PBI-Guatemala carries out observation mission on extractivism and the right to water in Retalhuleu and Champerico

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Photo by PBI-Guatemala, March 2022.

In their most recent Bulletin, PBI-Guatemala notes:

We carried out an observation mission to the Retalhuleu and Champerico 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.

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.

This data demonstrates the economic weight of this sector (most of the sugar mills are concentrated in the South Coast) 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.

Studies conducted on the sugarcane sector over the last decade 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

To read the full article, go to Journey to the green desert: Retalhuleu communities reclaim their right to water (pages 8-13).

Photo: PBI-Guatemala meets with frontline community defending water, July 2021.

Upcoming report: As noted in the UN Comtrade Database chart below, Canada is a significant importer of sugar from Guatemala. In the coming weeks, PBI-Canada, utilizing research generated by Research for the Front Lines, will be producing a short report on how and where that sugar arrives in Canada and the companies that import it.

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