Palm Oil Plantations Disrupt Indigenous Communities in Petén, Guatemala

a photo looking down at the tops of trees in a forest, green as far as the horizon, the sky is blue and pink. there is white billowing smoke emerging from the distance, indicating there is a power plant there
Prensa Comunitaria
Sayaxché, Petén, Guatemala
Palm Oil Plantations Disrupt Indigenous Communities in Petén, Guatemala

Santa Elena Río Salinas is an indigenous community located south of the municipality of Sayaxché, Department of Petén, Guatemala, with 150 families.

Nicolás Pop, a local resident, said that his community, in which there is only one artisanal well to obtain water, was founded in 1979 by logging workers and families from departments such as El Quiché and Alta Verapaz, who came in search of land to cultivate.

“In our community, for a long time we have made our livelihoods from agriculture. With our families we till the land to produce our food,” Pop said. Their economy depends on the production of basic grains such as corn, beans, rice, pepitoria or pumpkin seed (Cucurbita mixta pang), and on a smaller scale, chili peppers of different species and domestic animals. Most work on cattle farms or with palm oil companies.

a sign
A sign identifying the community, with the community hall in the background / Credit: Rosa Onelia Leonardo Castillo.

These palm oil plantations surround Santa Elena, and residents say they have caused environmental damage, human rights violations and land dispossession. The scarcity of water, the deforestation of native forests from where they obtain medicinal plants, firewood or other inputs are some of the damages caused by the extensive planting of the palm. In addition, people live in fear of the constant threats caused by agrarian conflicts due to the change in use of the land.

“From 1976 to 2000, there was not much trade of alcoholic beverages in the indigenous communities of Sayaxché. However, with the establishment of palm companies in the area, there are more bars and canteens; there is a significant increase in the consumption of alcoholic beverages and cases of domestic violence occur more frequently,” said Matías Pop. 

In the communities of Ranchón Carolina, Sechaj and Las Arenas, in the municipality of Chisec, Alta Verapaz, which are part of the Northern Transversal Strip (FTN, by its Spanish initials) and which border Petén in the north, similar conflicts occur as a result of African palm planting, land tenure and water use.

Margarita, a 40-year-old indigenous woman, lives in Sechaj, Chisec. She said that in that community the San Román river was diverted by means of a pipeline to carry the flow toward the African palm plantation, as has happened with all the rivers near the palm oil companies in Sayaxché.

The mayor of Sayaxché, José María Cabnal, reflecting on the problems that people experience because of the African palm companies, expressed: “The only thing I can do is monitor the events within the communities, try to mediate."

“Institutions such as the Public Ministry, the Ministry of Labor and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office must provide a solution to the conflict within these communities," he added.

an african palm plantation
The African palm plantation observed from above / Credit: Rosa Onelia Leonardo Castillo.

The planting of African palm in Sayaxché

According to a 2008 article published by the University de San Carlos de Guatemala, Sayaxché is an alluvial plain from the rivers La Pasión, Salinas and Usumacinta, which form at least 16 streams, brooks and lagoons within the communities in the region.

The land is highly fertile, with high nutrient and organic matter content, in addition to its abundant water. African palm is notoriously water-dependent, needing at a minimum 25,000 liters of water per day per hectare in order to start producing, according to the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP, by its Spanish initials).

The 2018-2019 statistical yearbook of the Guild of Palm Growers of Guatemala (GREPALMA by its Spanish initials) demonstrated how valuable the country's northern regions are for palm oil growing: The departments of Petén, Alta Verapaz and Quiché represent 58.62 percent of the country's palm oil crops. And in 2017, according to the yearbook, Sayaxché itself represented 40 percent of all palm cultivated in the country.

There are five palm oil producing companies in Sayaxché: Agroindustria Reforestadora de Palma S.A. (REPSA), TIKINDUSTRIA, Agroindustria Palmera San Román, S.A., Palmas del Ixcán, NAISA and Industrias Chiquibul S.A. All are grouped into GREPALMA, including oil processing plants.   

chart showing land use changes over the years
Satellite images from Google Earth Engine demonstrating the deforestation and land use changes in the region. The top image is from 1984, when there were no oil palm plantations, and the bottom image is from 2020, when much of the area had been deforested for oil palm crops and cattle ranching / Credit: Google Earth Engine.

Land and labor conflicts

Pop said that between 1960 and 1980 in Sayaxché there were untouched mountains, native forests with precious cedar wood (Cedrela odorata), mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), even rosul (Dalbergia retusa). The rivers were clean and crystalline, until several logging companies entered to extract it. That was how, he said, "the lands were hoarded by farmers/ranchers and later by palm oil companies.” 

Other Sayaxché residents agree that during the presidency of Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) there was a land regularization policy led by the National Institute for Agrarian Transformation (INTA, by its Spanish initials). According to Pop, INTA representatives came to the community to offer land measurements and deeds at a very low cost, which allowed many families to legalize their plots and later be able to sell them.

During the Portillo government, the palm companies set their sights on those lands that some of the peasants had already legalized. Many families sold between 30 to 60 hectares of land.

By 2007, the company Palmas del Ixcán would have acquired 5,500 hectares and planted its first plantations on the banks of the Chixoy and Salinas rivers and their tributaries, in the communities of Roto Viejo, La Soledad Sayaxché and a part of the Northern Transversal Strip," read the bulletin El Observador 2015, produced by the Civil Association El Observador which carries out research, analysis and systematization of information in Guatemala.

houses on a river bank
Houses that are part of the Santa Elena community on the banks of the river / Credit: Rosa Onelia Leonardo Castillo.

In 2020, four peasants from Santa Elena Río Salinas were arrested and subsequently imprisoned, because Industrias Chiquibul, S.A., for which they worked, accused them of plagiarism, extortion, aggravated usurpation and illegal detention. The accusation made by the company resulted from a group of workers expressing their dissatisfaction with their unfair dismissal and for demanding labor benefits.

According to the defense lawyer Juan Castro with the Law Firm for Indigenous Peoples, the crimes of plagiarism and kidnapping were dismissed because the Public Ministry “did not obtain sufficient evidence to argue those crimes.” For this reason, the defendants were brought in on charges of aggravated usurpation and illegal detention before the Sentencing Court, in San Benito, Petén.

According to information provided by the people interviewed, in 2019 Chiquibul Industries fired almost 300 workers who lived in communities near the palm plantation, mostly from the Santa Elena Río Salinas community. Pop, one of the aggrieved, said he worked as a day laborer for approximately three years and was fired without the appropriate settlement for an agricultural worker.

According to the Ministry of Labor of Guatemala (MINTRAB, by its Spanish initials), in 2019, a person who carried out agricultural activities had to earn about Q90.16 per day (USD12), plus a bonus or incentive of Q250 (USD33), which amounts to about Q2 thousand 992.37 monthly (USD399). 

However, these peasants received Q60 per day (USD8). The work consisted of a shift from six in the morning to eight or ten at night. “We were aware of all that we had worked on the palm plantation, that is why we went peacefully, to ask that they pay us benefits or if not, that they return our jobs to us; we were in the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, our families were hungry and we had nothing to eat. However, they told us that there were orders not to provide us with more work, nor to pay us,” Pop said, remembering how difficult it was for him and his family.

Originally, the people who were fired did not file a complaint with MINTRAB because they wanted to talk and negotiate with the company, but when they did not get a positive response, they organized protests.

Pop commented that there were people with seven or eight years of work and they were paid only Q2000 (USD266) in benefits. Faced with the refusal of Industrias Chiquibul's leaders to resolve the problem peacefully, the peasants fenced off the area owned by the company and prevented the entry of personnel, causing a confrontation between workers and protesters. “The manager of the company ordered the confrontation and there were shots with firearms, by the security of the palm,” Pop recalled.

One month after these confrontations, the peasants sought to follow up on the case, however, they were arrested and imprisoned by agents of the Public Ministry (MP, by its Spanish initials) and the National Civil Police (PNC, by its Spanish initials).

In 2021, the trial court of San Benito Petén sentenced the four people criminalized by Industrias Chiquibul S.A to four commutable years, with conditional suspension of the sentence.

Castro commented on the sentence: “We consider that it is an unfair sentence, it does not adhere to all the evidence presented by the defense. But we do see how the State, through this, consummates itself as an accomplice to these forms of modern exploitation, human trafficking in its labor manifestation, and does not understand the context in which land grabbing and the exploitation of indigenous people is taking place.

the arrested men
The court hearing in 2022. From left to right, Paulino Temú (defense lawyer) Julio Jacinto (prosecutor), Nicolás Pop (the defendant) and Claudio Caal (accompanying person) / Credit: Rosa Onelia Leonardo Castillo.

Ecological disaster

In 2015, an environmental disaster occurred in the La Pasión river, also in Petén. Between April and June of that year, heavy rains caused the overflow of an oxidation pond (wastewater formed a few meters from the tributaries of the river), from an oil palm processing plant, located in the El Pato community, owned by the African Palm Reforestation Company (REPSA).

The overflow of the oxidation pond caused the death of several species of fish, turtles, other animals and aquatic plants. The Center for Independent Media (CMI, by its Spanish initials) classified the event as an "ecocide.”

Neighbors of that municipality blamed REPSA for the disaster. Elmer Ponce, a local journalist for Informante Petenero, filmed the scene and the fish mortality, which covered approximately 150 kilometers along the river. The results of toxicological tests carried out by the University San Carlos de Guatemala indicated that in the water there was presence of the chemical malathion (common name malatión). which can cause rapid and fatal poisoning, with headache, sweating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of coordination and death.

green drinking water
The water available for the community to drink is green / Credit: Rosa Onelia Leonardo Castillo.

On the other hand, a source who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said that what was discharged into the La Pasión River was “untreated water, the product of industrial activity with a very high bacterial load. The bacteria, along with the chemical contaminants, deprived the water of oxygen, polluted it and caused the death of the living beings that lived there.” In addition, he added: “The fish did not die only due to lack of oxygen, but also due to the presence of contaminants, it was a combination of factors.”

According to the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction (CONRED), due to the pollution in La Pasión River, there were approximately 14,000 people affected in 19 communities located on the riverbank. Many were economically impacted, since they sustained themselves by artisanal fishing of species such as tarpon (M. atlanticus) and sea bass (Centropomus spp.). 

woman carrying water on her head
In the Sechaj, Chisec, Alta Verapaz community, women obtain water from ponds built by the community / Credit: Rosa Onelia Leonardo Castillo.

Protected areas in danger due to invasions and monoculture

Gerson Ochaeta, a biologist by profession who lives in Petén and who worked as manager for the Management and Sustainable Development of the Lake Petén Itzá Basin (AMPI, by its Spanish initials) in 2021, has carried out biological characterization studies, including a diagnosis on biophysical elements in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve (RBM, by its Spanish initials) to study endangered species.

According to Ochaeta, “all monocultures, when developed in an unsustainable manner, cause environmental damage. Companies that are dedicated to the production of African palm in Petén have transformed the forest cover, they have cut down large amounts of trees, natural and leafy forest. This change in land use, this crop, directly affects biodiversity, kills the flora and fauna of the area.”

Luis Solano, who is a researcher and journalist, and author of the bulletin El Observador indicated that: “These companies are nationally owned, produce internally and sell abroad,” a topic he expands on in the magazine Enfoque, Bulletin No. 36.

In addition, the main actors that use water in large quantities, especially in Petén, are industry and livestock, said Ochaeta.

Alejandro Mérida, forest engineer and interim deputy director of CONAP in Sayaxché, indicated that there are several agrarian conflicts related to the African palm. People who are left without land are forced to reside in protected areas, such as the San Román Biological Reserve, a place that is also surrounded by African palm. “The land market and the invasion of protected areas are problems that a crop like this can also cause, which damages the flora and fauna under protection," he said.

CONAP, in its Master Plan for protected areas of the southeast, states that there are six protected areas located in the municipalities of Sayaxché and La Libertad (adjacent municipality) that cover an area of ​​185,156 hectares, including the buffer zone.

Mérida said this plan is in the process of being updated. "Indeed, they are almost the last significant areas of forest that remain within the Mayan Biosphere Reserve in Sayaxché," he said.

He also indicated this reserve has a unique mission: To protect the species of rosul (Dalbergia), a species in danger of extinction, due to the felling of native and leafy forests. "We have lost our flora and fauna, animals such as the margay, jaguar, Petén turkey, even the tapir are no longer observed in these areas. Before it was very common to see them on the banks of the Pasión or Usumacinta rivers," he said.

Flooding consequences increase

Some of the houses in Santa Elena Río Salinas have tapancos (raised platform on the roof, inside the house) that are used to store their crops in the rainy season. However, recently they have also had to take shelter there or go to the community hall, the primary school and the Catholic church, because according to Don Matías Pop, they suffer flooding.

As in the community, floods and their consequences for health and the environment appear quickly. When there are storms, they have the support of the Local Disaster Risk Coordinator (COLRED, by its Spanish initials), which is coordinated by Matías Pop Asig, one of those aggrieved by Industrias Chiquibul.

One of Matías Pop's responsibilities was to monitor the rain gauge and be in direct communication with CONRED before, during and after a flood. "I went to train in El Salvador, to exercise my position," he said.

However, Matías Pop Asig said that since he was criminalized and despite the fact that he lives in a vulnerable area, he has not been able to continue exercising the leadership of COLRED, because there are still restrictions and security measures in favor of Industrias Chiquibul and they cause him fear.

Among the recent natural impacts that the community has experienced, Matías pointed out the storms ETA and IOTA in 2021 and 2022 and the effects of tropical storm Julia, which caused losses in corn and bean crops for some 150 families, and 40 houses were flooded.

A report from the Private Institute for Climate Change Research (ICC) stated the main threats facing Guatemala due to climate change are droughts and floods caused by extreme rainfall. It warns that some of these impacts are projected to be stronger and more frequent in the not-too-distant future.

Flooding caused by tropical storm Julia in 2022 / Credit: Rosa Onelia Leonardo Castillo.

Actions to preserve the environment

Rudy Flores, coordinator of the Section of Education for Sustainable Development (SEDES), of the CONAP Petén region, indicated that there is a technical roundtable made up of environmental institutions, chaired by CONAP, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), the Municipal Environmental Management Unit of Flores, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA), and organizations such as the Integral Foundation for Man and his Environment (CALMECAC), the Authority for the Management and Sustainable Development of the Lake Petén Itzá Basin (AMPI), the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation (FUNDAECO), among others.

The members of said roundtable meet monthly to agree on actions, ways to preserve and protect the environment and mitigate the impacts they experience due to climate change.

Palm companies do not participate in these tables, explained Flores. “The opportunity has not been given, nor the topic to meet, much less to create joint action," he said.

Based on the labor, agrarian and environmental problems that Sayaxché experiences on a daily basis, the “Qana’ Ch’och''' movement was organized and formed, which in the Mayan language Q'eqchi' means “mother earth.” The movement is made up of 30 communities that seek a solution to the situation. They carry out awareness-raising actions among indigenous communities where there are no palm companies to highlight the importance of preserving the land, water, forests and other natural resources that surround them.

One of these actions, Matías indicated, is the request for cocoa trees that the community managed, together with the Community Development Council (COCODE), before the Italian Association AMKA Onlus. According to Miguel Giménez, who is an agronomy student and field technician at this entity, approximately 8,000 cocoa plants were distributed to 100 people in the community.

cocoa plants
Around 8,000 cocoa plants were delivered in 2022 to Santa Elena as part of a reforestation project / Credit: Miguel Giménez.

“We have observed that the lands of this locality are very productive, the intention is later to seek trade in dry cocoa. With this action we are reforesting and at the same time producing, to achieve some income in the long term,” Giménez pointed out.  

In addition, Giménez clarified that the cocoa would not be industrially produced, adding: “Cocoa needs to be planted in association with other plants, so that it produces in a sustainable way – this is what is known as agroforestry systems. And the intention of planting cocoa is to diversify agricultural production.”

David Paredes, the coordinator of the National Network for Food Sovereignty in Guatemala (REDSAG, by its Spanish initials) shared that in the Sayaxché communities, REDSAG is promoting agroecology and the community economy, to support the peasant and indigenous population.

"People learn about family and community orchards, actions to recover ancestral practices such as cultivation in association," he said, adding that the initiative promotes reforestation, soil preservation and the recovery of ancestral knowledge on native seeds and organic fertilizers. This will allow the communities to keep their land and avoid the use of harmful chemicals, he added. 

cocoa beans drying on a blanket
Cocoa beans dry on the patio of Don Matías Pop's house / Credit: Rosa Onelia Leonardo Castillo.

Paredes explained that intercropped cultivation, also known as the “Milpa System,” is a method used in agriculture where crops are grown together (maize, beans, squash and chili, in this system) to support each other and make better use of the land.

In 2021, Paredes and REDSAG sent a request to Leo Heler, rapporteur of the United Nations in Guatemala, asking for a report on water and sanitation in the region to determine the effects of African palm on the communities. As of January 2023, the report had not yet been issued, but Paredes said it was expected later in the year.

"[We will] create concrete actions to try to stop this scourge, because it is like a monster, an octopus with tentacles that interferes in different fields, political, economic and social," Paredes said. 

This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in Spanish by Prensa Comunitaria on January 27, 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Smoke rising from the oil and agrofuel processing plant located in El Pato, Sayaxché, Petén, observed in 2021 / Credit: Tobías Zamora.

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