When he woke up, the monster was still there

By Nancy Sabas, Connecting Peoples Coordinator for MCC Guatemala/El Salvador. She is from Honduras. Her reflection was originally published on MCC’s Latin America Advocacy Blog.

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“When he woke up, the monster was still there”[i]: The conflict of Banana and Oil palm companies in La Blanca community.

Tell me, given that you are a journalist and I didn’t go to school:
Drying lagoons is equal to development?
Fumigating communities is equal to development?
I didn’t go to school, but I know that that is not development
I am illiterate and I know that that is a violation.”

– Farmer and community member of La Blanca community.

A couple of months ago, I travelled to the community of La Blanca to interview neighbours and leaders of the South Shore Communities in Defense of the Territory along with the Co-Country Representative of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the MCC Advocacy Analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean to learn more about the issues of monocrops and agro-industry in Guatemala.

I recognized the community immediately; I had seen it in the documentary “Ocos Despierta” produced by the Pastoral of the Earth from the Diocese of San Marcos, which we usually watch with the learning groups when discussing monoculture and agro-industries. The scene that always catches my attention is one with a man in the middle of the Zanjón Pacayá river who denounces the killing of fish, which he claims is caused by contamination from the toxic waste disposed of by the banana and oil palm companies in the area. This scene seemed peculiar for the language used, which not only reflects his concern about community subsistence, but also his love and anguish for a river that he understands as alive and in the process of being killed. This man´s connection with mother nature, as portrayed in that scene,  made me despise a little my own urbanity that has taught me to see nature as a mere resource.

Unfortunately, this poor understanding of nature as a commodity that can be abused and exploited is the legacy of a capitalist logic. Under this logic, the agroindustry of mono-cultures in communities such as La Blanca, Guatemala, is destroying ecosystems under the banner of development.

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Monoculture  is a growing industry. According to data from the National Agricultural Survey of 2014 (ENA), Guatemala’s second most important permanent crop, in terms of production volume, is oil palm. According to the ENA, palm oil production increased by 118% in 2014 compared to 2013. The cultivation of land for African palm, therefore also increased by 33%, compared 2013.[ii] Official data published by the ENA in previous years have shown inconsistencies compared to the data provided by the Union of Producers of Palm in Guatemala (GREMPALMA ) and other researchers, who estimate that the expansion of crops has been even greater.[iii]

Surely this industrial growth must be a reflection of an increase in cash flow. These mega-companies provide unskilled jobs and fund local infrastructure projects. Does this translate into an improvement in the quality of life for community members?

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“In the past we had three crops and now there’s only one,” says Eduardo Juarez, president of the organization of the 12 communities on the South Shore supported by local partner the Diocese of San Marcos, “There are children with skin diseases and respiration problems.” Another member added, “Our river Pacayá gave us fish for our own consumption and to sell.  People from Coatepeque and La Blanca used to come here to fish. In the winter the river regenerated through small ponds. The prairie area, El Tigre, had lizards, turtles and different species of animals. The Monticulo hill became known as the ‘charm’ because of the sounds of cocks crowing and other animals. Now, only the oil palm lives. It is unfortunate that 10 years have passed and nobody is doing anything. The prairie still appears on the map but it does no longer exist. This has affected our right to life and food”

Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva explains in an essay: “ Nature has been subjugated to the market as a mere supplier of industrial raw material and dumping ground for waste and pollution. It is falsely claimed that exploiting the Earth creates economic value and economic growth, and this improves human welfare. While human welfare is invoked to separate humans from the Earth and justify her limitless exploitation, all of humanity does not benefit. In fact most lose. Pitting humans against nature is not merely anthropocentric, it is corporatocentric”.[iv]

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Guatemala has failed to establish appropriate institutions or laws to oversee water use; this failure represents a huge accountability problem when agro industries, hydroelectric and mining companies use an enormous amount of water for their operations. The multinationals present in the community of La Blanca are Grupo HAME and BANASA. The Dole Fruit Company and Chiquita Banana are the main buyers of their banana production. According to local testimonies, the company BANASA and Group HAME had a legal conflict over the water coming from the river, the Ocosito, to perform their operations, leaving the community stuck in the middle.

According to members of La Blanca and independent investigations, companies use an estimated 40,000 gallons of water per minute. In a paper presented by the South Shore Communities in Defense of  the Territory in the IV TLA Public Hearing before the Latin American Water Tribunal, they state:

“The National Banana S.A. (BANASA) has built an irrigation and drainage system that connects the river Ocosito with the Pacaya River, which covers the entire planting and aims to control moisture conditions on the land. This causes two types of impacts to rural communities: (1) in summer / drought farmers suffer water shortage due to water extraction; upstream of the current with very low flow; and (2) in winter time/rainy season the population is affected by severe flooding increase in their crops and houses. In addition, the venting of water from the banana farms to the Pacayá river has caused industrial pollution and the presence of dead fish in it. (…) Multiple extraction authorizations are granted over rivers, generating conflict between companies and also between companies/communities, with the consequent reduction of flows that the communities need. The State has failed to conduct detailed studies of water systems.”[v]

Last year marked the 10th year of the struggle of the 12 communities of the South Shore. 10 years of demanding compensation for damages to communities, restoration of the prairies, closing off the canals and wells, the establishment of a water treatment system,conservation of rivers and the abolition of monocultures. 10 years full of dignity and resistance to a model that does not revere life.

“Confronting them feels like dealing with a monster” a member of the 12 communities of the South Shore reported. But somehow, that “monster” has been unable to silence their voices calling for justice and their right to good living.

Watch the Ocós documentary.

[i] Augusto Monterroso was a well recognized Guatemalan/Honduran writer, known for his one-sentence story:  ¨When he woke up, the Dinasour was still there”.

[ii] Republica de Guatemala: Encuesta Nacional Agropecuaria 2014.

[iii] Memorial de denuncia ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (2015) Washington. Mikkelsen, Vagn. (2013). Guatemala: Comercio Exterior, Productividad Agrícola y Seguridad Alimentaria Pg. 10

[iv] Vandana Shiva (2014) Economy Revisited. Will Green be the Colour of Money or Life?Global Research

[v] Resolucion Banano y su impacto en las fuentes de Agua Guatemala (2015) Tribunal Latinoamericano del Agua

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