August 12, 2011 by tristan savage
by Tristan Call and Katy Savage
published simultaneously on Upside Down World
The massive evictions of 800 families from 14 communities in Guatemala’s Polochic Valley, removing peasant agriculture in order to install the Chabil Utzaj sugar plantation, began on March 15, 2011. When we heard, we were surprised. Not because we have any illusions about the benevolence of the Guatemalan government or the oligarchy it serves, but because we didn’t expect the government to risk the public reaction that a major atrocity in the Polochic’s symbolic municipality of Panzós would provoke. Here in Guatemala, the Colom administration poses as a populist movement that takes the side of the poor, but Colom and his now ex-wife Sandra Torres are enmbroiled in major electoral tension as Torres battles her disqualification from the electoral contest for President. Because Colom and Torres are banking on their ability to mobilize the working classes to protest on their behalf in order to win the elections and maintain power, we didn’t anticipate that the government would be willing to shatter the illusion of their so-called “Times of Solidarity” so bluntly.i
But that illusion is shattered. This same Panzós was the site of a bloody massacre on May 29,1978, where over a hundred men, women, and children were gunned down in the central park by the army, many dying trying to escape across the Polochic River. That massacre is widely remembered as the opening crescendo of the genocide in Guatemala that left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced during the late 70’s and 80’s. There were more than 440 communities completely destroyed by the army during the genocide, but there is no community more iconic as a symbol of government repression and indigenous resistance than Panzós – and the people there remember it.
At the time, the massacre at Panzós became a rallying cry for a growing popular movement, and it is no different now. Everywhere we go, in peasant communities fighting the expansion of African Palm plantations on the south coast, in student protests in the capital, on academic email listservs for academics who study in Guatemala, the motto has emerged: “no more evictions in the Polochic.” Even the Interamerican Court of Human Rights took a stand, ruling on June 20th that the Colom administration must defend the physical safety, food security, and right to shelter of those who were evicted.
The Government’s ‘Phantom Aid’ and the Continuing Food Crisis
Perhaps that’s why the government has been so disingenuous and enthusiastic in their attempts to pretend that the crisis has been solved. As the Interamerican Court of Human Rights prepared their ruling, the government’s human rights ministry was quick to claim that they have been delivering food and shelter to the displaced of the Polochic Valley all along. And just a couple of weeks ago, the administration’s official bulletin unilaterally declared “Peace in the Polochic,” suggesting that the government has negotiated a settlement with the communities there.
Puzzled by the brutality of the initial evictions, and the government’s sudden turn to generosity and humanitarian concern, we went to the Polochic to see if the story checked out. After all, earlier statements by the government –like this one from the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture on March 31st saying that the police who executed the evictions were unarmed, and this one by Carlos Menocal that insisted homes and crops were not destroyed during the evictions, ended up being spectacularly false.ii
In mass meetings over the course of a week, with hundreds of families representing 12 of the evicted communities, we were told again and again, unequivocally: the crisis is not over. It is getting worse. We have received no support of any kind from the government. In most cases, they haven’t heard anything from the state since the day their homes were burned and their families shot and gassed. When we asked community members from Los Recuerdos if they had received anything from the government, they showed us bullet wounds and when we asked people from Inub’, they pulled out a bag of tear gas canisters. Printed on the side of the metal canisters, you could still read the fax number of the US company in Pennsylvania that produced the gas.
Another reason we were surprised when we initially heard about the evictions was the negative press it was sure to attract for the embattled Colom-Torres administration, given the heavy criticism that agrofuel projects face during this accelerating global food crisis. It’s no secret that the Widmanns (close relatives of ex-president Berger who own the foreign-financed sugarcane company “Chabil Utzaj” that directed the March evictions) and the Pellas group (who recently invested a controlling but undisclosed amount in Chabil Utzaj, and own the largest sugarcane and ethanol operation in Central America) are part of an international complex converting foods to fuels on a massive scale.iii Whether lands in the Polochic are being used to produce sugar-based ethanol –as the Widmanns’ and Pellas’ other investments are– or whether they are merely capitalizing on the high sugar prices that ethanol production provokes –as the Widmanns insist– agrofuel production threatens to devastate existing subsistence agriculture.
The thing we heard most often as we visited communities in the Polochic was their outrage that the crop destruction is being committed just as the prices of basic foods are skyrocketing. When we ask how they are holding up, they say, “we are getting tired of buying tortillas”, or “corn is at 275 and our harvest was tilled under by the Widmanns, just weeks before harvest.”
So let’s tell the story through food prices.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Food Price Index for 1990 through 2011. In a snapshot, it gives a sense of the magnitude of the food security crisis that threatens the world’s poor. This food crisis is global, but it always shows up in particular, local, ways. In the Polochic Valley, the rise in food prices in 2006 and their spike in 2007-2008 meant that dispossessing peasants in order to scale-up centralized sugarcane production was even more profitable than before, and foreign money poured in to finance the operation: guns, heavy equipment, and all. In 2011, as the most recent evictions and crop destruction were occurring, the loss of this season’s corn harvest has meant not only that those families have lost an enormous amount of disposable income because they couldn’t sell their surplus, but also that in the very moment when they find themselves without crops and homes, they are obligated to buy corn at its highest price levels in recent memory.
The drop in Central American maize prices during late 2009 and 2010 has been a brief respite; maize prices are at their highest level ever this month.
According to the FAO, Guatemalan maize experienced the largest price spike in the continent, jumping over 20% in the month of July. This is the month in which the Polochic food crisis is reaching critical levels, and the government is declaring the crisis is all but solved.
Or, we could tell the story as an assault by (armed) autistic economists, who prioritize abstractions and the creation of paper-wealth over the living eco-systems and communities that nurture human life. Documents produced by the United States Department of Agriculture’s foreign extension office in 2009 celebrate the “comparative advantage” of Guatemala’s sugar sector and their “increasing productivity and competitiveness.” Carefully hiding or ignoring the starvation wages, theft of land, and violent repression against peasants and workers on which that ‘efficiency’ and ‘comparative advantage’ are based, this approach champions a capitalist utopia that functions with “the hyperefficiency of theft,”.iv The Polochic Valley is a paradigmatic test case of the US-backed and violently-imposed global division of labor, where office-bound technocrats decide what will be produced where, and who (as an unavoidable side effect) will lose their land to the market or die defending it. That regime of violence was suddenly revealed on March 15 during the evictions, but the USDA report deflects criticisms of biofuel imperialism with a shrug, saying that
“Although biofuels have been criticized for posing a threat to food security, this threat has been exaggerated for Guatemala. Areas devoted for sugarcane and oil production are not suitable for food crops. Food security concerns are related to lack of opportunities in rural areas”
That report carries weight. Those words were implemented by the Inter-American Bank for Economic Integration with a $31 million loan to Chabil Utzaj beginning in 2006, and enforced by the Guatemalan oligarchy’s guns and Pennsylvanian tear gas and the Caterpillar backhoes they used to knock over houses and crops. The ultimate ‘unsuitability’ of the Polochic Valley for food crops rests not in the soils or rain cycles or population. It is made unsuitable. Even the best land won’t yield a crop if the corn is knocked over before harvest.
In this video clip from a special report filmed by Guatevision during the evictions, Walter Widmann (at the time the legal representative of Chabil Utzaj) alleges that the people he evicted weren’t really poor; that the real poor people in the area are his employees. If you were really poor, he insists, would you be able to afford to plant corn and wait 4 months for the harvest?
Walter is right- his workers are poor. Some of them are neighbors or family of those who were evicted in March; if they weren’t poor, desperate even, it would have been enormously difficult to entice or obligate them to sell their labor to the man who was destroying their neighbors’ crops.v But his accusation that those he evicted were well-off, we learned, is absurd and insulting.
On our first day in the valley, we met a man from the evicted community Ocho de Agosto who lived through the government’s “scorched earth” policy, but lost his parents and neighbors. In 1982, his village in the Sierra de Las Minas, the peaks above the Polochic Valley that now form a supposedly ‘protected area,’ was massacred and razed by the government. He was 13 at the time, and became one of the million internally displaced people that filled the cities and shantytowns of the country in those years. Ever since, he has been working to rebuild- and in March, during the evictions, his house was burned down once again by “security forces.”
On our fourth day in the valley, we walked up into the hills with a young man from the evicted community of Santa Rosita to look down over the land where he had farmed until the March evictions. He gestured over the plains, explaining that they left a lot of crops there when they were forced out, and Chabil Utzaj’s private security harvested it all, maybe ate it or sold it, and destroyed their work. He explained that where he came from before, all of the youth are landless, having no more than enough land for a house, so they have to go long distances to find wage labor to survive, following wages to Peten, Izabal, or across the Mexican border. Some of them work for the company Chabil Utzaj, fracturing the community in two.
He tells us a little about his life, and we begin to understand what is really at stake in the destruction of those crops. He was born in a municipality to the north, where his father drank poison and killed himself when he was still a child. His mother would beat him, and so at age 11 he escaped to work at a coffee plantation in Coban. After a while his mother found him, and his new stepfather promised him that if he came back he would give him seven acres of hillside land to plant and live from. He agreed and came back. But ultimately his stepfather sold all of the land, and died, leaving none of the promised land to his stepchildren. He has three other brothers who were also left with nothing, and they have traveled the length of eastern and northern Guatemala to find a way to support their families. He married when he was 14 and his wife was 12 (“just brats,” he chuckles). Now he is 33, their oldest child is 18, and their youngest, their ninth, is a newborn (“thank God, the last one,” he tells us). During the eviction in March, the house he had built from scratch was burned down.
The Widmanns’ strategy gradually becomes clear, and their ‘humanitarian’ approach of ‘job creation’ is revealed for the scam it is: to make everyone in the valley as desperate and dependent as their own workers. Until the evictions, those 14 communities had achieved some level of independence, enough land to plant and enough food to eat, and a bit of surplus to sell. In the words of the Widmanns, though, growing your own crops is “being condemned to misery.” So the crops and houses went down, and the unbroken sugarcane fields were planted. And now, according to Chabil Utzaj, those newly dispossessed have just one shot at survival: to sign on as hired hands at the sugar plantation that local peasants call a “green desert.”
The contrast between subsistence agriculture and industrial agribusiness in the Polochic couldn’t be more stark than these evictions have made it. In this video clip, a displaced Q’eqchi’ woman explains how when she saw her corn destroyed by the company it was as though her children were dying. The Widmanns’ response:
“Food crisis? For the love of God, don’t come to be with that story. We are here to combat poverty and the food crisis. We are creating 2000 jobs. And with all the indirect effect implied by an investment of $50 million dollars in a little valley of this size… That is fighting poverty. This [motioning behind him to the evicted peasants’ homes and crops, in the process of being knocked over by heavy machinery] is condemning those poor people to misery.”
Given the efforts to terrorize, co-opt, and chase off the displaced communities of Panzós, there was one more thing that surprised us on our trip: the level of resistance and organization that remains. The kind of outrage that the Zapatistas call “digna rabia.” We remember a 17-year-old from the community of Rodeo who has been working on rented land after his family’s home and crops were destroyed in March, saying that he is ready to return, or to protest, no matter the risk, because “the youth here, we’re not afraid of anything.” The Q’eqchi’ of the Polochic know that these lands are theirs, and at least those we met were not distracted or deterred by any legalistic arguments about land tenure or private property. They know these lands were the ancestral lands of their grandparents, that the Widmanns came from across the ocean, and the soil was ripped from them by force only thinly draped, if at all, with the trappings of documentation and legal process.
And, increasingly, they know they are not alone. The week before we arrived, they had received a delegation of dozens of students from the national university, San Carlos, who offered free medical consultations. The Ixim Collective is raising funds to deliver emergency corn supplies to families in the area (again, in the absence of the supplies promised by the government).vi International accompaniment is ongoing, with delegations, fundraising, and other support actions organized by the Guatemala Solidarity Project and other organizations. And communities in other areas of the country and the globe who face similar threats on their land –with the same investors and fuel crops genetically-identical to those carpeting the Polochic– are forming a larger-scale movement through the Via Campesina.
That continued resistance comes at a cost; attacks and threats continue in the Polochic. On May 21, Chabil Utzaj’s private security killed Oscar Reyes and wounded several others. Just before midnight on June 4th, Margarita Chub from the community of Paraná was ambushed and shot in her home. In the last several weeks, representatives of the evicted communities have received renewed death threats, and the community of Paraná is under threat of imminent eviction and destruction.
The government is beginning talks with the evicted communities on August 10th to discuss the “precautionary measures” ordered by the IACHR ruling. The court order declares that the government must “come to consensus” with the desires of the evicted communities about how to secure their safety and access to food and shelter. The community members we spoke with are hoping for some relief out of these talks. But they are also wary; as long as the threats of imprisonment and evictions continue, what kind of ‘consensus’ or ‘security’ can they expect?
Note: Between the completion and publication of this article, Chabil Utzaj appears to have attempted to pre-empt any discussion or implementation of the “precautionary measures” ordered by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights. On August 10th, the company’s private security attacked 22 families in the community of Paraná with firearms, and burned down houses, leaving several community members seriously wounded. For more information, see the press release from August 10th by Waqib’ Kej.
i Perhaps since Torres’ main competition, Otto Perez Molina, was an actual general who helped plan and execute the genocide in its bloodiest area, the Ixil Triangle of northern K’iche’, she presumes that the current murders and displacements will be overlooked.
ii The internal incompetence and contradictions of the government took an almost comic turn on July 14th, when the country’s widest distribution newspaper, Prensa Libre, quoted a government spokesperson saying that the reason that they haven’t complied with the Interamerican Court of Human Rights’ ruling was that they “haven’t managed to identify the communities” that were evicted. This, four months after a massive military operation in which the government transported hundreds of soldiers and police to those same communities to attack their homes.
iii For background information on agrofuels and United States interest in Guatemala, see the USDA report from 2009. For more general information on agrofuels in Guatemala, see Solano’s 2010 report with ActionAid. For a continent-wide critique of agrofuels, see Richard Jonasse’s edited volume published by Food First in 2009.
v The rumor in the valley is that the phantom aid that was supposed to be distributed by the government to the displaced was given to the company instead, which distributed the food to its workers to buy their continued loyalty.