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This land is Mayan – actor Aidan Gillen reports from Trócaire project in Guatemala

‘Food Not Fuel’, a video about the Rio Frio community featuring Aidan Gillen

Food Not Fuel from Trocaire on Vimeo.

Actor Aidan Gillen on land-grabbing for biofuels production and the treatment of the Mayan population in Guatemala following a recent visit to the country with Trócaire.

I’m sitting with Juana Laj Ical on a wooden bench outside her temporary dwelling a little off a bumpy road in the Polochic valley region of Guatemala. It’s baking hot and while this place does provide adequate shelter, it is what it says it is: a temporary dwelling.

Along with the 20 other families who live here, Juana is ready and waiting to move somewhere more permanent. They’ve been on this plot of land, rented from a neighbouring community, for two years now. It looks bearable enough at first – a collection of wooden houses on a bend in a river accessed by a 130 year old iron bridge – until you’re crossing the bridge that is, escorted by the young children who live here.

There are broken planks with gaps way big enough for a kid or an adult to fall through, thirty feet to the shallow riverbed below. The children hop and skip over these gaps without a second thought – it’s alarming enough to witness, I can assure you. Looking up you see there’s a US mining company’s name incorporated into the ironwork of the bridge – a reminder that resources here have long been an attraction to outside interests.

Aidan Gillen meets with Juana and Manuel Laj Ical in Guatemala’s Polochic Valley. Juana and Manuel’s family were amongst the 800 families evicted off land in 2011 to facilitate the expansion of a sugarcane plantation, one of the major biofuel crops.

Top: Aidan Gillen meets with Juana and Manuel Laj Ical in Guatemala’s Polochic Valley. Juana and Manuel’s family were amongst the 800 families evicted off land in 2011. Bottom left: Aidan with members of the Rio Frio community. Bottom right: Aidan meets with children from the Rio Frio community. Photos: Jeannie O’Brien

The people living here are indigenous Mayans, members of the Rio Frio community, some of the 800 families who, two years ago, on March 15th 2011, were forcibly evicted from the land they’d been living on and farming nearby. For ‘forcibly’ think: no time to gather belongings, terrified children, crops destroyed, houses burnt, one man – Antonio Beb Ac – killed.

There have been two more related deaths since – Oscar Reyes, the following May when he returned to the site to collect maize, and Maria Margarita Che Chub, a community leader, who was assassinated the following month.

To understand what happened to the Rio Frio community, you first have to understand that the Mayan people’s relationship with the land and what grows from it is a mystical thing. It is central to their lives and identity.

They treat it with great respect and not as a commodity that can or should be bought or owned. So when a force of approximately one thousand police, army and private security guards show up and proceed to wreck the place it’s soul destroying, and on the part of the aggressors, that’s precisely the idea.

Juana has seen it all, from the 1978 massacre of up to 100 peasants protesting over land rights and abysmal working conditions in the nearby town of Panzos, to the death squads that roamed the country wiping out indigenous communities as part of a “scorched earth” policy, designed to eliminate support for Marxist rebels in the early 1980s.  

Aidan Gillen stands at a mural depicting army massacres of Mayan communities during Guatemala's brutal 36-year civil war

Aidan Gillen stands at a mural depicting army massacres of Mayan communities during Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war.

It’s hard to rate exterminations in terms of horror but lest there be any doubt, this is what might have happened during those worst days of the 36 year civil war: PAC (government initiated paramilitary groups) operatives or indeed State military arrive, separate the community into men, women and children, rape the women, kill the men, kill the children, kill most of the women, killing pregnant women by cutting their bellies open and leaving them to bleed to death. Then burn the town, bury everything and everyone.

According to the 1999 Truth Commission report into human rights violations during those times, up to 160,000 Mayan Indigenous people and 40,000 mixed race Latinos went this way. While we were there, they were still digging them up to prove it happened.

On May 10th, former military dictator and de facto President of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, was found guilty of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, specifically the massacre of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayans in the countries western highlands. This was the first time a former head of state had been tried for genocide in their own country. He was sentenced to 80 years in jail, but on May 21st the country’s constitutional court quashed the verdict and ordered a re-trial.

Many people here have struggled long and hard to have this case heard and many have paid with their lives. People who speak up for ordinary Guatemalans are regularly silenced. Journalists, lawyers, environmentalists, community leaders and human rights defenders live under constant threat of assassination and have been killed at an alarming rate.

For people like Juana, the outcome of this trial is hugely important. For decades, they doubted they were ever going to be listened to properly, their efforts gunned down. It took the determination of the particularly courageous Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, to finally bring the trial forward. She’s the country’s first female Attorney General and that, no doubt, is also a factor.

Despite seeming outwardly calm, Juana is not. Over many years, her nerves have been shredded. Suffering from anxiety, she’s scared a lot and says she feels like she’s going to die but that she wants to see this one fought through.

Over two years after the eviction, all they want is land to live on and to grow simple food. 

“The land belongs to my ancestors and it was taken away by these businessmen and big landowners” Juana says. “We had everything we needed to survive. We grew maize, beans and chili. We had everything we needed to feed ourselves. We only grew what we needed to survive.”

If you look at any history of Guatemala you’ll see that there’s a common theme: governments using military strong-arm tactics in league with big businesses and wealthy landowners – the same people, or rather their descendants, are calling the shots here as they were a few hundred years ago. 

Its an almost perfectly preserved colony. Guatemala gained independence from Spain 190 years ago but real power never went to the state, which remained an instrument in wealth building for a tiny elite. Today, 80% of the country is owned by 3% of the population, and you can be assured they have the best of it. 

This country was founded on institutionalized racism. It’s a three tiered structure: European blood on top, mixed European/Mayan blood in the middle, indigenous Mayans firmly at the bottom. These are the ones who get pushed down, and are expected to stay there while the wealthy get whatever they want, whatever the human cost.

Guatemala is largely a beautiful lush country with an abundance of crops, but right now, people are dying of malnutrition here. A lot of those Rio Frio kids I mentioned earlier have distended stomachs and runny eyes. Not all of them, not yet, but it probably wont be long before food shortages bring ill-health to the rest.

And the reason for the latest chapter in this country’s land crisis is this: in 2009 the EU issued its Renewable Energy Directive, which tied member states to ensuring that 10% of their transport fuels be derived from renewable sources, mostly biofuels, by 2020. This created a huge market for biocombustible crops like sugarcane and African palm, perfectly suited to be grown in abundance in Guatemala.

Aidan Gillen speaks with Jorge Macias from Trócaire partner Fundacion Guillermo Toriello, who work to strengthen indigenous rights in Guatemala.

Aidan Gillen speaks with Jorge Macias from Trócaire partner Fundacion Guillermo Toriello, who work to strengthen indigenous rights in Guatemala. 

For the large landowners here, this is like a second goldrush. Hundreds of thousands of acres are being sown with sugarcane and African palm. The indigenous people like the Rio Frio community are being pushed off the land in order to create more space for these biofuel crops.

Factor in that these landowners have a habit and history of cheating the indigenous people out of land and labour and you’ll get the picture – communities like the Rio Frio community who’ve lived on land that they’ve believed to be theirs for generations are now being pushed off violently, and they’ll move because they’re in fear for their lives.

Everything that’s been going on here for any number of years says when the people with the guns show up, do what they say.

The peace accords, written up at the end of the civil war in 1996, never came to much – the promised establishment of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual society never really got going at all.

In fact, most of the recommendations were voted back down in referendums – most indigenous don’t vote, or maybe vote for who they’re told to vote for on the plantations they work on, sometimes for ridiculously low wages.

The EU has belatedly realized that its directive is having a negative impact on the poor here and has proposed to backtrack slightly by reducing the biofuel requirement to 5%. However, that proposa has not stopped growth of these crops – over 20% of farmed land here is now under sugarcane or African palm and it’s increasing.

Despite the EU backtrack, less and less land is available to grow food for Guatemalans. Maize prices have tripled for people who don’t have any money anyway, and they are starting to die.

In Guatemala, it’s very easy to see who the villains are, and right now, they’re working for us.

Original article appeared in The Irish Times, Saturday 1 June 2013

Aidan Gillen travelled to Guatemala with Trócaire.

Please read our briefing paper Biofuels: Fuelling Poverty and Environmental Degradation

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