Laguna del Tigre and Petén: State-sanctioned industrial development displaces people, degrades environment

The Seattle Times published on its website a letter I wrote in response to a deeply problematic article about  indigenous and peasant communities living in Protected Areas in the department of Petén, Guatemala.  In recent months, these communities have faced an increased campaign of criminalization and threats against their very existence, with President Álvaro Colom publicly threatening communities with forced eviction.  As my letter explains, many of these communities, living today in conditions of extreme poverty and completely abandoned by the state, were forced to re-settle in the Petén jungle due to the Guatemalan military’s campaign of genocide during the 1980s.  The Protected Areas were designated in 1989 without consultation or consideration of existing communities.  Is it any wonder why inhabitants of the region see park officials as “the enemy” when they “patrol with the army and the police”?

In addition, though you wouldn’t know it by reading the U.S. press, the expansion of military bases in Protected Areas in the Petén is being financed by transnational oil exploitation within the very same national parks.  The extension of the Guatemalan state’s contract with the French company PERENCO caused widespread controversy within civil society in the country when announced this summer, provoking a lawsuit by the respected environmental organization CALAS (the lawsuit was rejected by the Guatemalan courts, though litigation continues).  The state’s promotion of industrial development—also including hydroelectric dams, forestry, and massive “eco-tourism” projects—in Protected Areas makes clear that these regions are considered not as zones for the conservation of pristine flora and fauna, but as natural resource banks for future exploitation.  As in other parts of the country, marginalized indigenous and peasant communities are seen as an obstacle to the development of an economic model that primarily benefits the super-rich Guatemalan oligarchy and transnational companies, leaving a tiny percentage of profits for local communities.  Underlying issues of vast inequality in land tenure continue to be ignored, as the Guatemalan Congress has refused to consider proposed policies for integral rural development and agrarian reform.

The infiltration of narco-traffickers in the remote jungle is not a phenomenon that can reasonably be expected to be solved by further militarization, as contemplated by initiatives like the U.S.-sponsored Plan Mérida—especially when sectors of the army and police are considered to be complicit in the drug trade.  As in the case of U.S.-sponsored fumigation of coca crops in Colombia, the intersection between the drug war and environmental justice is clear.  As narcos are pushed south by Calderon’s bloody drug war in México, they have taken control of remote jungle regions in Guatemala, where local communities are truly caught in the middle.  These destructive dynamics will continue if governments in both the North and South refuse to consider alternative approaches to both the question of narcotics trafficking and rural economic development.

See below for my short letter and a Spanish translation.  I hope to be able to offer further information about this subject in the future!

State-sanctioned industrial development displaces people, degrades environment

I am a recent Seattle resident currently working in Guatemala with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala. We work to increase awareness of social and environmental justice issues affecting the country, with a focus on human rights. As such, I was dismayed to read the article by Tim Johnson [“In Guatemalan park, narcos and squatters reign,”, Nov. 13].

I had the privilege to meet people living in the area of Laguna del Tigre when they traveled to Guatemala City this September to urge that the government reconsider the eviction of so-called “squatter” communities. In fact, many of these communities predate the establishment of Protected Areas in 1989, having been forced to resettle in the remote jungle due to the Guatemalan military’s acts of genocidal violence during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict.

While no one will deny that the region is heavily infiltrated by organized crime, state-sanctioned industrial development — including oil extraction by transnational companies — is a source of environmental degradation that is ignored in this article. An environmental vision that sees poor communities as less valuable than wildlife legitimizes the impoverishment and human-rights violations that are sure to result if existing communities are subjected to further forced displacement.

Desplazamiento de personas y degradación ambiental a causa del desarrollo industrial promovido por el estado

Soy un residente de la ciudad de Seattle que actualmente trabaja en Guatemala con la Red en Solidaridad con el Pueblo de Guatemala.  Trabajamos para aumentar la conciencia sobre temas de justicia social y ambiental en el país, con enfoque en los derechos humanos.  Como tal, me desagradó leer el artículo escrito por Tim Johnson, “En parque en Guatemala, los narcos y invasores mandan,” publicado en el Seattle Times el 13 de noviembre.

Yo tenía el privilegio de conocer a gente que vive en el área de Laguna del Tigre cuando llegaron a la Ciudad de Guatemala en septiembre para exigir que el gobierno reconsiderar el desalojo de llamadas comunidades de “invasores.”  De hecho, muchas de estas comunidades fueron fundados antes del establecimiento de las Áreas Protegidas en 1989, siendo forzados de reasentarse en la remota selva a causa de los actos de violencia y genocidio cometidos por el Ejército de Guatemala durante los 36 años del conflicto armado interno.

Aunque nadie niega que la región esté fuertemente infiltrada por el crimen organizado, el desarrollo industrial promovido por el estado — incluyendo la explotación petrolera por empresas transnacionales — es una fuente de la degradación ambiental que se ignora en este artículo.  Una visión ambiental que vea a las comunidades de escasos recursos como menos valiosas que la vida silvestre legitima el empobrecimiento y violación de derechos humanos que seguramente sucederán si las comunidades existentes están sujetas a un nuevo desplazamiento.


About cascadiasolidaria

Human rights and solidarity activist from Cascadia, North America, writing about issues of justice and security in Guatemala and Central America from a perspective of solidarity with human rights and social movements.
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