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June 4, 2018

The hidden water war in Guatemala

Stories of water and inequalities in Guatemala

How the palm oil industry is sparking water conflicts

Fruits of the oil palm. © Andrea Pepe

In the race for the land, the native species of the tropical forests of Guatemala are inexorably disappearing, crushed by the weight of the agro-industrial cartels that contain 5 plant species that have a monopoly and reduce biodiversity: sugar cane, African palm, banana, hule and coffee.

And what's going on in the race for water? How can we quantify this hoarding (watergrabbing)? Who are the actors of change and who instead directs from above this frightening circus of suppression, contamination and violation of human rights?

Where the Madre Vieja river flows into the Pacific Ocean, we encounter a vital ecosystem: the mangrove forest . A habitat that is not spared by the impacts of the unsustainable oil palm monoculture that has occupied these territories, among the most fertile, on the Southern Coast of Guatemala for thirty years. This fragile environment, struck by the industrial contamination of oil refineries, and which receives less and less fresh water, because it is derived upstream for irrigation, has therefore been irreversibly devastated. The coastal communities, which depend on this forest in terms of survival and family economy, have faced a drastic reduction in protein intake in their dietdue to the loss of many fish species due to the damage of monocultures to an entire food chain. The mangrove forest is the perfect habitat for the reproduction of many fish, crabs and shrimp. It is an internationally protected ecosystem by the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, which was also ratified by Guatemala in 1990. Mangroves are key ecosystems as they offer multiple environmental services: defense of the coasts from tides and tidal waves and also they retain a quantity of carbon dioxide, about four times higher than that normally absorbed by tropical vegetation. All true sponges for C0 2 atmospheric.  

Water pumping system from the Mother Vieja river to the crops. © Andrea Pepe

The cultivation of the African palm is extremely dewatering : according to data from the Water Foot Print we talk about 260,000,000  m 3of water used every year in Guatemala for the various phases of production (from sowing, irrigation and washing and refining processes) of palm oil at national level. A debt that the Government and the agro-industrial companies have contracted towards the environment and local populations, deprived of a fundamental resource for survival. Moreover, like all monocultures, the presence of only one vegetative species prevents the coexistence of others: the roots of the African palm plants grow horizontally, about 50 centimeters from the surface, and form a kind of carpet under the ground; the ecological niches for the fauna disappear; the soil is impoverished year after year, followed by tons of fertilizers that dispersed in the environment distort the fragile ecosystemic balance.

Environmentalists and experts know this well. But often local farmers, crushed by debts and lack of other job opportunities, opt for the profitable business of the palm, without stopping to think about the risks for biodiversity and their food security. They stop planting corn, beans, bananas and tomatoes, and convert their private plots into mini-palm cultivations in Africa.

Politicians, governors and national institutions do not care about the protection and preservation of natural resources, nor do they worry about applying and / or promoting rules that regulate the correct use of water, forests and soil, and jointly fail in the obligations and responsibilities contracted in innumerable international treaties and agreements. Guatemala is a country where the controller does not exist . And if it exists it is simultaneously the controller and controlled. It is a country where there are no limits, not even on paper. In fact, among the factors that fuel socio-environmental conflicts we can outline below:

  • the ineffectiveness of the national system regarding environmental legislation;
  • the absence of the concept of "sustainable development" in economic legislation and in the legal system;
  • the lack of preventive and sanctioning tools;
  • the weaknesses of the Environmental Impact Assessment: few resources, little professionalism, few controls and a lot of bureaucracy;
  • the social question is unrelated to the environmental one, so policies against poverty do not take environmental policies into consideration; is
  • environmental institutions are crushed by industrial interests and are therefore irrelevant to economic decisions.

The palm oil market in Guatemala: an oligocracy signed by Molina

The Grupo Hame, founded by a powerful Guatemalan family, Molina, is the main palm oil production company in Guatemala. It was born in 1952 and initially dedicated itself to the production of cotton; then in 1973 he bought the agro-industrial oil refining company for vegetable oils and fats, OLMECA SA, and in 1987 cotton cultivation was replaced by the African palm. In 1992 he also began managing banana crops in the south-west of the country and starting in 2002 he expanded to Costa Rica with banana production and then to Mexico (2012) with the production of palm oil. Currently Grupo Hame is also the owner of the RESPA palm oil production company (Reforestadora de Palmas del Petén SA). Grupo Hame and RESPA have obtained some "sustainability" certifications, including the RAS (Rainforest Alliance-Red Sustainable Agriculture) and I am waiting for the RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil). Theconsumption of palm oil in Guatemala is used in the food industry (Bimbo and Frito-Lay), in fast-food restaurants, in the cosmetic industry (Unilever, Colgate and Palmolive), and for agro-diesel. It is also exported to Mexico, Holland, Germany, Salvador and Venezuela.

Last events

At the beginning of February 2018, following the capture of two Repsa entrepreneurs, the multinationals Nestlè and Cargill promised to suspend the supply of palm oil by Repsa starting from September 2018 due to human rights violations, environmental destruction and corruption. who see this company in the eye of national and international scandal.

Let's take a step back because Repsa is the company responsible for the ecocide of the La Pasión river, in the Peten region, as in 2015 it contaminated the river with Malathion, a powerful herbicide used precisely in cultivation. The inhabitants of Sayaxché have reported the death of millions of fish in the river. And Rigoberto Lima, a local resident, followed the case and opposed on the front line for blocking industrial activities. In September 2017 Repsa was accused of ecocide and R. Lima was brutally murdered.

On March 16, 2018, three businessmen from the Repsa company were arrested at the La Aurora airport in Guatemala City: Hugo Molina Botrán, Luis Paz Maseck, Carlos Arévalo and 29 others are implicated in the new national scandal at the head of which 'is Geovani Marroquin Navas, already incarcerated for other trials. Geovani MN offered and paid bribes to officials of the SAT (Superintendency of the Tax Administration) in exchange for tax breaks for a total of 19 million quetzales, about € 2,170,000.

Source International what is it dealing with?

Source is working on the project on various levels: on the one hand environmental investigation will help us understand how and how much African palm and cane sugar monocultures are damaging the environment and how their presence may be related to the onset of some diseases that affect the population of the South Coast. On the other hand, we will try to dismantle this obscure network of relationships and business that is hidden behind products that we find on our table every day and whose chain, very dirty, is the basis of a war for water and land on the other side of the world.

Laura Grassi, project coordinator for Source International. © Andrea Pepe

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