Lucía Ixchiú

Colonialism, Genocide, and Palm Oil: A Q´eqchi´ indigenous village fights for their land in Chinebal, Guatemala

By Johanna Luz Shorack

Originally published in  Latein Amerika Nachrichten    in January 2022 , written in Spanish and translated into German and English for EntreMundos

On November 16th, 2021, the indigenous community in Chinebal, Guatemala received an eviction order.  The village was burned down and the homes were demolished by heavy machinery. The townspeople fled and have remained in hiding, protecting their lives. More than 90 families lost absolutely everything. This Qeqchi community had been living on their ancestral land until a land dispute began with NaturAceites, a palm oil company.  

The police arrived on the morning of November 16th ordering an immediate eviction from the local Judge Aníbal Arteaga. The community refused to leave their homes. Witnesses report that the police used violence and coercion, especially against women and children. Soon afterward, men wearing blue shirts without identification arrived and burned the villages’ palm tree-built homes. The police stood at a distance passively observing everything. Later, workers from NaturAceites were identified as the responsible for starting the fires.

A member of the community condemned the incident on the radio station America Rompe el Cerco, choosing to remain anonymous for obvious safety reasons. “The eviction order was illegal. Judge Aníbal Arteaga just stamped and signed a simple page without specifying the location and reference number. A mere sheet of paper is what was used for them to come to oppress the community in Chinebal. They chased us and attempted to capture people.”  The order given by the judge was dated in June and did not specify details about the location, date, and motive. It also did not comply with the necessary legal requirements and international human rights protocol to justify the eviction. In addition, the judge has ties to corruption, drug trafficking, and the criminalization of human rights defenders.

“It’s sad to see a State and a judge give this kind of illegal order, purely with the economic interest of NaturAceites. Enough with the violation of human rights in Guatemala! We are re-living the same civil war fought before, only the names and labels have changed. Those people continue to disguise themselves, now they use other names,” the anonymous witness continues to report. The Maya K’iché activist, Lucia Ixchiú, affirms this in an interview I had with her, “It was literally a State-induced terrorist strategy, the Shock Doctrine. El Estor is living a continuation of the genocide, racism, and colonialism”. The electronic newspaper Prensa Comunitaria explains that ¨Mayan Qeqchi communities have been fighting for the legal rights to their ancestral land for years. The State doesn’t recognize their property rights even though they’re historically the first inhabitants of the land and continue to live on it.”

The forced eviction that took place in Chinebal and the current land struggles of indigenous communities in the region are part of the broader historical and political context. “The history of indigenous communities, the genocide, and the current and permanent colonial exploitation in Guatemala aren’t simply a part of our past. They are currently taking place in Chinebal, El Estor…People are still being forced off their land,¨ Lucía shared. She is referring to the genocide and killings of the Mayan people during the Guatemalan Civil War. The violence lasted three decades and ended with the Peace Accords in 1996. The extermination policies that took place then continue today through extractive industries and the politics that support them. Lucia explains that the repression against the Qeqchi people in this region began with the Liberal Reform in 1871. That was when the State began to promote a nationwide agriculture model based on monoculture farming. Then the repression continued through the United Fruit Company.

In 1978, the national army murdered 57 Qeqchi‘ peasant farmers in the Panzós Masacre. Today, families from Chinebal are descendants who fled that massacre. The wealthy landowners in the region took advantage of the land that belonged to the peasants who fled and began raising cattle and later growing palm oil on it.  When the Peace Accords took place and the communities returned, they built their homes on the very same land they had lived on previously. The forced eviction that took place in November was the eleventh attempt in the last two years to force the Chinebal community to abandon their homes and land. 

John Maegli Müller is the owner of the palm oil company NaturAceites. He belongs to a Swiss-German family that arrived in Guatemala during the Liberal Reform. He belongs to one of two families that own the largest extensions of land in the region. During the civil war, he participated in the National Liberation Movement political party and financed paramilitary death squads and counterinsurgency warfare. His family belongs to the inner circle of political elites and continues to be one of the wealthiest families in the country. NaturAceites exports its palm oil to various countries around the world, including Germany, Mexico, and the Netherlands,

Guatemala is the second-largest producer of palm oil in Latin America (Colombia is the first). It’s the sixth-largest producer in the world. Palm oil is used in processed food, cosmetics, and cleaning products. The palm oil industry is responsible for countless environmental atrocities. In Guatemala alone, it is responsible for the ecocide of the Passion river, land disputes, and human rights violations against peasant farmers and indigenous communities.

Lucia has supported land rights efforts in El Estor since 2016. She is an activist in Festivales Solidarios, a collective that fights for historic memory, territory defense, and political prisoners. The collective is made up of artists, reporters, community organizers, and Mayan and mestizo investigators.  “I am a witness of the palm oil industry, the rubber industry, banana plantations, opencast mining, imposed water damns, and drug trafficking rings in El Estor. This is one of the most complex territories in the country. It is also where a big part of the recent genocide took place,” stated Lucia in an interview with Prensa Comunitaria. El Estor has been the center of a  strong anti-mining movement. In response, the State imposed Martial Law that began on October 25th, 2021. This played a role in enabling the forced eviction in Chinebal.  “Racism is at the core of what continues to drive the elite in this country. They have all the means to plunder communities. They behave as though we are still in the colonial area and they believe that Indigenous territories are free game because we aren’t people,” emphasizes Lucia. 

The Chinebal families fled and remained in hiding in the mountains, having lost absolutely everything. An anonymous community member shares: “The Guatemalan government continues to plunder and kill its own people…who do we go to knowing that the State works with NaturAceites against the wellbeing of our communities? We demand a serious investigation against the public officers who work on behalf of the palm oil industry’s interest. We ask the international community to fight for our wellbeing and safety. May justice be done in Guatemala”. 

Originally published in  Latein Amerika Nachrichten    in January 2022 , written in Spanish and translated into German and English for EntreMundos