The fight for water on Guatemala’s southern coast

By Matthew Burnett-Stuart

For over a decade, 13 communities of the La Blanca municipality in Guatemala’s Pacific Coast have been fighting against the rapid and destructive expansion of huge monocrop plantations of African palms and banana. Guatemala is the world’s third-largest banana exporter and ninth largest palm oil exporter. According to estimates by the National Institute for Agrarian and Rural Studies, between 2003 and 2013 the area of Guatemala given over to agribusiness increased by 40%, with little or no regulation. The result has been a severe decrease in land availability for subsistence farmers and their annual of corn and beans, putting their food security in peril.

Large scale agribusiness activities require huge amounts of water which are obtained either through direct use or the diversion of rivers, causing serious damage to local communities that depend on their water for their daily needs, especially during the dry season. These areas also quickly become incapable of producing other crops because of the invasive root structure of the African palm. In La Blanca the community has been severely affected by the unregulated water extraction from the Pacaya River by the BANASA company (which has a partnership with the Rainforest Alliance) and the Grupo Agroindustrias Hame.

A pump drains a river on a Grupo Hame plantation near La Blanca on Guatemala’s southern coast. Photo by Matthew Burnett-Stuart.

While walking through the plantations we are told how over the years these companies have illegally modified and diverted the river’s natural channels, dredged and contaminated its water and built dams and borders, dramatically altering the farmers’ lifestyle and the biodiversity of the area.

Local farmers continue to struggle for their right to water. Photo by Matthew Burnett-Stuart.

The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources estimates that more than 90% of water sources in the country are heavily polluted. Despite this, Guatemala remains the only country in Central America to not have proper legislation that protects the right to water access and that regulates its use. In April 2016 there was a nationwide mobilization by rural communities to demand a stop to the theft and contamination of water. This led to a proposal for a new law (5070) which seeks to give the greatest possible power to communities to manage their water resources and to enforce the right of communities to be consulted on any agribusiness project in their area. However, this draft law is currently stalled in the Nation’s Congress along with other proposals and it is not clear what its fate will be.

We sat down with two members of the La Blanca communities to learn more about how they have been affected and their struggle to defend the environment and their human right to water.

Amparo Bario, member of the Pastoral de San Marcos

Amparo Baró. Photo by Matthew Burnett-Stuart.

How as life changed in the community since the arrival of these palm and banana companies?

I remember when I was younger the women always used to wash their clothes in our river Pacaya and the kids would play all day long in it. It was really central to the community’s life and it gave us fish to eat and to sell. Indeed, lots of people from outside would always come to fish. There was also a hill in the pampa which we used to call the ‘Encanto’ because of the views and because you could hear all different kinds of animal noises. The companies flattened the hill and now there’s only palm trees, there’s no life left.

What keeps you motivated to keep fighting and organizing?

My faith in God keeps me strong. The struggle is hard but we must keep going on to protect our food, to protect our environment with which we have lived in peace for thousands of years and to make sure our children and grandchildren have access to clean water for their health and future.

Eduardo Juárez, President of the organization Comunidades de la Costa Sur en Defensa del Desarrollo (Southern Coast Communities Defending Development)

Eduardo Juárez. Photo by Matthew Burnett-Stuart.

What do you want?

We want these companies out of here. We are not against development but have you ever eaten a tortilla made out of a palm tree? Our farming has sustained us for thousands of year and now we risk losing everything. We want to live in peace with nature.

How have you been organizing in the last decade?

I have been involved since 2008 and with the support of the Pastoral de la Tierra de San Marcos we have always publicly denounced what the companies have been doing to our land and community, but to no avail. The ministry of Environment visited once, observing the damage done from above in a helicopter but in the end business always seems to win over the farmers’ rights.

In 2015 I was part of a delegation that went to Washington to present our experience to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the same year I went to El Salvador to participate in the Latin American Water tribunal which doesn’t have a real judicial authority but has more of a symbolic value. These experiences have helped to raise awareness about our situation but they haven’t been followed by any concrete solutions.

We need to stay united and we need to link our resistance with other organizations all across Guatemala; this is a matter for everyone not just us.

How have the companies reacted to your activities?

They employ different strategies. At first they said they would offer jobs to everyone in the region but in reality palm and banana plantations don’t require a lot of hand labour. They say they have improved employment levels but we have yet to see any data. They have also tried to divide our community with their social responsibility programs, giving stuff like stoves and other things to families, but in the long term these benefits will do nothing to give back life to our rivers and land. The civil war may have ended 20 years ago but this is another type of war.