We carried out an observation mission to the Retalhuleu and Champerico1 municipalities in March 2022, accompanying defenders from the Community Council of Retalhuleu (CCR) and the National Network for the Defense of Food Sovereignty of Guatemala (REDSAG). During the mission we verified the negative impacts that sugarcane plantations and other extractive projects are having on the health, food and environment of these communities. They also shared their appeals to the relevant Guatemalan authorities, the sugar mills and other companies operating in the area with us.
Arriving to the South Coast from Guatemala City in the dry season, we were greeted with an abrupt change of climate. We were surprised by the high temperatures and the homogenous green of the landscape, a green that at first glance seems beautiful, but on second glance makes us wonder: why are there no trees? Why is everything the same and why is there no natural diversity or crops? The numerous trucks on the roads, brimming with thin trunks, answer our questions: we are surrounded by kilometers of sugar cane monocultures.
According to data from the International Sugar Organization, Guatemala is the third largest exporter of sugar in Latin America and the sixth largest in the world. Sugar and its derivatives were Guatemala’s fourth most exported product in 2020, representing 6.5% of the country's total exports. This data demonstrates the economic weight of this sector (most of the sugar mills are concentrated in the South Coast4) and, therefore, the power wielded by the families who own them. They are an essential branch of Guatemala's agroindustrial elite and participate in the energy matrix as well as in the country's financial and political system.5
Studies conducted on the sugarcane sector over the last decade6 have brought to light several concerns regarding the impact of this crop on the lives of the local population and the environment. These include the drastic reduction in the availability of land and water for peasant families, as well as the worsening of the climate crisis, which is a consequence of the accelerated deforestation process to make space for the monoculture crops. These impacts were evident during our visit to the department of Retalhuleu.
Pajales Sector Sis: a community at risk of disappearance
The Pajales Sector Sis community (municipality of San Andrés Villa Seca) is located on the road between the departmental capital of Retalhuleu and the municipality of Cuyotenango. Upon arrival, José Miguel Sánchez López, a water defender and member of the community, which is made up of 65 families, is waiting for us. As soon as we get out of the car, we notice a strong odor. José Miguel explains that the smell comes from an open channel that carries water which has been polluted by waste from two sugar mills which discharges into the river that flows through the community, the Sis. "Our community has been left in the middle of the El Pilar sugar mill and the Tululá sugar mill, which in the summer divert the water from the Sis River through dams and hoard it to irrigate their sugar cane crops. Families no longer have access to water from the river and only have access to piped water for one hour a day. In addition, water pollution from sugar mill waste impacts our health and we suffer from skin diseases and other related illnesses, such as dengue fever".
We continue towards the Sis River and are astonished to see how low the water is. There is a group of women washing clothes on a rock, but due to the low level of the river, they have to sit in the middle of the riverbed to be able to wash. Jose Miguel remembers how 30 years ago they used to fish for shrimp, scorpion fish and mojarras. "At that time we had a healthy diet. Now the families can no longer count on fishing, they have no land, no water for the cornfields and many depend on working in the sugar mills to survive, so their hands are tied in terms of resisting. They are exploited in the plantations, even children work in the sugar cane.” Jose Miguel’s words echo the findings of an evaluation carried out by the European Union on the Association Agreement between its member states and Central America. The report highlights how the sugar sector violates labor rights, especially with respect to minimum wages, working hours, occupational health and safety, denial of union rights and the use of child labor.
Currently, the community's concerns are centered on the poor condition of the gabions – river retaining walls built seven years ago by the El Pilar sugar mill – some of which have since collapsed. "The Sis River is a fast-flowing river. Although in summer it dries up because of the sugar mills, during the rainy season it rises with great force. We are afraid that next winter it will sweep the gabions away and flood the community, as has happened on previous occasions. Even CONRED8 has warned of this danger on several occasions. We have sought dialogue with the sugar mill to resolve this problem, but they haven’t responded, nor did they appear at the roundtable for dialogue with the community which was convened by the Retalhuleu governor’s office. The mill is responsible for the maintenance of the gabions. That’s why we have filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor's Office (MP). However, nothing has been done." The families from Pajales Sector Sis, not only have to live with this situation of extreme precarity and risk, but also several people in the community have been criminalized for defending their right to water. José Miguel himself has been accused of threats and coercion by the El Pilar sugar mill and has had a case open against him since 2017.
For the communities of the South Coast, as in other parts of Guatemala, criminalization is a recurring problem for those who defend rights. In Retalhuleu alone, the CCR has 12 cases of criminalization against its leaders. According to Abelino Mejía Cancino, a member of the CCR's Board of Directors and one of those criminalized, the purpose of this criminalization is to wear people down physically and psychologically, so that they abandon their demands.
Women at the head of the Tierra Blanca Community: defending the common good from private interests
Abelino accompanies us to learn about the situation of the Tierra Blanca community, in the municipality of El Asintal, which is affected by private companies and projects with practices similar to those of the sugarcane industry. On the banks of the Nil River, under the refreshing shade of ceibas and conacastes, a delegation from the community awaits us to share their story of struggle and care. Lorena González (President) represents the Community Development Council (COCODE). As defenders of water and human rights, they tell us that 35 years ago the Nil River was considered one of the most abundant and cleanest in the area. The problems began in 2013 when a company built a dam on the river, without first consulting the community, diverting its waters to supply fish farms and for the operation of a hydroelectric plant. "When the community realized this, the dam had already been built and the river was completely blocked. We filed a complaint with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Retalhuleu, but seeing that the situation was not going well, we decided to make an agreement with the company that established that it could divert only 50% of the water, leaving the rest for the community. However, the company has not respected the agreement and in the dry season the community is left without any water. For this reason, we have continued to denounce the situation publicly and with the Public Prosecutor's Office." The women human rights defender denounced that the treatment they have received from the authorities when filing the complaints has been completely sexist. The fact they are young women and leaders has been the reason they have received disrespectful and degrading treatment from the authorities. On the other hand, while these complaints are completely stalled at the MP, Lorena González has been the target of death threats for having made the complete diversion of water from the Nil River public. "Maybe some think we are crazy because we will never win this fight, but we believe our fight is for life, we do it because water is life. There is a lot of talk about climate change. They want us to believe that the problem is because we don’t take care of the environment, but in reality the problem is the unlimited use of natural resources by companies and the lack of interest on the part of the authorities in solving this type of problem. It’s not only the representatives who are in the struggle, but of all the people who are demanding justice.” The right to water is not only denied to Tierra Blanca, but to a total of 28 communities in the municipality of El Asintal, all to supply this vital liquid to private companies who don’t look out for the common good, only their own benefit. "They divert the water to produce electricity for export. However, we are giving what is most precious, our river," says Abelino Mejía.
Without monocultures, life returns: family gardens and food sovereignty in the 20 de Octubre neighborhood
Since its founding in 2015, the CCR has focused on denouncing the increase in monocultures in the region and the impacts on the population. Through this work, they have managed to get 10 sugar plantations to abandon the land in the municipality of Champerico and three more are in the process of doing so. "The mills extract 3,600 gallons of water per minute 24 hours a day through wells, in addition to sequestering the rivers. Where there is sugar cane, nothing can be produced because there is no water," explains the human rights defender as he accompanies us on a tour of some rivers in the area: the Bolas, the Pichuy, the Manacal and the Español, where the lack of water and its pollution is evident. The serious situation of these rivers and the communities that use the water has also been documented in a report issued by the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office (PDH) after a visit to the area in 2021.10
However, the work of the CCR is not limited to denunciation, they also supports the communities in recovering their food sovereignty. An example of this support can be found in the 20 de Octubre neighborhood, in the municipality of Champerico, where three thousand families live. We are welcomed to the community by Reyna López, president of the community's women's association, which brings together more than 80 members. Doña Reyna explains how, through their struggle, they managed to stop sugarcane cultivation on the land around the community two years ago and how the owner of the farm now rents this land to families to grow corn. She also explains some of the negative impacts that sugarcane had on family crops. For example, the vegetables were affected in their growth by the chemicals sprayed from airplanes by the sugar mills. In addition, these insecticides burned the flowers on the fruit trees, impacting reproduction. The zafra season was also very difficult for the families, as the ash covered the crops, the water, the clothes hanging out to dry and filled people's lungs.11
Doña Reyna accompanies us on a visit to the vegetable garden she tends next to her house, where she grows blackberry, chipilín, bledo (amaranth), miltomate, onion, carrot, beet, banana, malanga and yucca using ecological methods. "The garden allows us to supply the family and also gives us a small surplus that we can sell to the rest of the families in the neighborhood." Doña Reyna's garden is an example of how community struggle can restore food sovereignty to families in the communities. Nevertheless, the impacts of monocultures are still being felt, because the deforestation that was carried in order to plant the sugar cane has greatly affected rainfall. "There are no longer trees to bring on the rain and the wells are affected by the lack of rainfall. We are forced to irrigate the gardens through waste water." Community organization is now more important than ever on the South Coast, essential for defending such a precious resource as water and, with it, the life of families and nature.
Abelino and Doña Reyna bid us farewell, reminding us that behind sugar and the devastation caused in the region by this monoculture, there are companies with big interests, for example companies producing luxury items such as well-known brands of rum that are exported in large quantities. "Sugarcane cultivation has brought poverty and migration to the communities. On this coast, a stalk of sugarcane is worth more than the life of a human being."
1 Found in the departament of Retalhuleu, on Guatemala’s South Coast.
4 The geographical area of Guatemala known as the South Coast includes the departments of Retalhuleu, Suchitepéquez, Escuintla and Santa Rosa.
5 Solano, L., Las familias azucareras emergentes, CMI Guatemala, 10.04.2016; Cabanas, A., Intereses económicos y políticos presentes en comunidades de Costa Sur y su impacto en los derechos de la población y la criminalización, Guatemala, 2019.
6 Ibídem y Labrador, G., Villagrán X., Sánchez R. y Alvarado, J., El cartel del azúcar de Guatemala, El Faro, 25.04.2017.
8 Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres.
11 Defensoría socio ambiental, Defensoría de Pueblos Indígenas, Defensoría de defensores de derechos humanos y periodistas, Informe de visita de campo por información sobre desvío de ríos y criminalización de defensores de derechos humanos en el departamento de Retalhuleu y municipio de Mazatenango del departamento de Suchitepéquez, Guatemala, Julio de 2021.
12 The zafra refers to the burning of the remains of sugarcane crops that takes place annually between November and May.