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Biofuels, Mass Evictions and Violence

Internationally-funded Guatemalan bio-fuel interests evict Mayan Qeqchi families from their historic lands, destroying homes and crops, killing one, injuring more, while thousands are without food or shelter.

On March 15, 16 and 17, hundreds of security officers from the Guatemalan National Civil Police, Army and Anti-riot Squads entered 14 small Maya Qeqchi villages in the municipality of Panzos, Alta Verapaz, shooting live ammunition and dispersing tear gas.

Reports from the region indicate that police and soldiers were followed by masked and armed employees of the Chabil Utzaj sugar cane company, who destroyed homes and crops. Families pleaded, to no avail, with plantation ’owners’ and State authorities to spare the crops because they were close to harvest and families would face starvation without their harvest.

In the first community, Aguas Calientes, 72 families awoke at 5 a.m. surrounded by troops. They were given an hour to gather possessions and food. They begged for more time to gather what crops they could, but were not allowed. The day before, on March 14, a delegation from the community had attended a government sponsored negotiation meeting with farm ’owners’ in Guatemala City, and were given no notice of the pending eviction. Those too slow in the scramble to leave were attacked with violence, resulting in five injured and four hospitalized. Families with registered land titles in a neighboring farm were also attacked.

The next community, of 32 families, was Miralvalle. The eviction began at approximately 10 a.m., and proceeded in a similar manner. Witnesses report that Antonio Beb Ac, a 35-year-old father of three, was shot in the head by anti-riot troops, though justice system authorities, notoriously corrupt in this region of the country, claim he was killed by a rock.

Evictions continued the evening of March 16 in the community of Quinich. On March 17 reports indicate that evictions occured in Semau, Finca Parana, Tinajas, San Miguelito, Los Recuerdos, Bella Flor, La Isla, Santa Rosa, San Paolo, Rio Frio, El Rodeo and 8 de Agosto. Thousands of people, including thousands of children, are camped out many on the side of the roads with no shelter or food, in the rain.

Biofuel-related repression builds on 1978 “Panzos” massacre

This is not the first time the landholders who claim to own the land from which these communities are being evicted have called out the armed forces against the communities.

During the military governments ushered in by the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup, a handful of non-Qeqchi families gained access to land and land titles in the fertile Polochic Valley where Panzos is located, in large part through a combination of violence and fraud. The communities did not accept the validity of these claims, and made every effort they could, under military governments, to have their land and labor rights recognized.

One man, Flavio Monzon, who was named as mayor in 1954 by the military government and remained in office for 20 years, is reported by community leaders to have amassed approximately 200,000 acres of land while acting as mayor, including much of the area being evicted today.

The historical tension between the large landholders and the Qeqchi communities culminated in 1978 when, according to testimonies, the mayor and landholders convoked communities to a meeting in the town square on May 29. On approximately May 24, a contingent of 30 soldiers, invited by the mayor and landholders, occupied the municipal hall. Early in the morning on May 29, workers hired by plantation owner Flavio Monzon used a tractor to dig a large hole in the Municipal cemetery.

By 9:00 a.m., hundreds of people from the summoned communities had arrived in the town square of Panzos, to find it surrounded by soldiers and police. The army was stationed around the square and on the roofs of the buildings surrounding it. They had blocked all the exits. At the mayor’s signal, they opened fire on the unarmed crowd. Soldiers went after those who tried to escape one-by-one to kill them. Monzon’s hired workers then used the municipal truck to carry at least three loads of bodies to the cemetery and dump them in the hole they had prepared beforehand. The United Nations-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification registered 53 people killed that day. Local people say there were actually many more killed and injured.

Extreme repression continued, with constant kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial executions of community leaders throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Mass graves are reported in the area where the forced evictions are today occurring, and a torture center used by the military was located that was evicted, Las Tinajas.

Following the Panzos massacre and the ensuing extreme repression, communities abandoned their homes and fled into the mountains, the Sierra de las Minas, surviving unimaginable hardship.

Poor campesinos, from nearby communities, were paid by the “Chabil Utzaj” company to burn homes of poor campesinos, as part of the illegal evictions.

Biofuels & Multilateral “Development” Banks in the Polochic Valley: The next chapter in the violence

Between 1985 and 2005 the situation slowly improved as the nation transitioned into ostensible “civilian” rule, as the international community accompanied the peace process, ending the 36-year armed conflict in 1996. Communities returned to farming lands some had fled from during “the violence.”

Under the framework of the peace accords, a national fund for land was created to provide access to credit to allow rural communities to buy land. Based on a model being implemented throughout Latin America with the goal of facilitating stable land markets, the fund was highly problematic. Nonetheless it was the only apparent alternative for thousands of communities seeking secure tenure of their land.

Throughout the Polochic Valley dozens of communities sent in their paperwork, requesting to buy lands from the land “owners.” By the mid 2000’s dozens of communities believed they were on the brink of gaining security over their lands, when the possibility of massive agri-business profits appeared in the form of biofuels.

Though sugar cane and palm oil producers may argue that their production is for human consumption, the current investment in these sectors is geared toward generating sufficient production to supply the biofuel markets expected to skyrocket as climate change mitigation strategies mandate consumption and subsidize production of biofuels.

Wealthy family connections

In 2006, Carlos Widmann, brother-in-law of then recently-elected president Oscar Berger and owner of the sugar cane refinery Ingenio Guadalupe, secured loans totaling $31 million from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) (a smaller version of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank), with which he moved his refinery operation across the country from the traditional sugar lands of the south-west Coast to the Polochic Valley, where the refinery was renamed Chabil Utzaj.

Biofuels interests provoke environmental destruction

The Widmann family was not a traditional landholder in the Polochic, but Widmann brokered deals with the landholders to rent and then allegedly buy the farms. Mass evictions of communities began, in what the Qeqchi farmers describe as being just like the 1980s, when communities were forced to flee to the mountains. Many again were displaced into terrible conditions in the Sierra de las Minas, like in the 1980s.

Between 1998 and 2006, a large landholding family in Polochic of German descent, the Maegli’s, experimented with African Palm oil production, and by 2006 had 5,000 hectares under palm fruit production in Alta Verapaz, and then began rapidly expanding plantations, and therefore also illegally, forcibly displacing small farmers.

Though studies should be undertaken, it was obvious to observers that forests were significantly impacted by this displacement as hungry families were forced to cultivate forest lands either bordering or within the Sierra de las Minas biosphere.

The new palm and sugar cane plantations needed large scale irrigation. Carlos Widmann and his Chabil Utzaj company literally re-routed the Polochic river while the palm oil producers reportedly changed existing irrigation systems connected to tributaries of the Polochic, wreaking massive havoc throughout the region, particularly due to the re-routing of the river.

Each year since 2006 immense extensions of land have been flooded as the river seeks to return to its natural course, flooding out crops and even flooding portions of the large town of Teleman. The river often deposits 60cm or more of sand on top of large expanses of formerly agricultural lands outside of the cane and palm plantations, strangling all crops and trees. Small farmers throughout the region have been devastated, and ecosystems in the Polochic River and Izabal Lake have been devastated. People have been killed crossing the river.

In late 2009, the Widmann sugar cane operation apparently collapsed, and the lands were abandoned. The reasons are not clear. Mayan Qeqchi communities, most having lived and worked (as almost slave-labour) for generations on these lands, then returned to farm the lands, building huts and sowing subsistence, survival crops. In August 2010 newspapers reported that lands and equipment belonging to Chabil Utzaj were to be auctioned by a Guatemalan bank, Banco Industrial, which managed a trust fund set up to facilitate CABEI funds for Chabil Utzaj.

However, a solution was negotiated between Chabil Utzaj and CABEI, in which at the urging of the bank Chabil Utzaj brought on new investors to recapitalize the company. In the region rumors are circulating that cane plantations would be converted to African palm.

In February 2011, local radio stations ran advertisements apparently from Chabil Utzaj calling on former cane workers to illegally evict the families farming the former cane plantations.

Greenwashing starvation and environmental destruction

Small farmers in the Polochic live from harvest to harvest. When the harvest is not good, families know they must pass a few weeks when food will be scarce because they must buy or forage for it. When a harvest is lost completely, like when the company destroys their crops by provoking flooding, chopping down crops or kicking families off lands, they face starvation conditions, now rampant in one of Guatemala’s most fertile river valleys.

Recent studies have demonstrated that virtually all the families in the villages affected by the introduction of biofuel production spend significant periods of time feeding five to seven people with only five pounds of corn a week, and nothing else.

Claims that the production of biofuel crops (African palm, sugar) generates jobs are false and misleading. While a large number of jobs are generated for labor during harvest, the cane company brought in outside seasonal labors. One reliable source reported that workers had been brought in from Nicaragua.

Most significantly, the only study of production patterns in the region found that other cash crops produced, such as chile and okra, as well as corn and beans, all require much more intense labor than cane or palm, often double or triple work input per land unit, and in this way maintain much higher and more constant employment levels. These crops also contribute to food security and are cultivated by small producers, while the economic benefits are distributed more equitably. This clearly demonstrates that palm and cane plantations reduce employment, income and food security, even though they may raise the national Gross Domestic Product.

Welfare for the wealthy:subsidizing environmental destruction & Rights violations

Biofuels, however, are apparently more profitable for large plantation ’owners,’ in part because they are being subsidized by Clean Development Mechanism and favorable loans from multilateral development banks.

Between 2006 and today, a handful of cane and palm oil producers have received funding from the CABEI, and the IDB’s (Inter-American Development Bank) private sector lending agency, the Inter-American Investment Corporation. In May 2007, the IDB held its Annual General Meeting in Guatemala City, promising financing for biofuel production through funding projects that had been in the planning for several years.

The Ingenio Magdelena, like the Ingenio Guadelupe, received CABEI funds. The Pantaleon sugar operation, of which the Widmann family is a large shareholder, benefitted from an IDB loan.

Given that both the CABIE and the IDB are government-sponsored and -controlled funding agencies, the fact that close relatives of the then president benefit from these resources raises red flags of corruption and nepotisim. Carlos Widmann’s sister was the First Lady, and Widmann’s nephew, son of then President Berger, was on the board of the Guatemalan bank that facilitated the more than $30 million in CABEI funds.

International investors profiteering from rights violations and public funds

But the wealthy and powerful in Guatemala are not the only beneficiaries of the enormous windfalls from the massive public spending on market incentives for initiatives purportedly aimed at curbing climate change or from funding from multinational, public development banks.

Central American corporations are taking on business partners from throughout the region, and stock and bond holders in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia are profiting from this new ’emerging market.’

In 2006, the CABEI, for just the second time in its existence, issued publically traded bonds, placing $200 million worth on the New York market. Since 2006, CABEI has embarked on an aggressive strategy of capitalizing the bank with series of bond releases sold in the US, Europe and Asia, while prioritizing so called “renewable” energy investments like biofuels.

Multilateral banks have participated in creating a burgeoning new array of “mezzanine” investment funds, in which public funds from the WB and the IDB provide seed capital for investment funds deposited with private investment corporations used to levy private sector investment in the funds, which in turn finances a range of private sector investments in infrastructure and “renewable” energy.

For example, the Central America Mezzanine Infrastructure Fund, created in 2005 with WB and IDB investments, was deposited with the Bahrain based “EMP” investments which was later purchased by a Brunai based investment firm.

In January 2009, the WB and IDB collaborated to create the Latin American Capital Management LLC (LACAM), managed by Reservoir Capital Group, described as managers of university endowments and individual investors.

LACAM is dedicated to sugar cane financing!

Climate change mitigation mechanisms appear to contribute to climate change

The “Clean Development Mechanism”, managed by the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change, has certified carbon emissions reduction credits for projects undertaken by cane and palm oil companies to reduce their emissions or generate electricity.

The Extractora del Atlantico palm oil refinery received CDM certification in April 2008; the Agroamerica palm oil plant in April 2009; the Ingenio Magdalena cane mill in July 2009; the INDESA palm oil plant in July 2009; and the Olmeca palm oil plant in November 2009.

Agroamerica and INDESA produce palm oil from the Polochic Valley. In August 2010, INDESA received certification from the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), certifying it as being an ecologically sustainable product.

RSPO certification is being strongly promoted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the WB.

In recognition that biofuel production is devastating environments and communities around the world, the WB and the IDB put a freeze on biofuel loans while they prepared sector strategies. RSPO is seen as a “safeguard” which can separate out the environmentally friendly palm oil; experience in the Polochic Valley shows RSPO is nothing more than greenwashing.

The WB plans to present its palm oil strategy in this month. In May 2010 they held “stakeholder consultations” in Costa Rica with palm oil producers and NGOs. Agroamerica, a Polochic Valley palm oil producer, among other Guatemalan palm oil producers such as Palmas del Ixcan and Agroindustrias Hame, participated. It seems that Polochic Valley palm oil producers are poised to benefit from the WB’s private sector funding agency, the International Finance Corporation.

Defensores de la Naturaleza, a highly criticized environmental NGO that “administers” the Sierra de las Minas biosphere, receives funding from WWF and Conservation International. As part of the “payment for environmental services” scheme they also receive funding from palm oil producers.

USAID sponsored a project to promote “Ecotourism” involving the Defensores de la Naturaleza and INDESA.

Under the new REDD+ initiative, advanced in the Copenhagen COP16 summit, palm oil plantations may be eligible to earn carbon capture credits. In Copenhagen, agreements were advanced to define mandatory national percentages of fossil fuel replacement by biofuels, and for the creation of multinational public funding for technology conversion, which could generate trillions of dollars of potential markets for northern corporations.

These measures will stimulate the expansion of biofuel production on unprecedented levels and strengthen already politically powerful financial and corporate interests in biofuels, some of which appear to have little concern for the real environmental, or human, impacts of biofuel production.

The environmental damages by cane and palm production are already being reported around the world. In the Polochic valley the damages from the destruction of wetlands, the rerouting of the Polochic River and the displacement of families has not been quantified, but observers and communities alike know it is enormous. The corporations earning money through the Clean Development Mechanism and enjoying access to public funds are generating environmental destruction and climate change, not curbing it. It also appears that climate change funds attract investors to initiate these environmentally destructive activities.

Why do Mayan Qeqchi communities think they have rights to this land?

How communities, who have lived for generations on their lands, are today called ’land invaders’ and are being charged with trumped up crimes of land usurpation and then brutally evicted by the military, police and private security forces, is the result of a historical process enabled by violence and racism, international investment and by US political and military intervention, and it is ongoing.

In the late 1880s, the Guatemalan government created the National Land Registry. It is not a coincidence that this occurred as the government was promoting international investment to try to boost exports. Around the same time the Guatemalan national army was formed, and from the beginning its focus was controlling the population of Guatemala, enforcing land grants, not defending borders.

The Land Registry allowed people, or communities with existing land titles, most of which had been granted by the Spanish crown prior to Guatemalan independence in 1821, to register them with a centralized national authority. It was established that any lands not registered with the Land Registry were considered to be ’baldios,’ essentially property of the nation. Anyone could stake a claim on the land by having it measured, and paying a fee to the government. However, laws stipulated that if someone was already using the land, they had prior rights. Over the ensuing years these rights were often ignored, especially in the fertile Polochic valley.

The creation of the Land Registry ushered in a land rush in which outsiders came into the Polochic valley, and by 1915 had claimed over 300,000 acres of land. The Mayan Qeqchi communities, which had been farming the area, became the plantation laborers, following the colonial pattern that tied indigenous laborers to land grants in slave-like conditions.

Large tracts were given to German settlers to begin large scale cultivation of coffee and to US owned banana plantations. The coffee and banana planters had a strong presence, which was followed by an influx of mixed Spanish descent immigrants who also took control of land, usually by a combination of force and fraud.

The 1940s and 1950s were a turning point in the Polochic valley. Many of the descendants of the German planters were expelled during World War II, due to a perceived allegiance to Nazi Germany. The land reform program initiated during Guatemala’s ten year reformist government (1944-1954), and a banana blight, impelled United Fruit Company to leave the area.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, Mayan Qeqchi communities and landholders of mixed Spanish and German descent struggled for control of the fertile flatlands in the valley. During most of that time a man named Flavio Monzon served as mayor of Panzos, first named in 1954 by the bloody regime ushered in by the CIA sponsored invasion. During the 20 years he acted as mayor, he and other non Qeqchi families amassed massive landholdings using a combination of fraud and violence.

Elders today describe how, while Mayor, Flavio Monzon offered to help communities obtain registered land titles, they brought him the documentation they had to back up their land rights, and the lands then appeared registered in his name. Sources claim Monzon left office with title to approximately 200,000 acres of land.

During the 1970s, land rights and agricultural worker rights movements grew in Panzos and across Guatemala. By the end of the 1970s, Monzon had turned over the Mayors’ office to Walter Overdick. According to investigations and testimonies from community members, Monzon then took the lead in organizing landholders (of which he was now a major landowner), in close coordination with the Mayor, to put an end to the demands for land titles and better working conditions on plantations.

The opinions expressed and the arguments employed in this document are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily express the views of the CETRI.