Between 1990 and 2005, the cultivation of rice, beans, maize and sorghum reduced by half. It was replaced by single crop farming: to export bananas and pineapples, and produce agro-fuels such as palm oil and sugar cane.–
Since entering into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the USA in 2006, the situation has worsened further. African palm plantations now occupy more than 100,000 hectares in Guatemala and pineapples cover more than 60,000 hectares in Costa Rica. The expansion policy appears limitless.
The introduction of the FTA in 2006 saw an increase of 18% in the number of imports to the region. Since then, ‘dumping’ practises have seen smaller local producers fail, at a time when Central American governments are investing large sums in agronomy.
They are following the doctrine of the World Bank, who reported in 2008 that “the large-scale acquisition of land can be a vehicle for reduction of poverty: by generating paid work, providing the opportunity of contractual labour in agriculture, and through payment for the transfer or sale of land”.
The World Bank and ruling elites apply only econometric logic, failing to take into account the human face behind the creation of such forced labour: a temporary and underpaid workforce, endangered by contact with poisons and agrochemicals.
New Free Trade Agreements with Europe, such as that signed this year in June appear to promote agro-industrial exports and food consumption at the mercy of market fluctuations.
“Today, Guatemala has 101,784 hectares dedicated to the cultivation of African palm: just 14% of the agricultural surface area considered favourable for this crop, so in the coming years we will see even more pressure on smaller farmers to sell, rent, or abandon their land” claims José Luis Cajal, researcher for the Guatemalan Institute for Agrarian and Rural Studies (Instituto de Estudios Agrarios y Rurales de Guatemala/IDEAR) in an interview about ecological security with the Latin American Water Tribunal (Tribunal Latinoamericano del Agua).
In the study, Cajal highlights how hundreds of Q’eqchi and Pocomchi families have been displaced from the land they have lived on for decades.
“Families flee their land as access routes and water sources for their smallholdings get cut off, and there are also instances of explicit violence”, he reported. He echoed the events of May 2011 when private security for the engineering firm Chabil Utzaja SA (part of Widmann-Pellas group) and members of the army set fire to crops and settlements, displacing 800 Q’eqchi families who had previously reclaimed their land.
“For more than 40 years we have tried to re-establish right to land owned by our forefathers through the Land Fund (Fondo de Tierras), but doors to official institutions remained firmly closed. Palm cultivation means time has run out for many to claim back the land they have occupied” report inhabitants of Chinacolay, in Fray Bartolome de las Casas, in their native tongue. In this region, communal land has been grabbed by agro-industrialists, uprooting the already poverty stricken habitants: the poverty index has reached 91.2% with 51.2% experiencing extreme poverty.
Preying on the weak
Transnational financiers are ever present in the war against the poor. The study ‘Agro-industrial plantations: domination and plundering of indigenous peasant populations in Guatemala in the 21st Century’ (“Plantaciones agroindustriales, dominación y despojo indígena campesino en la Guatemala del S.XXI”), states that large companies have received financial subsidies to expand monoculture as part of government programs. Some programs, such as the ‘Palm Program’ (Programa de Palma) can be found, paradoxically, in the “Strategic Plan for Food and Nutritional Security 2009-2012” (“Plan Estratégico de Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional 2009-2012”).
What is certain is that the expansion of monoculture is to the detriment of the nutritional sovereignty and ecological protection of small peasant villages, who are today submitted to the status of peon or subject to pressure to sell, rent, or abandon their land.
The protests generated by these evictions are being settled by criminalization and military involvement, and are giving power to a group which, in the words of Enrique Corral of the Guillermo Torriello Foundation (Fundación Guillermo Torriello) “is negating the legal agricultural agreements made during the peace treaties of 1996”.
Costa Rica: poisonous chemicals
The pressure on farming is not only confined to militarised countries. In Costa Rica, in spite of its supposed green image, large palm plantations are turning the Pacific coast into deserted woodland.
Moreover, pineapple cultivation has increased 20 fold in the last 15 years, principally at the hands of the transnational Pindeco, today topping 60,000 hectares in the south west, Atlantic and northern regions of the country.
The great propaganda generated by the private sector in Costa Rica, producers of ‘sustainable pineapple’ ignores the obvious: such production is denounced by the ‘National Front for Sectors Affected by Pineapple Production’ (Frente Nacional de Sectores Afectados por la Producción Piñera). The group highlights the fact that using high levels of agro-chemicals in pineapple cultivation contaminates groundwater and the environment and endangers human health.
In some regions such as Siquirres or Guacimo, the water has run out, having been forced to be used by watering trucks. The waste generated by its pulp generates plagues of flies, attacking local farming activity.
The Regional Institute of Toxic Substances at the National University (El Instituto Regional de Sustancias Tóxicas de la Universidad Nacional) has also carried out research into toxic effects of the use of agro-chemicals on the fertility of the ground. In villages where they have been used, rates of respiratory, digestive and degenerative illnesses have increased substantially. They also highlight instances of renal illness in sugar cane workers, and problems caused by chlorpyrifos-treated bags in the indigenous territories of the bribrí-cabecar in the south east of the country.
Honduras: Questionable green economy
In Honduras, where the economic elite hide under the emblem of ‘green economy’, claiming agro-fuels are ‘sustainable’; the expansion of agro-industries also looms large.
The main palm producing businessman is Miguel Facussé Barjum. Starting in 1994, he took advantage of procedures for the sale of land afforded by both the Law for the Modernization of the Agricultural Sector (Ley para la Modernización Agrícola), and the disintegration of Bajo Ahuan cooperatives, buying up land at very low prices.
Since then his palm oil business has expanded throughout the north coast, by applying pressure to, and evicting, peasant villages and Garifuna people.
Since 2009, the situation has been worsened by violence and institutional crisis. Imposing single crop policies on peasant farmers who had previously reclaimed their land has cost 44 deaths and 162 detentions, from 2009 to mid-2011.
In spite of the conflict being observed by international human rights organisations, the situation continues to worsen, and the company “Facussé-Corporación Dinant y Exportadora del Atlántico SA”, are threatening mass evictions if peasants do not agree to sell their lands, reports Red Uita.
Paradoxically, even with a policy of mass cultivation for biodiesel production and the expansion of hydroelectrics, Honduras attempts to align itself with countries with green energy production.
Nicaragua, a country which proclaims itself as a descendent of the Sandinist movement, is no exception. There, the group ‘Pellas’, expropriated in the 80s by the Sandinista Liberation Front, has seen a revival of its sugar plantations.
Today it has expanded through a complex network of companies, such as Nicaragua Sugar Estates Ltd. who have tried to clean up their image and that of ‘Flor de Caña’ rum. However, according to research carried out by the National University of Nicaragua (Universidad Nacional de Nicaragua) and other organisations, production has already caused the death of several workers due to high levels of agrochemicals containing organochlorine in their refineries. For now, the government responds with nothing but silence.
(Translated by Claudia Rennie – email@example.com)