The geographic area of Guatemala’s Southern Coast includes the departments of Retalhuleu, Suchitepéquez, Escuintla and Santa Rosa. The economy of this area is based primarily on ago-industrial products for export, principally sugar cane and African palm. This extractive economic model requires maximum production within a limited space. That is why it employs methods which are highly polluting, and which have very negative impacts on the health and living conditions of the people. In 2015 the local population organized itself into the Council of Communities of Retalhuleu (CCR) to address this situation. The CCR is made up of 18 communities, the majority of whom come from the municipality of Champerico, who are demanding their right to water, food and health. PBI began to accompany the CCR in April 2020 due to the risks and threats experienced by its members.
Land use on the Southern Coast: from subsistence family farming to the agro-export model
Sugar has been one of Guatemala's main export products since the late 1950s. Last year, this product and its derivatives were the country’s second most exported product (70% of what was produced was destined for export). Worldwide, Guatemala is the fourth largest exporter of sugar, with the third highest rate of productivity. There are currently 13 sugar mills operating in the country, most of which are located on the Southern Coast. The families that own these mills form an integral part of Guatemala's agro-industrial elite; they also participate in the energy matrix, the financial system and the political system, and thus hold considerable power.1
A report on the subject, prepared by Andrés Cabanas,2 points out that following the signing of the Peace Accords (and particularly since the beginning of the new century) there has been an exponential increase in sugarcane cultivation at the national level, a trend that has also materialized on the Southern Coast. For the communities in the area, this has meant an accelerated process in the transformation of land use, with profound impacts on the lives of those populations. Local landlords, who own the majority of the land,3 have transferred the rental of their plots from campesino families to the sugar mills, who pay higher prices and rent for longer periods. As such, the availability of land to campesino families has been decreasing: the cultivation of sugar cane went from 188,000 hectares in 2003 to 278,900 hectares in 2014 (across the national territory). Currently, more than 60% of the arable land in the department of Escuintla is dedicated to the cultivation of sugarcane, a figure that rises to more than 85% in the municipality of Champerico.
Violations of the rights to water, food and health
Sugarcane production uses large amounts of water, which impacts the availability of this basic resource for local consumption. Land studies4 have shown that the mills use any and every means to guarantee their water supply, including diverting rivers and drilling wells for which they have not carried out adequate environmental impact studies. Furthermore, the need for land for the massive cultivation of sugar cane has led to the immoderate felling of trees and consequent deforestation, not only of the land used for planting, but also of the forests along the riverbanks, which has strongly contributed to the drying up of the rivers in the area, the loss of biodiversity and climate change.5
Champerico has been declared a dry corridor, but it is a corridor that has been dried up by agro-industry which diverts the rivers using dams and quintals. There are farms that make very deep wells with a very large extraction capacity that affect the water table and family wells. (Abelino Mejía Cancino, member of the CCR).
The excessive use of water for mono-cultures causes droughts in the summer and flooding of family crops in the winter, when the mills release excess water from the dams, affecting the production of basic grains and the right to food for these families. Likewise, the expansion of sugarcane causes the disappearance of riverside forests and mangroves, which are often cut down, and reduces the areas dedicated to fish farming, which can be either the main or complementary productive activity for the communities.6
The right to health of the local population is affected by this intensive agriculture which, striving for maximum economic yield, makes use of polluting products (insecticides, herbicides and products that accelerate the process of sugar cane growth), often launched from small planes and which, therefore, also contaminate the population's subsistence crops and water reserves. Added to this are the effects of the zafra – the burning of the remains of the sugarcane crops that takes place annually between the months of November and May – which causes respiratory illnesses.
All of the above has a differentiated impact on women, as the scarcity of water due to the drying up of the wells forces them to travel farther (and more often) to collect water, exposing them to the risk of violence (of various types, including sexual violence), and damage to their physical health due to the weight of carrying the water. They are also more exposed to dermatological diseases caused by the toxic agro-chemicals which have polluted the water they use for laundry and daily cleaning. They are also impacted by the increase in illnesses caused by the mono-cultures, both people working in the cane plantations and in the population that lives in the surrounding areas. Thus, time they need to dedicate to family health care has increased.
As a result, the communities of the Southern Coast are experiencing conditions of deep exploitation, impoverishment, water scarcity, and poor health. The population does not have access to land to cultivate and is forced to buy primary goods, whose prices are increasingly higher. These are the profoundly negative impacts of an agro-export model, whose main objective is economic gain for an elite, in the face of the impoverishment and exploitation of the majority of the population and, by extension, the common good.
Social Struggles in the Southern Coast and the State response
The history of social organization on the Southern Coast goes back a long way: in the 1960s the communities began to form cooperatives; in the 1980s there were strikes protesting exploitative labor conditions and in the 1990s the returnee movement engaged in negotiations and land purchases. This organizational experience allowed for a strong popular movement to come together in the early 2010s, in response to the negative impacts of the increase in mono-cultures across the region and the drying up of the rivers. It is within this framework which, in 2015, the CCR was created.
The main objective of the CCR is to respond to an economic model imposed by the companies and by the State, which oppresses the agricultural population in the region, violating their human rights, their access to land and water. In the CCR we work in defense of life, water and land and so that the customs and cultures of the people are respected (Virgilio García Carrillo, member of the organization's Board of Directors).
It was also during this period that the March for Water, Mother Earth, Territory and Life was created. This took place between April 11 and 22, 2016 and originated on the Southern Coast. Within the framework of the March for Water, as well as in the Declaration of Champerico (2016), the population demanded the recovery of the river basins, reparations for the damage caused to the environment and the people, and the transformation from an agricultural model of exportation to a model of food sovereignty, which would place respect and recognition for indigenous identity at the center. At the same time that they were advancing proposals aimed at solving the different problems posed by the massification of mono-culture, the communities turned to the State to denounce the diversion of rivers, the cutting of mangroves and forests, the attacks on protected species, and pollution, all of which were perpetrated by farmers and sugar mills.
Cabanas has analyzed the complaints and proposals of the communities, concluding that the Guatemalan State is participating in the alarming environmental and social degradation of the Southern Coast, as well as engaging in aggression towards the environment and the communities, by the omission of its duties.7 This is evident, on the one hand, through the lack of prosecution for companies which have polluted or diverted rivers. They have managed to avoid legal consequences despite the complaints filed by the communities. On the other hand, the State has allowed the appropriation of water, due to the in-existence of normative and legal frameworks (water law and/or public policies in this respect) that recognize the right to water as fundamental, and which penalize the pollution, diversion, appropriation and use of water to the detriment of human rights.
However, community mobilization and participation in demanding the restitution of their rights has been, and continues to be, persecuted and criminalized. This is the case of the four members of the CCR which PBI accompanies, who form part of the Board of Directors and who, since 2018, have endured a process of criminalization. Anabella España Reyes, Abelino Mejía Cancino, Flavio Vicente and Virgilio García Carrillo have been targets of accusations of coercion, threats and illegal detentions for acts which, supposedly, took place during a meeting in which representatives from the El Pilar, El Tular, Magdalena, Santa Ana and Pantaleón sugar mills participated in 2018. Although the judge in the first instance declared the accusations to be without merit, the case was appealed by a plaintiff representing the El Pilar sugar mill and later accepted by the Mixed Court of Retalhuleu. The hearing scheduled for early October was suspended until January 15, 2021.
The processes of criminalization (through judicialization, but also through defamation on social media), the direct threats received by the members of the CCR, as well as the processes of co-optation of the communities (by buying-off of leaders and spreading of rumors about the leadership) have had terrible consequences on the health of the human rights defenders, as well as on their families and social organizations.
We need people to realize that when they consume sugar, it has an impact on the life of the communities and on the right to water for all. We call for the consumption of what is healthy and good produced by the campesinos and not products made by the big companies (Abelino Mejia Cancino, member of the CCR).
1For more information on the role of the families who possess the biggest sugar mills in the country, see: Solano, L., Las familias azucareras emergentes, CMI Guatemala, 10.04.2016; Labrador, G., Villagrán X., Sánchez R. y Alvarado, J., El cartel del azúcar de Guatemala, El Faro, 25.04.2017.
2Cabanas, 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. (Expert’s report for the Human Rights Firm for Indigenous Peoples, unpublished).
3In the municipality of Champerico, 1.510 owners possess 16% of the agricultural land, while 53 land owners control 84% (Ibíden).
4Cabanas, A., 2019, Op. Cit.
5Véase el ejemplo del río Bolas en el municipio de Champerico en Cabanas, A., Aproximación a las luchas por el agua y la vida. El caso del rio Bolas, municipio de Champerico, Retalhuleu, Asociación Ceiba, Guatemala, julio 2017.
6Cabanas, A., 2017, Op. Cit.
7Cabanas, A., 2019, Op. Cit.