Guatemala: A state of land grabs

The Guatemalan grassroots are waging a campaign against the megaprojects: mining, dams, petroleum extraction, monoculture agro-export and mega-tourism. The Belizean people are being tasked with the same struggle.
Amandala Newspaper | 05 March 2016

Guatemala: A state of land grabs

by Pambana Bassett

The concerns about the massive land grab of Belize, whether it be up to the Sibun River, or the entire 8,867 square miles of land in addition to sea territory, are serious. The oligarchy of Guatemala has made a habit of usurping land from those to whom it belongs, for hundreds of years.

When Spain colonized the territory – made up of differing regions of towering green mountains, wet lowlands and thick forest – the millennium-old communities living there resisted the genocide, slavery and land theft with tenacity. The resistance of the Indigenous was so fierce colonizers expressed frustration at being unable to overcome them. Dictatorships then ruled over the land with the force of the infamous European arrival (that began in the Americas in 1492), and dictatorships continued to reign for almost all of Guatemalan history.

The majority Indigenous population of over 20 different Mayan nations, the Xincaand the Garinagu all have well recorded histories of rebelling against the enslavers who had arrived to plunder resources, export wealth to Europe, and create a local, mostly European-descended ruling class. Not only Spanish but others arrived to colonize. In the late 1800’s the Germans expanded mostly in the form of coffee plantation barons also responsible for massacres (including their descendants’ orchestration of the 1978 Panzos massacre), and USA-based multinationals such as the United Fruit Company and mining conglomerates that produced nickel used for weaponry. All terrorized the local population and were expert at violently displacing people from their ancestral homes and destroying the natural environment. The Guatemalan ruling class facilitated these land grabs.

Today in 2016, as Belizeans contemplate the significance of the words of a president and the actions of the military, the Guatemalan state remains an elite not only capable of horrific land theft, but in regular practice of it.

Briefly in the early 1950’s, a governmental attempt was made under the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz to, among other things, stop the land grabs. The plan was to redistribute some of the land that was unjustly in the hands of United Fruit Company, and through the Dulles familial connection, the US State Department. This was swiftly crushed as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) swooped in to defend free market enterprise, and in 1954 oust the democratically-elected president Jacobo Arbenz.

Many Belizeans remember this invasion – it took place just “the other day”. For those with interest in Che Guevara, it was a moment of realization of the military might and brutality that states and corporations are willing to use against a people. Being in Guatemala at the time deeply influenced his commitment to Indigenous and grassroots revolution. And for those who study Central American history, it is marked as a pivotal moment in which the US state and corporate collusions cemented its “defence of democracy” claim as part and parcel of Latin American and Caribbean foreign policy (Grenada under Bishop, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, Panama in 1989, Chile under Allende, Haiti under Aristide, etc.).

And so, after the October Revolution, the 1954 invasion returned Guatemala to its neo-colonial state in the service of mining, monoculture agro-export and anti-left military terrorism. This monster consistently flared up during the 36-year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people were murdered, many more tortured, raped and disappeared – most of the victims of the massacres and genocide were Indigenous and campesino (peasant farmers).

Again, this war from 1960-1996 happened just next door and just “the other day”. The Indigenous have resisted colonialism and neo-colonialism for over 500 years. In Guatemala before and throughout the civil war, the Indigenous campesinos and campesinas formed a guerrilla (or grassroots, mountainside) revolutionary movement. They were up against military trained in the School of the Americas (like Efrain Rios Montt, the ex-President tried for genocide), Israeli intelligence and USA counterinsurgent military might in the name of so-called “democracy” and “anti-Communism.” Throughout these decades of war, the government continued to enrich the wealthy and give out concessions to big business.

Lands that had been in the hands of farmers for millennia were handed over to mining companies. Fertile grounds upon which crops were farmed for subsistence were sold – or given at no cost and tax-free – to companies that would dam rivers, poison watersheds and make big profits. Massive plantations of coffee covered the mountainsides and campesinos were forced to work for no pay, surviving off tortillas with salt, while big businesses got bigger, stealing more land and making more people poor.

Throughout these years brave people organized in the mountainsides for justice. Despite the constant public relations attempts to label guerrillas as murderers, the truth continues to surface that the label ought to apply only to the US-backed military (ex-officials are finally being tried for war crimes and sexually enslaving mostly Indigenous people). Otto Perez Molina was a general in the Guatemalan military at the time, and current President Jimmy Morales – who as a comedian donned “blackface” for laughs – is backed by the same military elite.

In the mountains many learned to read for the first time, share dreams of autonomy and to fight for it. In 1996 the Indigenous campesino revolution pushed the state to sign the Peace Accords. Not without fault, including the failure to specifically address Indigenous autonomy, the 1996 Peace Accords were signed by the four different guerrilla groups – the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of People in Arms (ORPA), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), and the National Directing Nucleus of PGT (PGT-NDN) – joined together as the URNG-Maiz (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity in English) and the Guatemalan government. The Accords are one of the most beautiful agreements a corporate state has been forced, by the goodwill of the people, to sign. Organizers today say that not even 20% of the Peace Accords have been respected by the government. Particularly, access to land, nutrition, education and freedom to organize without violent oppression have been ignored by succeeding government policies.

Land grabs for megaprojects such as mining, hydroelectric dams, monoculture agribusiness and petroleum extraction continue and even intensify. For Belizeans concerned about losing their beloved homes to the Guatemalan oligarchy, they have only to go across the border to the Polochic Valley, to find Indigenous brothers and sisters who are currently suffering that nightmare. Land theft, violent displacement and targeted killing are not a thing of the past.

In a region much farther from Belize, Sololá, in 2004 the Kaqchikel people refused to let pass a 50-ton mining cylinder that was destined for a different department. It was of interest internationally because at the time there was no strip mining was taking place in Sololá. Many wondered why the community called out “No a las minas!” “No to mining!” with no strip mining in their area. But the communities, under the leadership from Juan de Leon Tuyuc Velasquez, were acting in solidarity with the communities whose land had been stolen and whose water had been poisoned. And they acted in the knowledge that their natural resources would be the target of plunder at a time fast approaching.

In 2014, Juan Tuyuc disappeared and his body was found along the Panamerican Highway. According to family and friends, his face and chest were cut nearly in two down the middle, and the soles of his feet had been severed from his body. They say that these wounds were inflicted while he was still alive. Tuyuc had led the fight in the region for land and justice for decades. He was one of the highest-ranking Indigenous guerrilla commanders (where most were Ladino) and he was loved by many. During the war he saw many relatives disappeared and murdered, but continued to organize against the disastrous megaprojects the Guatemalan oligarchy and multinational business community continued to promote. This assassination style is of the right wing, and more typical of those working in the interest of land theft, resource depletion and genocide.

Mining companies including the Canadian Tahoe Resources and the GoldCorp Inc. are denounced by grassroots movements in Guatemala, and by human rights organizations throughout the world. As showcased in the film Gold Fever, a recipient of multiple human rights film awards, metallic mining in Guatemala is socially and environmentally disastrous. Along with poisoning rivers with cyanide and other toxic chemicals, they often rely on simply removing and stripping down entire mountains, much like that in the Mina Marlin. But the Indigenous and campesino of Guatemala continue to resist the land usurpations and fatal extraction.

WhenTelesforo Pivaral was murdered in San Rafael Las Flores; he and others in his community were critical of the silver mine setting up operations there in 2013, and continued to organize against the mine’s expansion. Oxfam and 23 other organizations called for investigations into the organizer’s murder, writing on their website: “Señor Telesforo Pivaral participated in actions protesting the establishment and expansion of mining projects in the region, and supporting municipal consultations of residents and peaceful actions of communities.”

These, and many other human rights abuses and targeted killings of organizers are commonplace, and particularly when the target is defending the right to land and to protect natural resources. According to The Guardian newspaper, Daniel Pascual explains that “more than 300 requests for land have been made in the past few years by large companies to mine for gold, silver and nickel; prospect for oil; develop hydroelectric power; or grow biofuel crops. More than 150 other areas have been identified as places of potential conflict over resources.” And Polochic, a stone’s throw away from Belize, is faced with a biofuel industry heavily funded by the European Union (in the name of a “green economy”), despite the cases of land grabbing to plant sugar cane and palm oil, in Guatemala, Honduras and across stolen lands in Africa and Asia.

Oxfam, not known for being particularly radical or revolutionary, has brought some attention to the land grabs for sugar cane plantations in Polochic: “In March of 2011, 769 families were forcibly removed from the Polochic Valley. Their homes and crops were burned, and three campesinos died during the eviction by the security forces of the Guatemalan government and the company… the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urged the Guatemalan government in June 2011 to assist the families by providing food, security, health care, and housing.” In the name of multinationals and large profits, the cash poor of Guatemala have been violently evicted from their homes, their crops destroyed and their family members killed. Even with the IACHR’s urging, the government has dragged its feet to comply with basic human decency.

According to PhD candidate Alberto Alonso-Fradejas, although the government describes the move to agro-export (much like the United Fruit Company banana plantations of past), the wealth remains in the hands of a few. “The benefits of this export boom are highly concentrated. Only 14 companies—owned by 14 oligarchic families—make up the powerful Sugar Producers’ Guild (ASAZGUA), with control of over 80 percent of the country’s sugar plantations and 100 percent of the sugar mills. Five companies control all of the country’s ethanol production and eight families make up the influential Oil Palm Growers’ Guild (GREPALMA), which controls 98 percent of the harvested oil palm and 100 percent of the palm oil mills.” He goes on to explain that the investments are local and international. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has allocated US$150 million to fund “sugar and bioenergy companies and exporters especially in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, El Salvador and north-eastern Brazil.” The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) gave US$20 million “for highly controversial land deals for sugarcane agribusiness in Guatemala’s Polochic Valley. The loan was approved on the basis of a single socio-environmental impact assessment report developed by the agribusiness industry itself.” The plan is evident: the Guatemalan elite work with international funding agencies and multi-national corporations to displace people from their lands to the benefit of the rich and all in the name of “environmentally friendly biofuels”.

Resistance to the European-descended oligarchy, a handful of families who control immense amounts of wealth and continue to hoard and steal land from the poor, is consistent. In Belize, a country renowned for its incredible cultural diversity, its biodiversity, its verdure mountains, sandy beaches, bountiful Belize coral reef system and fertile lands, when people wonder if the Guatemalan state, propped up by international lending agencies, EU biofuel incentives and US foreign policy, is willing to destroy homes and ancestral territories, the answer is simply: yes. The Guatemalan grassroots are waging a campaign against the megaprojects: mining, dams, petroleum extraction, monoculture agro-export and mega-tourism. The Belizean people are being tasked with the same struggle.

Who's involved?

Who's involved?


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