Guatemala is a country with many rivers, streams and lakes. This abundance of water has attracted hundreds of companies to look into the expansion of hydropower, agro-industry or manufacturing in the country. But Guatemala’s water sources are heavily contested, with both campesinos and industry competing for access. All too often business wins out over the poor campesinos, but rural residents have mobilized to demand the companies respect their right to water.
“We’ve been marching down this highway to demand an end of the extractive industries, such as palm oil production, which contaminate our water,” said Ana María Top, a Mayan Kaqchikel from the Association of Integral Group of Women from the community of San Juan Sacatepéquez. “Furthermore, we are seeing the privatization of water in our country. We are here stating that water is life; it isn’t a commodity.”
The thousands of men, women, children and elderly that participated in the 11-day march braved the rain and heat to arrive in Guatemala City. The marchers received support from communities that they passed, with residents donating water and beverages.
The water march arrived in Guatemala City on April 22 to commemorate Earth Day, and to demand that the government resolve the water crisis. The protesters that had set out on April 11 were quickly joined by thousands of students, labor unions and social organizations from across the city, as they demonstrated outside the Guatemalan National Palace and the congressional building to demand that the state respond to the water crisis.
Along the way they also collected water from the streams they crossed, but as marchers crossed into the department of Suchitepequez, along the southern coast, they found that every river and stream that they passed was polluted by industry.
Along the way, marchers collected testimonies of residents of the contamination created by monocultures and other industries. These were included as part of a denouncement over the widespread contamination of water resources, which was delivered to the Guatemalan Public Ministry upon arrival in Guatemala City.
The southern coast has been especially affected by these contaminations. The departments along the coast have seen the massive expansion of monoculture production such as African palm oil, sugar cane and rubber in the last 15 years. These industries are detouring, or siphoning off the rivers that once flowed through the region.
In fact, it is all too common to see dry riverbeds, or weak and polluted streams that were once strong rivers, while driving down the Central America 9 highway.
One such case is the Madre Vieja River in Esquintla. Communities along this river have mobilized to guarantee that the river stay available for everyone.
Liberating a river from privatization
It is rare to see milpas — the fields of maize, beans and squashes that so many small farmers rely on in Guatemala — let alone forest along the highways of the lowlands of the southern Guatemalan department of Esquintla. Instead along the highways stretch miles and miles of fields of mono-crops such as sugar cane and African palm oil. Yet, a few communities still survive from the production of staple crops. The expansion of monoculture production across the region has brought with it conflicts over the precious water in the region, yet campesinos have mobilized to keep the large companies from blocking their access to the rivers.
Early in the morning of February 10, workers from the palm company HAME dammed the Madre Vieja River, channeling the water of the river to their crops. This has been a consistent occurrence over the last 15 years, after the arrival of the production of African palm oil to Esquintla. The expansion of banana production in the region has stressed the water sources, with the agro-industries using nearly 95 percent of the river during the dry season. According to residents, this leads to the river completely drying up, which has in turn pushed the 98 communities along the river to protest the loss of access to the water for their crops.
Residents gathered in the municipality of Nueva Concepción, Esquintla the same day that HAME detoured the river to demand that the mayor intervene in the conflict over the river. Days later, on February 12, residents mobilized along the river and — with support from the municipality and heavy machinery — removed the dam that the company had built, liberating the river.
The communities have maintained vigilance over the point in the river that the palm company built the dam. They have stated that they will not let the company rebuild the dam. They have received support from the municipality of Nueva Concepción, and from the Guatemalan Human Rights Office.
Members of the communities of the municipality of Nueva Concepción joined the marchers for the right to water on April 17, and continued along with the other marchers to Guatemala City.
Facing corporate impunity
One of the clearest cases of massive contamination in recent years has been of Pasión River in the northern Guatemalan department of Petén. Heavy rains in the municipality of Sayaxaché between the end of April and early May led to the overflow of the palm oil plantations’ oxidation pools, which flowed directly into the river, leading to the mass die-off of fish in the river. Blame quickly fell upon the local palm company Reforestadora Palma de Petén S.A., or REPSA, which has operated in the region since 2000. Initially, the company accepted responsibility for the contamination of the river.
“Unusually heavy rains provoked the overflow of oxidation pools,” wrote Carlos Arevalo, the legal representative for REPSA, to Gustavo Chacon Cordon, a representative from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources. “Fish were found with signs of asphyxiation. We have sent samples to the University of San Carlos to determine the cause of death.”
Activists accused the company of carrying out an ecocide along the Pasión River.
The samples that were sent to the University of San Carlos showed high levels of the chemical malathion, a pesticide commonly used in the palm industry. But despite this finding, within a month, the company had backtracked, denying any connection to the problem that had by then hit the national media, which ran dramatic pictures of the dead fish. The company now claimed that it “was not responsible for the deaths of the fish,” and that there was “never an ecocide.”
To make matters worse, the communities along the river were uninformed of the contamination, and only learned something was wrong as they found fish floating in the river. Serious questions were also rising about the potential health impacts on the poverty stricken indigenous communities that lie beside the river and often depend on it for most of their water needs.
“First they killed the river; then they killed the fish,” said Erasmo Caal, a community leader from the hamlet of El Chorro. “Now they are trying to kill us.”
El Chorro sits on a hill above the river in Sayaxché. It is a sparse community, with only a few structures built of cement — most houses are simple, wooden structures with thatched roofs. There are no paved roads or running water, but they do have electricity.
The community, which was established during the late 1960s, has relied on the Pasíon River as their source of water. But despite this reliance, they were never informed of the contamination and continued bathing, washing their clothing, collecting water and fishing. As a result, many have developed rashes, dry and flaky skin, and lesions.
This reflects what Guadalupe Verdejo of the World Health Organization warned when she addressed local reports. During the press conference, she stated she saw the impacts on the skin, but she stated she was most worried about hidden impacts that could emerge later on, such as cancer.
On September 17, 2015 nearly five months after REPSA was accused of contaminating the river, the company was ordered by a court to suspend all operations for 6 months, pending an investigation into the contamination. But the court order sparked spiraling tensions and even an allegation of murder.
Workers from the palm company, angry at being laid off, immediately shut down the highway near the plantations. They also detained three local activists who had arrived to ensure the company was complying with the court order. The three activists were released late in the afternoon on September 18.
The same day, Rigoberto Lima Choc, a rural schoolteacher and leading figure in movement to shut down the plant, was shot and killed outside the Sayaxche courthouse by unknown assailants. Lima Choc had initiated the case against the palm company in June by filing a legal complaint against the powerful company in Guatemala City.
Confronting the corruption enabling the theft of water
At its heart, the march for the right to water is addressing Guatemala’s embedded corruption, as well as confronting the expansion of capitalism in the region, which leaves families without the means to support themselves.
“This is bigger than just corruption,” Pascual said. “The corruption that we saw in 2015 within the state falls short when compared to the corruption that exists with the theft of river, the contamination, the ecocides, and the privatization of water. This isn’t just for now; we need to protect the water for future generations.”
Both HAME and REPSA are part of the palm conglomerate, Olemec Group, which is owned by the powerful Molina-Botrán family, who has made their fortunes in the sugarcane and cotton industries. Current owner, Felipe Molina is a cousin of former President Otto Pérez Molina, whose administration was brought down over accusations of corruption.
The Molina family first brought palm oil to Guatemala in the late 1980s following the global fall in cotton prices. Today, according to investigative journalist Luis Solano, the palm firm controls nearly 80 percent of the industry.
The massive mobilization across Guatemala has brought into the public eye the crisis that communities face across the country, and generated a national conversation over the water situation. Organizers hope that this awareness will lead to the Guatemalan Congress passing a law that governs the use of water and protects the rights of communities to water. They also want to spur an investigation by governing bodies into the contamination of water across the country.
Members of Guatemala’s social movements and leftist parties met in the congressional building on April 22, as protesters gathered outside, to stress the need for this new water law. The movement has found support from the Guatemalan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, which has identified 50 rivers that have been detoured.
“The government and the companies must know that we can no longer permit the theft of our rivers and water for mines, hydroelectric dams, and for monocultures,” Pascual said. “This is a call to consciousness for all citizens in rural and urban areas. It isn’t possible for them to ignore the value of water.”