Climate change and agro-industry water-grabbing places the campesino community of “15 de febrero” at risk of eviction

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Last month, on Thursday May 4, a PBI-Canada delegation met with the community of “15 de febrero” on the South Coast of Guatemala.

They told us that they had been looking for land since 2013.

On February 15, 2018, they officially received land through the Fundo del Tierras (Land Fund), a state agency created by the Guatemalan government to provide land to Indigenous peoples, campesinos (peasant farmers) and demilitarized guerillas.

The Land Fund bought the land for 7 million Quetzals (about CAD $1 million), but the community had to contribute 2 million Quetzals (about CAD $335,000) that the BANRURAL bank lent to them. This arrangement was negotiated between the Land Fund and the bank without the involvement of the community, who were unaware of they would be responsible for 2 million Quetzals.

Given they are a community struggling to produce a subsistence crop, they told us there is no way they can ever pay back the loan.

Compounding this situation is the drought (there has been no rain since last August) and the water-intensive sugar plantation next to their farm (which they had not known about when they settled on the land). Given the lack of rain and the groundwater-takings by the neighbouring sugar plantation, their crop failed.

The failure of their crop means that they will not be able to pay the interest on their 2 million Quetzals loan. Each family is required to pay 5,000 Quetzals (about CAD $845.) by November 1. They told us that the land they are on had been abandoned for 15-20 years beforehand, but that they now fear eviction from their lands.

We look at the context of the crisis this community is facing:

Climate change and drought

The Guardian reports: “Guatemala has contributed very little to greenhouse gas emissions but its people are suffering acutely from their impact.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization also explains: “The Central American Dry Corridor is a geographical area 1,600 kilometers long and 100-400 kilometers wide, covering 44% of the surface of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, where 11.5 million people live in rural municipalities and more than half work in agriculture.”

It further notes: “The region and its agriculture are vulnerable to risks associated with climate change (long periods of drought, followed by intense rains), which has caused a significant economic impact and threatened food security.”

Water-takings by agro-industry monoculture

While the sugar industry in Guatemala acknowledges the country is vulnerable to climate change, it argues that it has taken action to minimize its water footprint. But as Source International has highlighted: “The cultivation of sugar cane requires (according to the Water Foot Print platform) about 2.6 trillion liters of water a year.”

The community of “15 de febrero” told us that their artisanal well cannot compete with the 150 metre (about 500 feet) deep wells agro-industry have. 

Malnutrition prevalent in Guatemala

The World Food Programme notes: “Guatemala is facing serious challenges in achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 on Zero Hunger, which includes the elimination of all forms of malnutrition by 2030.”

Aljazeera adds: “Overall, Guatemala has one of the world’s highest rates of child malnutrition, with nearly half of children under five suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In some rural communities, that number is reportedly as high as 80 percent.”

Land inequality

In the article How Guatemala is sliding into chaos in the fight for land and water, The Guardian has reported: “Land reform has been painfully slow since the Guatemalan civil war, which ended in 1996 with a peace agreement that promised to return land to indigenous and peasant farmers, from whom it had been taken over 200 years before. Instead, there has been only a trickle of cases and it remains one of the world’s most unequal countries.”

Selective absence of the state

While we were told by communities that the state has abandoned them, state security forces are regularly deployed to facilitate forced evictions.

This is particularly true for Indigenous communities. In December 2022, Indigenous Peoples Rights International reported: “According to information received directly from these Indigenous Mayan communities, since November 21, the villagers of at least 15 indigenous communities were under a military and National Civil Police siege. This siege aimed to arrest Mayan Indigenous leaders, forcefully evict them from their lands in favor of farmers (specifically the Thomae family) and facilitate the establishment of extractive companies.”

The International Land Coalition, NACLA and El Faro have all reported on forcible evictions in Guatemala in recent years.

Climate migration

Water grabbing, climate change, export-based monoculture, land inequality and forced evictions all contribute to climate migration. NBC News reports: “Most will move within the country, to cities in search of work, while others will join the tens of thousands of Guatemalans who each year attempt a much more treacherous journey north.”

Canadian aid

Global Affairs Canada says: “Canada remains committed to working with Guatemala in support of efforts to strengthen institutions, rule of law, human rights, inclusive economic growth and prosperity, climate change resilience, and addressing irregular migration and forced displacement.”

In 2021, Canada’s total official development assistance (ODA) increased to USD $6.3 billion, representing 0.32% of gross national income (GNI). Of that, Guatemala received $3.91 million from Canada in 2020-21. $3.74 million of that was in emergency food aid.

That same year (2021), Canada imported 113,650 metric tons of sugar from Guatemala, the fourth largest importer of sugar from Guatemala that year (following the United States, Ivory Coast and Chile), potentially exacerbating the water crisis for campesino communities in the Dry Corridor such as “15 de febrero”.

Canada and Guatemalan sugar exports

Our research shows that Canada has imported 1.46 million metric tons of sugar from Guatemala since 2015. Given each ton of sugar requires 100 cubic metres of water, we can estimate that these exports required about 146 million cubic meters of water.

It was in 2015 that the Council of Communities of Retalhuleu (CCR) began to organize against the adverse impacts of sugar plantations and mills.

CCR member Abelino Mejia Cancino, has commented: “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.”

We continue to follow this situation with concern.

Further reading: The sugar business in Guatemala: Sweet profits for exporters, bitter impacts for communities (PBI-Guatemala) and The importance of good water management (PBI-Guatemala, pages 7-13).


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