15 January 2012

Biofuels Land Grab: Guatemala's Farmers Lose Plots and Prosperity to "Energy Independence"

Across the globe, local farmers are being displaced to make way for energy crop plantations

By Eitan Haddok | Scientific American | January 13, 2012
evicted-mayan-peasant-familyTHE DISPOSSESSED: In Guatemala, peasants have been evicted--often forcibly--from land where they had been living, like this young couple and their son taking shelter in a maize field and subsisting on gourd seeds.Image: © Eitan Haddok

Echoes from armed raids still seem to resound in this valley, eight hours north of the capital city. In early 2011 military and paramilitary forces forcibly evicted 13 communities of indigenous Mayan peasants—some 300 families were dispossessed of disputed land they had been living on for three years to secure the property rights of one powerful local family, the Widmanns, and its agribusiness company Chabil Utzaj.

"They came in great numbers and heavily armed," says 18-year-old Tecla Kuxh while holding her one-year-old infant, via a translator. (Names in this story have been changed to protect those involved from any reprisals.) "They don't respect anything or anyone, not even babies. We cried, there were shots and screaming." Further evictions are planned for villages and lands where these communities have been living for some 60 years.

In the middle of a maize field, a piece of fabric held up by four wooden stakes makes for the roof of her family's makeshift shelter. Their only possessions: gourd seeds, two bottles of water and a patched radio.

"We are not thieves," argues Marco Kuxh, her husband. "If we occupied this land, it was only for a living. We didn't destroy anything, these lands were not even used for years. We cleared and reclaimed the land and sowed some milpa [corn], beans and a bit of tomatoes. Without land we have no future, nowhere to sow."

The Kuxhs, like many other farming families around the world, are the victims of a land grab for agribusiness. The land they used to work will soon grow sugarcane or palm oil intended for U.S. and European biofuel markets that have developed in response to those nations' governments goals for alternative transportation fuels.

View a slideshow of this biofuel land grab

Since 2008 more than 56 million hectares worldwide—an area of land the size of Italy—have been subject to "land negotiation," according to the World Bank. This land grab is not all dedicated to biofuel production, of course: China, India, Japan, Korea and the United Arab Emirates as well as others have purchased vast tracts of agricultural land in Africa and elsewhere for food production for their home markets. Private investors, such as Goldman Sachs and BlackRock, Inc., have also gotten into the game via funds to speculate in agricultural commodities and land. "Nobody believes that these investors will feed Africans," says Obang Metho from Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, an Ethiopian human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO). In other words, food-producing fields worked by and for locals are expected to be converted to serve international business interests.

In Guatemala the goal is biodiesel, and its production is now key for national and international agro-industrial companies and, consequently, local incomes. "It's sad, but we all depend on palm [oil] now. There is no other solution," says a peasant in Arroyo Santa Maria in the Peten Department. That village, in the northern part of the country, is a tiny island in the middle of a vast palm grove belonging to agro-industrial company Hame. That peasant adds: "They came over and over to the village and said we'd better sell our land before they will take it from us. So we all sold our parcels. Today, we can't go through the land; it all belongs to the palm. We have no firewood, no access to water and, even if we do, it's all polluted because of their chemicals flowing in their canals. They just kill us slowly."

But the palm oil plantations are intended to create economic opportunity and jobs, according to investors. "To fight poverty and the food crisis, we are going to create here 2,000 [jobs], directly and indirectly, thanks to a $50-million investment in this little valley," says Carlos Widmann, the agribusiness leader. "Otherwise, the contrary is condemning them to misery. What can they do with some 'maizito'" the traditional small-plot agriculture?

© 2012 Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc.All Rights Reserved

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