Last weekend I attended an event in Guatemala City where three Maya-Q’eqchi’ campesinos – rural workers – shared testimony of their experiences during and following the violent evictions of 12 Q’eqchi’ communities in the Polochíc Valley region of north-eastern Guatemala in March of this year. They told the audience of how, in late 2010, their families settled in the fertile lowland river valley on land they hoped the Guatemalan government would later sell or grant them for small-scale farming. The land at this time was under threat of foreclosure due to the failure of the sugar and palm oil refining company Chabil Utzaj to make payments on a loan from the Central American Economic Integration Bank (BCIE), and campesino organizations representing the landless Q’eqchi’ families were in negotiations with the government of Guatemala. Despite the ongoing negotiations process, on the morning of March 15 government authorities arrived to carry out an series of evictions requested by Chabil Utzaj, backed by a large contingent of police, military, and private security forces employed by the company.
According to the three men, their families were given ten minutes to leave the property claimed by the company. The security forces proceeded to destroy their homes and crops, using fire and heavy machinery. Tear gas was used against those who did not comply quickly enough, as men, women, and children attempted to save their possessions and prevent the destruction of their subsistence crops – maize, beans, chilis, and okra – planted on land destined for the industrialized production of sugar and palm oil. In the communities of Miralvalle and Aguas Calientes seven people were injured and the campesino Antonio Bed Ac was killed, according to community members, by the security forces. “It was like we had returned to 1982,” said one of the men, referring to the worst period of the Guatemalan government’s scorched earth counter-insurgency campaigns, which culminated in acts of genocide against the country’s indigenous population. Specifically, they recalled the 1979 massacre in the town of Panzós, when indigenous farmers participating in a march and protest for access to land were shot to death and buried in a mass grave by military forces. “Our parents went to Panzós to demand land, but they were given death instead.”
Since March 15, hundreds of displaced families live by the side of the highway, with no access to permanent shelter or food. “I don’t know if my children have eaten in the last two days,” said one of the three men, underscoring the bravery and sacrifice of their decision to travel to Guatemala City to share their experiences and seek support for their struggling communities. They described their attempts to seek refuge after the evictions along the banks of a nearby river and later under the small amount of shelter offered by a large ceiba tree. They explained the state of constant fear under which their families live, with constant surveillance by private security forces and police. Displaced farmers who have attempted to return to harvest crops have been threatened with violence, and report that helicopters have dropped incendiary grenades in their fields to destroy crops. On May 21 near the community of Canlún I Oscar Reyes was shot to death and five others were injured on land claimed by the community cooperative, reportedly by private guards under the supervision of the chief of security of Chabil Utzaj. At midnight on the night of June 2, a leader from the community of Parana, Maria Margarita Che Chub, was killed by armed men on a motorcycle at the home of family members where she had taken refuge following the evictions.
The men described their desperation for access to land with which to provide for their families, feeling “trapped like animals in a cage” due to the multiple pressures on land in the narrow but resource-rich Polochíc Valley. “We tried to find land on one side, but it is taken by mining companies; on the other side they say it is protected for the trees and animals–but where are we humans supposed to live?!” The following map, created by researchers from the Guatemalan political economy journal El Observador and the Collective for Alternative Information and Communication CLICA, illustrates these competing interests:
Areas of sugarcane and palm oil production south of the city of Panzós are outlined in yellow and green; evicted communities are located in this area, the major corporations involved in these projects are Chabil Utzaj and INDESA, as described in a recent report by economist and journalist Luis Solano in Enfoque magazine (in Spanish), which analyzes the companies’ connections to influential branches of the Guatemalan oligarchy, including familial links with the administration of former President Oscar Berger. Since the evictions the company Chabil Utzaj has received an injection of capital from Nicaraguan investors and the terms of its loan from the BCIE have been renegotiated, giving a new impulse to its project to turn the Polochíc Valley into a production platform for commodities potentially including agrofuels. Other megaprojects in the region include nickel and silver mining (requested licenses in outlined red, approved licenses in black), including mining operations owned by the Canadian mining conglomerate Hudbay Resources; its subsidiary, the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN) has been accused of violent evictions of Q’eqchi’ communities, the murder of a community leader, and other abuses including mass rapes by its private security forces. Proposed hydroelectric dams and lands designated as Protected Areas further reduce possibilities for landless indigenous communities to access natural resources. Note as well the military base located the town of Telemán.
Participants in last weekend’s event noted the historical continuity of the dispossession and violence suffered by indigenous communities in Guatemala; for Maya-Q’eqchi’ people in the department of Alta Verapaz this legacy has been unbroken through more than five hundred years, from the Dominican conquest through the independence of Guatemala and the imposition of the coffee economy by European settlers, to the development plans proposed by military governments and continued under neoliberal administrations following the 1996 Peace Accords. (For more information on this history see Liza Grandia‘s study Unsettling: Recurring Dispossessions of the Q’eqchi’ Maya and New Frontiers of Enclosure, published by AVANCSO in Guatemala under the title Tz’aptzooq’eb’: El Despojo Recurrente al Pueblo Q’eqchi’.)
Today, the evicted families of the Polochíc Valley struggle under conditions of internal displacement, their rights to shelter, food, and security unrecognized by the Guatemalan government. Indeed, one interpretation holds that the administration of President Alvaro Colóm signed off on the evictions as a means to seal political alliances with the owners of agro-industrial interests in the region, during an election season in which his party, the National Unity for Hope (UNE), is at a significant disadvantage against the candidacy of right-wing former General Otto Pérez Molina of the Patriot Party. International solidarity can most effectively take the form of letter-writing in response to the recent Urgent Action released by Amnesty International, as local organizations are working to coordinate short-term material aid and document the situation. For sources of up-to-date information, see NISGUA‘s collection of reports on land rights and the Guatemalan news and politics blog Albedrío.
Caracol Producciones has released an excellent 30-minute documentary on the agrarian conflict in the Polochíc, which includes wrenching imagery and testimony of the evictions, as well as damning comments by representatives of the company Chabil Utzaj. The documentary is available in three parts on YouTube: watch part one here. I will update this link when a version with English subtitles is released. (DVDs with English subtitles are now available, contact NISGUA for more information.)