Pablo Prado *
At the beginning of June 2015, pollution levels increased dramatically in the La Pasión River within the Petén region (northern Guatemala). It caused mass death of fishes belonging to more than 23 different species and impacted, directly or indirectly, about 30,000 local poor rural families. A company producing palm oil was responsible for this disaster. A month later, affected people asked to open up a space for discussion at the University of San Carlos to give their version of events and to request the University support. They spoke about « ecocide », violent conflicts over water and underlined the social irresponsibility of the company and the state’s carelessness.
On 18th of September 2015, a new tragic event occurred, with the assassination of Rigoberto Lima Choc – known for his resistance to the polluting activities of the palm oil company and recently elected councillor of the Sayaxché town (Petén). The same day, few streets away from the murder scene, company’s former workers were demonstrating against the judicial decision to temporarily stop the company’s activities.
What has broad about this tragic situation leading to loss of human lives? How this conflict does reflect the inherent contradiction of the contemporary agrarian reconfiguration in Guatemala?
The most evident conflict has to do with the spirit of agrarian capitalism itself. That is to say, to its will to maximize profits for entrepreneurs considering neither the Earth’s biophysical limits, nor the negative social consequences of the industrialized agricultural production. In all logic, capitalist entrepreneurs seek only to maximize return on investment. But, who pay for the treatment of wastes created during their productive activities? What financial resources are allocated to compensate the affected populations? Who is the responsible for the costs and the irreversible damages caused by the unlimited exploitation of nature? Finally, it is a conflict between profit maximization for few and the right of peoples to live a life of dignity and freedom, in a sound and well-preserved environment. The mistake is to confuse entrepreneurial success and sustainable development of the entire society. It is the task of civil society and governments, from the local to the international level, to establish rules and regulations to avoid this confusion and to prevent such dramatic events. In this sense, rural communities and indigenous peoples can play an essential role, if we recognize their right to decide how to manage their territory.
The palm oil company launched a major media campaign to refute its involvement in the assassination of the activist and counsellor. The justice has to clarify who have been culprit. Nevertheless, it is obvious that, given these aforementioned facts – the river pollution, temporary cessation of company activities, and dismissal of local workers – conditions are met to create a conflict between workers and ecologists. It comes as no surprise that people who ventured to denounce the ecological disaster caused by the company, these “everlasting rebellious”, have been accused of the backwardness, precariousness and material poverty in which live millions of rural Guatemalan. This has fanned the fire of intolerance and violence in a context already characterized by conflict. This conflict has agrarian roots and it is typical of post-conflict societies that continue to postpone structural solutions to their domestic problems.
These two events illustrate the consequences of the countryside’s agrarian reconfiguration in Guatemala, which face a differentiated integration to global markets. The agrarian dualism in Guatemala goes on, although the agricultural export model is no longer the single axis of the national economy. The resounding failure of Guatemala regarding the Millennium Development Goals shows that the current agrarian reconfiguration is perpetuating the domination of the peasant majority and the concentration of agricultural wealth in the hands of a few. New economic conglomerates facilitate the rural exodus to disordered cities unable to provide the minimum conditions for a decent life. Regrettably, we are witnessing to a new circuit of rural life precariousness, fuelled by the global demand for agricultural products, as part of a completely economically useless consumption system, socially irresponsible and ecologically disastrous.
The ecological martyrdom of Rigoberto Lima Choc is not without reminding us that of Chico Mendes. Two lives lost. Two conflicts between capital and life. Two reasons for indignation, social struggle for land and hope.
*Pablo Prado is a member of AGTER and works in the Faculty of Agronomy at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala.