By Richard Brown
Thousands of people from throughout Guatemala, mostly rural and indigenous men and women whose livelihoods depend on small farming or plantation labor, arrived in Guatemala City on April 22, Earth Day, to denounce increasing water scarcity and pollution, food insecurity, and inequality in access to water and land.
The March for Water was a national event because throughout the country community leaders are being jailed and sometimes murdered for speaking out against existing and proposed dams, mines, and plantations that are threatening their communities’ land, water, and livelihood.
The main march route passed through Guatemala’s southern lowlands, where tropical savannas, mangroves, and jungles that were likely once as verdant and diverse as the Yucatan rainforest have been nearly completely transformed. Expanding African palm, sugarcane, banana, and rubber plantations now dominate the region. Most of what they produce is exported.
Large plantations in the region commonly redirect entire rivers. Basilio López, a small farmer and community leader from Chiquirines, near Coatepeque, said that 15 years ago there were three maize harvests a year in his area, and that fisherman could comfortably support their families. Today, there’s only one maize harvest a year, and drying, polluted rivers make commercial fishing impossible. Nearby, an African palm plantation has a pump (below) that when activated sucks so much water from the Pacayá River, once one of the region’s largest, that the river’s two-foot-deep flow inches upriver toward the pump instead of downriver toward the ocean.
During the summer, wells and rivers dry up. López explained that nearby plantations “build their all their dams and they capture all the water and they divert it to their crops… and for us, nothing.” In winter, “they dump the water towards us because they no longer use it. They dump it into the river and for us this causes floods… I’m against them because they’re violating the right to life, to food… We can’t produce, and the worst part is that they’ve seized the best land.”
The floods of wastewater from plantations can pollute rivers and contaminate crops with pesticides and other chemicals. When a containment pond for wastewater broke at an African palm plantation in the far northern Yucatan department of Petén in June 2015, dead fish, eels, crabs, and turtles surfaced for over 150 kilometers in the La Pasión River.
Marchers spoke often of how a small number of landowners and corporations are condemning them to land and water scarcity and therefore poverty. The last decade has seen a rapid expansion of mines, dams, and plantations, and poverty indicators have risen sharply.
Organization of American States (OAS) data show that Guatemala’s poverty rate rose from 54.8% in 2006 to 67.7% in 2014, while extreme poverty rose from 29.1% to 46.1%. 49% of Guatemalan children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition, which can permanently affect learning capacity and physical development. This is one of the five highest rates in the world. Over 90% of fresh water sources are now undrinkable, which has been linked to infant mortality, and under 5% of Guatemala’s population controls 80% of arable land.
When farmers can no longer rely on their crops to make a living, they are usually forced to choose between labor on plantations, migration to crowded and unsafe urban areas, and dangerous migration to the US.
Work on plantations often pays Q60 to Q85 per day. At Q85, one must work 32 days to earn the monthly minimum wage of Q2,747 ($355). Government figures put the cost of basic dietary requirements for a family of five at Q3,688 ($476) per month. With basic spending on other family necessities like shelter, clothing, and education included, the figure reaches Q6,694 ($864).
Meanwhile, virtually all Guatemalans involved in organized resistance to major dams, mines, and plantations know people imprisoned or murdered for their activism, which often starts with organizing plebiscites. In the context of negotiating the end to the country’s 36-year internal conflict that claimed 250,000 lives and is widely thought to have culminated in a genocide of Maya peoples, the Guatemalan government ratified the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 in 1996.
The convention requires authorities to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from indigenous communities to be directly affected by projects like dams or mines before the projects go forward. Since 2005, communities have organized over 80 local and regional plebiscites on the projects, and the vast majority have overwhelmingly rejected them.
In communities across the country, voters make the same points: that they do not believe the promises of developers and authorities that dams, mines, and plantations will generate electricity, capital, and goods that will be equitably distributed; that they are voting to exercise their right to set the terms for what development looks like; and that this right that has long been denied them, with disastrous consequences. When developers or authorities offer schools or electricity, they ask, why would we want development where we will no longer be able to live?
In the northwestern department of Huehuetenango, a 2007 regional plebiscite collected 46,481 votes. 46,472 were against local mining and dam activities. Authorities continue to issue permits in the region. In 2012, dam opponent Andres Francisco Miguel was shot and killed by dam security. In 2013, Daniel Pedro Mateo, a prominent Maya Q’anjob’al opponent, was abducted and found dead twelve days later.
In the opposite southeastern corner of the country, five local leaders from San Rafael Las Flores, Santa Rosa, active in protests against a silver mine run by Canada-based Tahoe Resources, were arrested in 2011 on terrorism charges that were later dropped. In 2012, 23,000 people voted on the silver mine. 98.1% voted against.
In March 2013, Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, an indigenous Xinca community leader and opponent of the mine, was abducted with three others and found beaten to death. In April 2014, another opponent, Telésforo Odilio Pivaral González, was murdered. In the same month, a third opponent, Alex Reynoso, was shot. His 16-year-old daughter, Topacio Reynoso, was killed in the attack. In October 2015, Reynoso was shot again, along with two others.
In September 2015, Rigoberto Lima Choc, a leader in the movement to punish the African palm company responsible for the La Pasión River disaster, was murdered in Petén. Last month, Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios, a leader of the group Association of Forest Communities of Petén, was ambushed and shot dead.
Many in the March for Water wear traditional Maya clothing and speak Maya languages. Many see the march as another step forward in a 500-year struggle. Rigoberto Juarez, a Maya Q’anjob’al elder from Huehuetenango who has been jailed without trial for over a year, has referred to today’s mines, dams, and plantations in Guatemala as a “fourth invasion.” The first invasion was Spanish colonization. The second was the 19th century economic liberalization that created a plantation economy.
The third was the violence of 20th century military dictators that culminated with scorched earth campaigns directed against indigenous communities in the 1980s. Through the 70s and 80s, the military effected violent displacements throughout resource-rich northern Guatemala to grant huge tracts of land to high-ranking officers and powerful families. In 1982, four massacres of Maya Achí communities in the area of Río Negro in the department of Quiché claimed the lives of over 400 women and children and an unknown number of men. Construction was soon underway on the enormous Chixoy Dam, just upriver, which the communities had opposed.
The fourth invasion, Juarez says, is happening now. It is the continued expropriation of indigenous land and water by transnational corporations, supported by los de siempre, the country’s most powerful families.
Thousands of people marched hundreds of kilometers for their right to choose how to live. It was a modern manifestation of an ancient resistance that remains unbroken.