Indigenous right in Guatemala threatened by biodiesel industry
// Gurpreet Kambo

On Mar. 15, Capilano University’s Liberal Studies program played host to activist and writer Alicia Gladman for a discussion on the current political issues occurring in Guatemala. These issues include colonization, sustainability, and land struggles. While Gladman wasn’t in the country for very long, and makes it clear that she is not an expert on the area, her experience taught her a great deal, both about herself and about the world around her.

“It started with me wanting to learn Spanish. The organization I work for in Vancouver is called Our Community Bikes; we’re affiliated with an organization there that builds pedal-powered machines like water pumps and things like that in Guatemala. So, that was my initial interest - learning Spanish and doing bike mechanics,” said Gladman. “While I was in Spanish school, I encountered the organization I ended up going into the smaller communities with and getting involved with land rights.”

This organization, called the Guatemalan Solidarity Project (GSP) is an organization that “seeks to build relationships of solidarity with communities and organizations in the struggle for peace and justice in Guatemala,” as explained on their mission statement on their website. Their interests are in human rights and land rights, especially for the indigenous peoples of Guatemala.

A part of the GSP’s initiatives is what they call “Human Rights Accompaniment”, which is what Gladman was involved with. This project has foreign “tourists” observe and accompany indigenous communities during crucial times such as going into negotiations with the government.

“There’s a lot of political tension, and a lot of violence … but there’s a safety net that exists around tourists in that country,” said Gladman. “It’s a tricky thing when you’re travelling in a country that’s lower on the global hierarchy. I come from a country that has more clout than Guatemala, so I think there’s a fear of some economic retribution, or they’ll get bad PR [if a foreigner gets hurt] and that Canadians will be less likely to be tourists there.”

Indigenous peoples in Guatemala have long had conflicts with the government. From 1960 to 1996, the situation escalated to become a civil war: “The war started because there was no political room to move, no change happening, and a lot of indigenous people were frustrated at being enslaved by this rigid class and ethnic hierarchy,” said Gladman.

The war ended in 1996 with a “peace accord”, something that was a cause of much hope for the indigenous. “The peace accords were signed on the basis that they [the government] were going to redistribute land and start having conversations about land reform and indigenous rights across the board. It started to happen for a few years, but then things started to fall back to the status quo around Y2K.”

While the peace accord may have been a legitimate attempt by the government of that time to make reparations for abuses against the indigenous peoples, it was not a legally-binding document in any way – it was merely an agenda for what was going to be discussed. In the meantime, the burgeoning environmental movement provided an opportunity for the government to make massive profits by planting African Palm, from which biodiesel is produced.

“All of a sudden the government and the major landholders realized that they could do much better by removing people from their land and [replanting] it as African Palm instead of engaging in any kind of political dialogue,” said Gladman. “Just like any government, they end up having the trump card. You can compare it to the indigenous reserves in Canada: there’s an amendment to the Indian Act that says that the government has the right to expropriate this land at any time. [Only] until it’s convenient for the government, the people who live there can stay.” Some of the communities were successful, at least in getting the companies or the government to the table for discussion. Gladman acted as the “human rights accompaniment” during one of these negotiations.

“What [the indigenous groups] said at that meeting was ‘we want land,’ or ‘we need somewhere to farm and live.’ What the company offered them was temporary jobs. If they went quietly, they would be hired by the company to dismantle their villages, and then plant African Palm. Then their jobs would end quite quickly after that. The government representatives were incredibly evasive at that meeting.” She added that these negotiations can be somewhat lopsided at times, due to the lack of education, literacy, or money for lawyers among the indigenous populations.

Gladman believes that the situation may be becoming as bad as it was before 1996, as some groups have resorted to desperate measures: “It seems to me that they’re being pushed in the same direction of having no room to move politically … [One group] had taken a politician hostage, which actually started the negotiation, and they ended up gaining title to their land,” she said.

“I think it’s just that there’s nowhere else to go,” she said. She went on to explain how these groups had been working for such a long time to even get the government to listen: “March to September is a long time to starve. They’d had their crops bulldozed, and they had no resources at hand. There does come a point where you just need some leverage.”

As for the future, Guatemala has recently elected a militaristic former general as its President; however, as long as there is hope, people continue to fight. “My fear is that the African Palm plantations will deplete the soil, and then there’ll be nothing left. It’ll be really hard to scratch a living out of that,” said Gladman. “Hopefully things will turn around before then.”

As for reflecting on her personal experience of her time in Guatemala, Gladman recognized that it has made a personal impact on her as well, but she quickly brings the discussion back to the issue itself: “It was interesting for me because it’s not my life. I think it’s strange being a privileged tourist in a place that is facing a lot of struggles that I’ll never have to go through,” she said. “It’s all part of this system; this is how capitalism works. It’s veiled if you’re in Canada, but it’s not so much veiled there. We’re all participating in feeding into it.”

//Gurpreet Kambo, news editor

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