Friday, March 25, 2011

Biofuels, Mass Evictions and Violence Build on the Legacy of the 1978 Panzos Massacre in Guatemala

Biofuels, Mass Evictions and Violence Build on the Legacy of the 1978
Panzos Massacre in Guatemala
Published: 23 Mar 2011
Posted in: IDB | World Bank
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Upside Down World | 23 March 2011

Written by Annie Bird

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.

Antonio Beb Ac, killed in the community of Miralvalle. Photo by
campesino, land rights groups in Polochic Valley.
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.


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. Photo by campesino, land rights groups in Polochic
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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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.


Destruction of homes in the community of Quinich. Photo by campesino,
land rights groups in Polochic Valley.
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

LACAM is dedicated to sugar cane financing!


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

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

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


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.


Rights Action is providing emergency, humanitarian funds via local
Mayan Qeqchi groups we have long supported and worked with, to respond
to the food and shelter needs of the forcibly evicted people.

To Make a tax-charitable donation, make check payable to "Rights
Action" and mail to:

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Source: Upside Down World


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Biofuels are a wide range of fuels which are in some way derived from biomass.

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