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Maria Magdelena (50) from the Palestina Chinebal community says her eight children are traumatised after being evicted 12 times from their land. Photo: Simone Dalmasso/Trócaire

Guatemala

‘They burned everything to the ground’ – How palm oil is destroying Indigenous communities in Guatemala

Guatemala’s growing palm oil industry fuels a land fight, pushing Indigenous communities further into poverty

Maria Magdelena (50) can still remember the screaming that echoed through her village, in the community of Palestina Chinebal in eastern Guatemala, the day her village was burned to the ground. She stills struggles for words when speaking of that day.

“November 16, 2021 was a very hard day for us,” Maria said. “We were evicted from our land and everything was burned to the ground. They burned our homes, clothes, food, animals. We lost everything. I’ll never be able to forget it.”

Maria’s village, surrounded by idyllic rolling hills, was shaken to its core when security forces evicted more than 200 people from their land. The land, which the Maya Q’eqchi’ community of Chinebal claim has been theirs for generations is being taken over by companies for the production of African palm oil. The community has been evicted twelve times.

“Before the evictions started, we were able to grow our own food and have a happy life,” Magdelena said. “Now, we can never rest. We are always worried about when the next eviction will come. The palm oil plantation is a big problem for us because many of our brothers and sisters have been killed or jailed. Our children are traumatised.”

Palm oil has become a miracle ingredient found in everything from biscuits to shampoos. But the world’s dependence on palm oil has devastating consequences for the communities, including many in Guatemala, where it is grown and produced.

While palm oil is native to Africa, insatiable demand means countries such as Guatemala and Honduras are now among the largest producers of palm oil in the world. The result is mass deforestation and species loss and the loss of arable land, pushing already vulnerable communities further into poverty; and violence, harassment, intimidation and even murder when people try to get their land back.

Juan Perez Cac (63), with his family, from the community of Palestina Chinebal in eastern Guatemala. Photo: Simone Dalmasso/Trócaire Juan Perez Cac (63), with his family, from the community of Palestina Chinebal in eastern Guatemala. Photo: Simone Dalmasso/Trócaire

Juan Perez Cac (63), also from Palestina Chinebal, has noticed a change in the water and air quality due to the palm oil plantation. This has had a devastating effect on the community as they depend on their crops such as maize to feed their families.

“The palm oil plantations have had a negative effect on our land, on top of the effects of climate change we’re already seeing. The air quality is changing because of all the pesticides the company is using to grow the palm oil trees. The water is also drying up and it is polluted,” said Juan.

“Our crops aren’t as good as they used to be. In 2019, the river became so contaminated that all the fish died. It’s due to the milling of the palm oil trees.”

Juan, who was jailed for 25 days for protesting against the plantation, said his family lives in constant fear that they will be attacked.

“My family have been on this land for generations. It’s hard to watch companies from other countries coming in and destroying the land for African palm oil trees. We should be able to live here in peace. There used to be 280 of my family members here. Now only 84 of us remain,” he said.

Humberto Cuc (38), who also lives in the community, calls on the international community to become aware of the devastating effects of palm oil.

“It makes us very angry that our land is being destroyed for wealthier nations to have palm oil. The company is extracting all the wealth from our land while we are left to suffer the consequences of land degradation and the constant threat of eviction,” said Humberto.

Last year in Guatemala, Trócaire provided legal training to gain recovery of community and ancestral lands was provided to 1,127 indigenous people from 53 different communities.

“We are really thankful to Trócaire for supporting us and we hope Trócaire can help us to expose what is happening. We must be united in this struggle because unity gives us strength. We ask the people of Ireland to stand with us in our fight against harm to our planet. We all share the same world. It is our duty together not to destroy it.”

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