Plantations and the Water Crisis on Guatemala’s Pacific Coast

By Sergio de León – Correspondent for EntreMundos

Guatemala’s Pacific coast is a temperate region where only a few small patches remain of the sprawling tropical forests and natural plains that ruled from the shore to the mountains. Even in the so-called “land of deer,” Suchitepéquez, we no longer see deer. “The coast was a paradise,” my grandfather and others of his generation would tell me. This paradise lost is today a zone of extremely unequal land distribution, high poverty rates, poorly paid workers, and food insecurity. It’s no coincidence that most of the country’s agro-industrial production happens there, characterized by huge monocrop plantations of African palms, sugarcane, and banana and rubber trees, along with livestock operations and the processing plants that turn these raw resources into finished products.

This is why national trends of more industrial monocrops and less land for small farmers are magnified on the Pacific coast. In 2003, the national agricultural census showed that 92% of Guatemala’s small farmers used only 22% of cultivated land in the country, while 1.86% of large commercial operations used 57%. The 2013 agricultural census did not provide comparable data, but it did show that between 2003 and 2013, the amount of land used for annual crops (corn, beans, vegetables, etc., dominated by small farmers) fell 35% from 1,400,000 hectares to 889,700 hectares, while the amount of land used for permanent crops (African palms, coffee, sugarcane, etc.) grew 40% from 600,000 hectares to one million hectares. This means more agricultural workers rely on the minimum monthly salary of Q2,394 ($320), and, according to many reports, in many cases even less. Meanwhile, in just one year, living costs have risen 12%, in part due to the reduced production of staple crops. According to the Guatemalan government, the food required to meet basic nutrition standards for a family of five costs Q3,281 ($437) per month, and a basic family-of-five budget that includes minimal expenses for shelter, education, healthcare, transportation, and recreation costs Q5,988 ($798) per month.

Monoculture plantations require large quantities of the water that streams from Guatemala’s Western highlands to the Pacific coast. Their unquenchable thirst causes an enormous disparity in access to water, crucial to everyday life in communities throughout the coastal region. Adding the effects of climate change and the lack of access to land for subsistence farming, water pollution and scarcity in the coastal region have grave consequences, especially for the most vulnerable communities. It also has consequences for key natural resources crucial to any future sustainable development, as well as the biodiversity that we have left in these areas. Meanwhile, Guatemala is the second largest exporter of sugarcane in Latin America and the fourth largest in the world, using 12% of its arable land to grow the crop.

To speak of water problems in these places is to speak of powerful economic interests, of frequent health problems caused by polluted water, of losses in the small famer’s crop, of struggles to protect the environment, of peasant movements to fight the powerful economic interests, of the struggle for human rights and the fight for life in the broadest sense. It is to speak of conflict and resistance. The discontent that all of this brings is widespread, since tens of   thou sands are directly affected, causing mobilizations that are sometimes met with violence and that denounce violations of the basic right to a healthy environment, integral to any kind of development that seeks to treat all people with dignity.

are: (1) the diversion of rivers during the dry season, especially on the part of sugar plantations; during the dry season, this causes water shortages, and during the rainy season, it causes floods. Recent cases include the diversion of the Salamá River in Retalhuleu by the sugar plantation Tululá in 2014 and the Coyolate River in January 2013 in Esquintla, by sugarcane and African palm plantations. These are just two of many violations of national laws that protect our natural patrimony. (2) The pollution of lakes and rivers with vinasse and other herbicides and agrochemicals that devastate local biodiversity and hurt small farmers’ yields.

Vinasse is a byproduct of sugarcane processing, specifically of the distillation of alcohol. Its application in large quantities on sugarcane plantations makes the cane’s stalks thicker, improving its yield. When it rains, the vinasse enters the rivers and soaks up the oxygen in the water, causing die-offs of fish and other aquatic organisms. It also causes gastrointestinal and skin diseases when people use the contaminated water to cook or drink, or even to wash clothing or bathe.

“Official management of our water resources on the Pacific coast is either highly insufficient or nonexistent. This increases vulnerability to climate change with alarming speed, which will punish most severely the poorest communities.”

The list of lakes, like Jabalí, Pital, or Cotuza, and rivers, like the Kijibalá, Peráz, and Sis, contaminated by vinasse and other agrochemicals in Retalhuleu alone is long. A 2013 complaint made on behalf of 68 communities in Retalhuleu also cites air fumigation from small planes as a major problem. It says that before the arrival of this practice in their communities, a manzana of land of sesame plants, about .7 hectares, used to produce around 735 kilos of product, while a manzana now produces barely 230 kilos. One of the most important herbicides to sugarcane monocrops in Guatemala, widely used in aerial fumigation, is Glyphosate, Monsanto’s best-selling chemical. This chemical makes cane stalks grow shorter, thicker, and higher in sugar content, but when it comes into contact with other plants, it usually has devastating effects.

This is why the Colombian government used the chemical in its aerial fumigations of illegal coca plantations until May, 2015. It suspended the practice after the World Health Organization labeled Glyphosate a “probable carcinogen.”

Residents of the 68 communities also showed a delegation from the Ministry of Food Security and Nutrition how cacao fruits were ripening before they had reached their peak readiness due to fumigation with other growth-inducing chemicals.

The recent disaster in the La Pasión River in Petén is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of river and lake pollution in Guatemala. Events like this have been happening regularly for decades, as the relevant regulatory authorities, principally the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), have turned a blind eye. There may be indemnifications and compensation paid to those affected by the companies and plantations responsible in some cases, but they are insignificant compared to the frequency with which these violations occur.

To understand how much political power  is wielded by african palm companies, like Reforestadora de Palma del Petén, S.A. (Repsa), which apparently caused the disaster in the River La Pasión, we need only list the taxes they don’t pay. According to a 2014 report by Plaza Pública, Repsa and 15 other major african palm companies had registered to take advantage of the Ley de Maquilas, or Law for Manufacturers, under which manufacturers are exempt from taxes on profits, tariffs, taxes on imports of raw goods for producing value-added products, and even taxes on raw goods bought internally in Guatemala. This explains the rapid expansion of african palm plantations.

Hundreds of communities, abandoned, forgotten by the state, have been supported by a relatively small number of organizations (The Diocese of Suchitepéquez, CODECA, CUC, or Red Manglar, for example) compared to other parts of the country. Official management of our water resources on the Pacific coast is either highly insufficient or nonexistent. This increases vulnerability to climate change with alarming speed, which will punish most severely the poorest communities and ecosystems that are already fragile. We should expect peasant mobilizations that are more demanding. And, if a meaningful dialogue isn’t established, a spiral of violence in the conflict over water like that witnessed in the conflict over access to land in other parts of the country. If this is what happense, we’ll all lose.