Jaula de caña

Maya farmers are fighting back against biofuels and climate change

Article and photos by Richard Brown – Editor / EntreMundos

Ricardo Gómez is from Nueva Cajolá, a Maya Mam farming community near Guatemala’s Pacific coast. His grandparents were part of a group of Mam laborers from Cajolá, Quetzaltenango, who were ordered to dig the Santa María tunnel on the highway from Xela to Reu in the 1920s. In return for their work, they were granted a fertile piece of land that was quickly seized by a white landowner.


Ricardo Gómez.

Eventually, the community ended up where it is now: on poor land that had been ravaged by intensive cotton production. Today, it is being surrounded by huge plantations that are sucking wells and rivers dry. “The sugarcane fields have destroyed small farmers’ produce,” Gómez said. “The fruit on the trees doesn’t ripen, it bruises, it falls. Before, you could go to the market with the fruit and make a little money… but not anymore.”

“We’re fucked,” said Catarino López. He explained that the water table has fallen 30 feet in the last few years as the sugarcane has spread, and that in nearby rivers he no longer finds the crab, fish, shrimp, and other aquatic life that used to sustain communities in the region.


Catarino López.


Víctor Alvarado, a regional coordinator for the Red Cross, said that several years of abnormally severe drought in the region have decreased rainfall and river flow, but that expanding African palm and sugarcane plantations have also had a dramatic impact, deforesting huge swaths of land and diverting or draining entire rivers. “That’s why the rivers don’t deliver as much water downstream, hurting all the farmers… that’s why, when there’s no rain, people lose their harvests,” Alvarado said.

Even the authors of a Central America birding guide write that the fertile southern coast region, “has been cut, burned, and converted mostly to an open, agricultural wasteland, with little trace remaining of the natural forest.”


A plantation burns sugarcane for harvest as an irrigation machine waters the seven-foot crop.


This ecological destruction means that rivers that were flush with fish, crab, and shrimp just two decades ago can no longer help small farmers supplement their income. Falling water tables and heavy pesticide use have also affected the fruit trees that some families rely on to make ends meet.

Most of the most fertile land on the southern coast is already controlled by the 2% of farms that owns 70% of Guatemala’s arable land. Now, with less water, more frequent droughts, smaller harvests, and less supplemental income, small farmers are more easily convinced by powerful plantation owners to sell their land.


Graphic from the World Bank’s Economic DNA of Guatemala report. It states, “Prosperity has not been shared. Despite economic growth, Guatemala is the only country in Latin America in which the income of the bottom 40% fell between 2003 and 2012.”


Meanwhile, food prices have been rising steadily as land that was once used to grow food for Guatemalan markets is now used to produce sugarcane and palm oil for export. After Guatemala ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005, plantation owners reaped greater profits through easier export of their products to the US.

The US provides a solid market for crops like sugarcane because of biofuel standards that were written primarily to support the US corn industry. US legislation passed in 2007 mandates that more biofuel be added every year to the US gasoline supply, peaking in 2022 at about 25%, or 36 billion gallons. This has helped US corn growers maintain a market for their crop.

This has also, along with CAFTA, encouraged sugarcane and African palm plantations to proliferate in Guatemala. Land ownership has become more concentrated and export crops are displacing crops for domestic consumption.


Graphic from the Guatemalan National Statistics Institute shows expanding land use by sugarcane and African palm plantations, in acres.


These trends and the high food prices they create are partly responsible for Guatemala’s persistent malnutrition. This past summer, a pound of Roma tomatoes reached Q8 (around $1.10) in Guatemala City, over 10% of an average person’s daily income.

Half of Guatemalan children under six suffer chronic malnutrition, meaning they don’t get enough healthy food to develop normally. This leads to stunted growth and can impair brain development. Guatemala’s rate far eclipses that of North Korea (around 30%), and year after year puts Guatemala in the bottom five countries in the world alongside war zones like Afghanistan and Yemen.

The farmers of Nueva Cajolá are lucky enough to have an average of four acres each to work. Most grow corn, a crop central to Maya culture. The name for Guatemala in several Maya languages is Iximuleu – the land of corn.

But some of the same forces that are squeezing the farmers’ access to water (climate change, biofuel standards, and CAFTA) are hurting the value of their harvests.

Corn has become the foundation of the US diet, just as it has been for countless Native American nations, in part because the US gives billions of dollars a year in subsidies to industrial corn growers. CAFTA caused a flood of cheap, subsidized industrial corn from the US reached Guatemala.

Prices have plummeted, and local Maya farmers get less and less for their harvests. Last month, farmers from Nueva Cajolá and other nearby communities blocked roads to protest the low price of corn, down at times to Q75-Q90 per quintal (a 100-pound sack). Catarino López said, “And what did they do? They brought out all those riot police.”

To adapt, the farmers of Nueva Cajolá have transitioned much of their land to sesame, a popular cash crop. They said they harvest once per year, and off their four acres, they hope to come away around $1,000 in the black. The Guatemalan government estimates that it costs around $483 per month to provide basic nutrition to a family of five.

Surrounded by enormous sugarcane fields, the options for alternative employment are dim. Most work on local cane plantations is seasonal. The plantations have few openings and pay little, around Q12 ($1.63) per ton of cane cut and collected. By working from before dawn until after dark with their children, a sugarcane cutter might collect five tons in a day.


A sugarcane truck exits a plantation. Shortly after this photo was taken from a public highway, guards approached the photographer and his guides and ordered them to leave.

If farmers from Nueva Cajolá choose to leave their land, their options are limited to seeking informal work in swelling and violent urban centers or migrating to the US. Faced with these choices, small farmers throughout Guatemala are joining combative peasant mobilization groups.

Farmers from Nueva Cajolá recently joined one of the most controversial: the Committee for Peasant Development (Codeca), which has a presence in almost all of Guatemala and claims a dues-paying membership of 25,000. Its leaders are routinely arrested, its members face intimidation and threats, and its protests are met with violence. In the last two months, two of its members have been shot for their activism and another was deliberately run over by a wealthy businessman at a protest.

Electricity bills finally drove the farmers and their families to join the organization. The farmers used to pay around Q50 ($6.80) per month. Now, bills routinely reach over Q120 ($16.60).

Elisia López did not exaggerate when she said that families need to choose between paying the electric bill and educating their children. Despite the risks, she said, “We’re still fighting alongside Codeca. We’ll be with Codeca so we can make ends meet, so we can support our families. We’re going to give our kids an education… we can’t make it like this, supporting the [electric] company with all this money.”


Elisia López and her children.


To avoid higher bills and force Energuate, a US-owned electricity distributor, to the negotiating table, a group of farmers in the community decided to bypass their electricity meters and connect themselves directly to the power grid so that they couldn’t be charged.

Energuate then cut off their electricity. Elisia López and her family of five haven’t had electricity for two months. “We’re buying candles,” she said.

Catarino López said that the community isn’t after free electricity. “We were fine with Q50 ($6.80). Q50 is normal… but it got up to Q150. Up to Q200… and that’s when I said, I’m with Codeca. They cut off our electricity, but the fight will go on,” he said. The community is waiting to meet with Energuate representatives to negotiate a lower price. Otherwise, community members say, they will continue to tap into local power lines illegally, and Codeca will continue to support their protests.


An Energuate bill for Q122 ($16.50). It was sent to a resident of Nueva Cajolá for the month of November, 2017, during which the resident used 69 kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to light five 100-watt lightbulbs for four hours a day. The resident owes a total of $156.















The farmers contacted Codeca because it calls for the renationalization of electricity distribution. Distribution was privatized in the 90s and has been controlled by two companies since. One is Energuate, which was bought by Spanish conglomerate Unión Fenosa after privatization. Unión Fenosa sold it in 2011 to British private equity firm Actis Capital, which solid it in 2017 to Israeli conglomerate I.C. Power, which in turn sold it to New York-based private equity firm I Squared Capital.

The other is Eegsa, owned by Empresa Pública Medellín (EPM), a public company fully owned by the City of Medellín in Colombia. EPM is celebrated for driving the “Medellin Miracle,” the city’s wildly successful revitalization. The Wharton School recently wrote that EPM:

has funded huge projects throughout the city, including the Planetarium, the Botanical Gardens, the Museum of Water, a children’s interactive museum, libraries, urban parks, and the 16,000-hectare Arví Park just outside the city limits. It also runs the Fondo EPM para la Educación Superior (EPM’s University Education Fund), which benefits more than 3,000 students from Medellín and Antioquia annually.

Codeca cites EPM as a model for publicly-owned electricity distribution, except for one detail: its social programs are funded in part by the hundreds of millions of dollars it has made off of its operations in Guatemala, off of people like those in Nueva Cajolá.

In December, after a years-long trial, two Codeca leaders were acquitted of undermining state security and other serious charges brought by both Energuate and Eegsa. One of the accused, Edvin Amado Sánchez, told EntreMundos outside the courtroom, “It is curious that a public company is prosecuting us for trying to make electricity distribution public.”

Edvin Amado Sánchez (center) and Vicenta Jerónimo Jiménez on trial in December, 2017, with their lawyer.

Ricardo Gómez recapitualted the farmers’ resolve to take matters into their own hands:

What future are our children going to have? What are we going to leave them? If we have problems now, how are they going to make it in 10, 15 years?…

We’ve tried to talk to the government, to make formal complaints, and the state doesn’t pay any attention, because it’s poor people like us making them… What are people supposed to do? We’re not going to eat each other. We’re going to have to look for a solution. And there’s still time. That’s why this peasant organization Codeca is seeing, planning how the Guatemalan people can organize themselves to be able to defend their rights…

This is the only way. We have no hope for the president, nor the congress, nor the judges, none of them have done anything for the peasantry. They’re all on the side of the rich…

For 500 years they’ve been exploiting us. [But] every day we’re stronger. We won’t support these injustices any longer.


November, 2017.