occasionally allied with transnational investors or financiers, have been aggressively grabbing control over land for sugarcane and especially oil palm plantations. These “flexcrops”—crops that can be diverted towards many uses depending on changing market conditions—are rapidly expanding.
Sugarcane, and especially oil palm plantations, are spreading throughout Guatemala’s northern lowlands—a region covering 47 per cent of the national territory across four departments: Alta Verapaz, Izabal, Quiché and Petén. Between 2000 and 2010, export revenues from sugar and palm oil shot up dramatically, increasing by 108 percent and 587 percent, respectively. Ethanol export revenues increased by 67 percent between 2006 and 2010. As of 2010, 70 percent of the sugar and crude palm oil and 90 percent of the ethanol produced in the country was exported, mainly to the European Union (EU), the United States, and Mexico.
The benefits of this export boom are highly concentrated. Only 14 companies—owned by 14 oligarchic families—make up the powerful Sugar Producers’ Guild (ASAZGUA), with control of over 80 percent of the country’s sugar plantations and 100 percent of the sugar mills. Five companies control all of the country’s ethanol production and eight families make up the influential Oil Palm Growers’ Guild (GREPALMA), which controls 98 percent of the harvested oil palm and 100 percent of the palm oil mills.
The power of these wealthy families has been spurred by large investments from multilateral lending agencies. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has allotted US$150 million to finance “sugar and bioenergy companies and exporters especially in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, El Salvador and north-eastern Brazil.” The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) provided US$20 million for highly controversial land deals for sugarcane agribusiness in Guatemala’s Polochic Valley. The loan was approved on the basis of a single socio-environmental impact assessment report developed by the agribusiness industry itself.
Legal Land Grabbing?
Debt plays a major role in the supposedly voluntary displacement of indigenous peasants. The private, individual property rights promoted by the World Bank in the 1990s may have given peasants’ access to bank credit, but annual interest rates of up to 26 percent led many to lose the land they had used as collateral. The system of individual land ownership also transformed once-sustainable collective Q’eqchi’ farming practices, making them dependent on external inputs for fertility. In a region with poor, rocky soils, this often means buying an increasing amount of expensive chemical fertilizers and falling further into debt.
These land deals are often accompanied by violent evictions and other coercive practices. Peasants who refuse to sell at non-negotiable prices are harassed; lands are enclosed within large plantations; and access rights are closed off, even to visiting government officials. Dozens of villages have been reduced to a small cluster of houses; and in at least four cases, entire villages—including houses, schools and churches—were gobbled up completely by plantations.
Corporate plantations also expand their control through contract farming. For example, the government’s Oil Palm Program, launched in 2009, aims to incorporate indigenous peasants as contract farmers while converting 10,378 acres of “idle” peasant lands to lucrative oil palm plantations. Peasants receive a $528 per-hectare credit from the government, which is transferred directly to agribusiness as payment for seedlings, transportation and agriculture extension services. The contracts do not include crop insurance—leaving peasants to assume the risks of production—nor do they specify who is to pay the high costs of restoring the soil after twenty-five years of oil palm production, the average economic life of a plantation.
Employment and Working Conditions
Oil palm and sugarcane plantations generate far fewer jobs than peasant farming systems. Oil palm, for instance, requires 52 working days per hectare per year, as opposed to maize, which requires 112 working days. Plantation work is also highly demanding, placing a tremendous burden on families: many plantation workers are assisted by their children to be able to meet their daily work requirements. Female heads-of-household increasingly struggle to grow food, meet their household responsibilities and mobilize against land and resource grabs. In fact, Q’eqchi’ women from the northern lowlands spend 10 to 15 percent less time tending to their physiological needs—such as sleeping, eating, and bathing—than their male counterparts. While peasant farming-generated wealth remains in the region, sugarcane and oil palm agribusinesses redirect their profits towards distant, non-farming classes (national oligarchy and international financial hubs).
Conflict and Resistance
Under the new corporate flex-crop complexes, communities have less and less space and capacity to negotiate even their minimum requirements for survival. As one Q’eqchi’ peasant stated: “Before, the rich people killed us with guns, today they allow us to starve to death.”
But struggles against dispossession, for reclaiming grabbed lands, and for accessing new lands, are on the rise in northern Guatemala. Q’eqchi’ women are perhaps the most active group mobilizing against their partners’, fathers’, or communities’ participation in land deals with agribusinesses or ranchers In some cases, individual women have hidden land titles from their partners to prevent them from selling their lands. But normally, women act collectively: they join forces to subvert gendered hierarchies in community government institutions, where they are often the clearest and loudest voices against corporate middle-men and extractive development. Q’eqchi’ youth, elders, men, and women are organizing in a variety of rural social movements to challenge the dominant model of plantation agriculture.
These struggles often converge on the need to strengthen family and community-controlled models of agro-ecological food production. With little political will from the state to support this approach, “campesino a campesino” (farmer to farmer) knowledge-sharing networks are growing, with support from social movements, NGOs, the Social Pastoral of the Catholic Church, and some scholars and local officials. Two regional, self-organized “peasant markets” (where non-peasant merchants are not allowed) are now operating twice a week in the towns of Chisec and Raxruhá. Securing a market for peasant products is considered fundamental to protecting peasant lands from dispossession. While Q’eqchi’ struggles employ non-violent strategies, they are routinely criminalized and violently repressed.
Led by white oligarchs, the new wave of land grabs for corporate sugarcane and oil palm represents a tragic continuation in Guatemala’s colonial and post-colonial history. International financial institutions also play an important role by providing financing to these companies and helping to create enabling policy conditions for land grabs to take place. In the face of threats to their lands and livelihoods, rural men and women—workers and peasants of all ages—in Guatemala’s northern lowlands are building increasingly well-organized grassroots movements in defense of their territories. These struggles are embedded in a demand for territorial self-determination for Guatemala’s R’al Ch’och or “sons and daughters of the earth.”
Alberto Alonso-Fradejas (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, Netherlands. This article is an excerpt from “Sons and daughters of the Earth: Indigenous communities and land grabs in Guatemala”, Land and Sovereignty in the Americas Briefing Series, published by Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy in partnership with the Transnational Institute. The full brief is available for free download at: https://www.foodfirst.org/en/node/4230