As Palm Plantations Grab Land, Mayan Women Organize

In Petén, Guatemala, food scarcity is on the rise as arable land shrinks

By Martha Pskowski

December 2, 2018


Women who work with Sagrada Tierra gather outside a home in Sayaxché. | Photos courtesy of Martha Pskowski 

“Before we didn’t have land, we lived on a hacienda,” says Celia, an Indigenous Guatemalan woman with deep creases folded into her expressive face. “So, we came here to Petén.”

Celia settled in Petén during her country’s brutal civil war, when families like her own fled the violence in Alta Verapaz and other states. They found refuge in Guatemala’s northernmost state throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Land was plentiful, and they could farm corn, beans, rice, and other subsistence crops.

“But then about 10 years ago, the palm companies came,” Celia continues. “Our families did not hold on to their land, and they sold to the companies.”

While Indigenous people in Petén gradually had their land holdings recognized following the civil war, almost immediately thereafter the palm oil companies started buying up land to plant African oil palm (often shortened to African palm). The Guatemalan federal government was largely absentee in Petén and did not oversee the transactions taking place between powerful companies and Indigenous landowners, many of whom do not speak Spanish.

Celia has gathered with a dozen other women and children at a simple restaurant in Las Pozas, Petén, on a humid fall morning. Across the table, Olivia Acté translates her words into Spanish. Celia speaks Q’eqchí, one of the 21 Mayan languages recognized in Guatemala.

Celia and Olivia are members of a women’s group organized by Sagrada Tierra (Sacred Earth), a Guatemala City–based nonprofit. Seven out of 10 people in the Sayaxché municipality of Petén, where Las Pozas is located, are Indigenous. Since the late 1990s, Sagrada Tierra has supported social development projects in Indigenous communities in Petén and Alta Verapaz. 

Since African palm companies began buying up land in Sayaxché in the late 1990s, arable land has become scarce. The women assembled in Las Pozas have organized to produce meat, fruits, and vegetables to sustain their families. 

“Those who sold their land to the palm companies weren’t paid well. Now they don’t have anywhere to plant crops,” says Celia, her voice raising with indignation. “Some people got jobs at the palm plantations, but not everyone.” 

An African palm plantation in Sayaxché.

Expansion of African Palm in Guatemala 

African palm plantations are expanding rapidly across Guatemala. Since 2001, the surface area of African palm has grown five times, according to the National Protected Areas Council (CONAP), with half of all cultivation now concentrated in the Sayaxché municipality.

African palm is processed into biofuel and oil for human consumption in products ranging from cookies to Nutella. The U.S. does not import a significant amount of palm oil from Guatemala, but U.S.-based companies process the oil into products sold in Mexico, Guatemala, and the rest of Central America.

The biggest palm oil producer in Sayaxché is Repsa, a subsidiary of the Olmeca brand of Grupo HAME. The owner of Grupo HAME, Hugo Alberto Molina Espinosa, is one of the largest landowners in Guatemala. The company is under investigation for paying bribes to tax authorities, and three Repsa executives were detained earlier this year. The link between corruption and palm plantations is not unique to Guatemala. Research by Friends of the Earth points to the prevalence of African palm cultivation in countries with high levels of corruption and to the close connections between palm executives and crooked public officials. 

The women who work with Sagrada Tierra have seen firsthand the negative impacts of African palm plantations. Sayaxché is a remote region, where communities have historically depended on subsistence agriculture. Now that African palm dominates the local economy, people have few alternatives for work.

Olivia Acté is a local coordinator of Sagrada Tierra’s development projects. She says that for those who work on the plantations, the transition from subsistence agriculture to wage labor has been harsh.

“Many women have to wake up at 2 A.M. to make food for their husbands, because they leave at 4 A.M. to get to the plantations on time,” she says. “They don’t come home until 8 P.M.” 

Doña Petrona harvests an edible rush from her forest garden.

Doña Petrona feeds one of the cows that the Sagrada Tierra women's group collectively bought.

Labor abuses are common. A detailed report by the nonprofit fair labor organization Verité found that several factors in Sayaxché increased the risk of labor exploitation in African palm plantations, including “the proliferation of organized crime and land grabs and the high number of migrant workers from impoverished areas.”

The report describes forced recruitment, unpaid wages, pay below minimum wage, and physical violence against workers, among other illegal practices. 

Verité also documented the practices of intimidation and coercion that companies in Petén used to secure land for palm plantations. The report says that these tactics “range from encircling and enclosing the lands of individuals who refuse to sell off their land to closing off access to roads to harassment to forced eviction.” 

Ironically, climate change initiatives such as the Clean Development Mechanism have incentivized African palm cultivation, by offering credits to companies for investing in projects in developing countries that arguably reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For this reason, the Guatemalan government has implemented tax breaks and reduced tariffs for African palm oil companies. But cultivation has been environmentally devastating in Petén. The Guatemalan government has not kept records on the total deforestation from African palm, but, according to Oxfam, 20 percent of the land in Guatemala planted with African palm in 2010 had been forest 10 years earlier. Meanwhile, from 1982 to 2010, Petén lost over 1.3 million acres of forest, during a time period when palm production expanded by 110,000 acres. 

In Sayaxché, palm plantations have also negatively impacted water quality. In June 2015, a massive fish die-out took place along the Passion River, which cuts through the municipality. Environmental organizations and Indigenous groups allege that overflows of organic matter from Repsa’s effluent ponds caused the die-out. That September, a Guatemalan criminal court suspended Repsa’s activities in Sayaxché, though the suspension was later overturned. 

These problems have attracted national attention, but activists who speak out have been subjected to intimidation or worse. On September 17, Rigoberto Lima Choc, a teacher and outspoken critic of Repsa, was murdered in Sayaxché. Two men were detained in 2017 for the murder but have not been prosecuted. 

While Repsa has implemented a grievances process in local communities, most people are afraid to speak up, and the Guatemalan government has largely left Sayaxché’s communities to fend for themselves. 

Nevertheless, the fish die-off and Lima Choc’s murder further turned public opinion against African palm plantations. Following the Passion River incident, Repsa renewed its commitments to ecological stewardship, and several companies that buy Repsa palm oil demanded stricter standards. In November 2017, Cargill announced it would no longer buy Repsa palm oil, and in February of this year, Nestlé followed suit. 

Women who work with Sagrada Tierra gather in Las Pozas. Doña Celia is the fourth from the left.

Olivia and Dolores stand outside a restaurant in Las Pozas.

Organizing for Food Security

Sagrada Tierra was founded in 1998 by Antonio Villar, a priest who had worked in the northern rainforest of Guatemala and spoke Q’eqchí. Early projects included securing land titles for the Indigenous people who arrived in Petén during the civil war but were never officially recognized. Access to land has always been a focus of the organization, and the rapid transition to palm cultivation in Sayaxché has only made the mission more urgent. 

Ronaldo Pinelo, a programs coordinator, says, “In 15 years, we’ve seen the communities lose what's most important: their capacity to produce food.”

While many palm oil companies contend that they purchased lands previously used for livestock, a 2013 Oxfam study found that one-third of the lands used for palm production in Guatemala had been used for corn production 10 years earlier.

The consolidation of land in the palm industry is one factor driving migrants to North America. Dolores Pop Maquín, another local coordinator with Sagrada Tierra, says that many of her neighbors have taken the dangerous trip north.

“More people are leaving to seek the American dream, because there isn’t work here,” she says. “There isn’t money.”

Sagrada Tierra has helped women who remain in Sayaxché to buy livestock, and it provides training for small-scale farming. The women gathered in Las Pozas say that this support has helped them feed their families and avoid buying costly staple foods. Since local corn production has plummeted, the cost of corn, the basis of the Q’eqchí diet, has soared.

In a small township near Las Pozas, a woman named Petrona invites the group to visit her edible garden. The simple home is surrounded by lush plants and gobbling chickens. Walking through the garden, Petrona identifies more than a dozen fruits and vegetables she can harvest right outside her door: squash, beans, papaya, yucca, moringa, cacao, coffee, cilantro, onion, mango, chili pepper, avocado, plantain, and local plants like hog plug (jocote) and junco, an edible reed. 

Petrona says that cultivating her garden allows her to reduce expenses on food and offer a varied diet to her family. While many families no longer have large land parcels where they can plant corn, densely planted kitchen gardens provide an important buffer against food insecurity. 

Dolores says that organizing with fellow Q’eqchí women has inspired her to preserve their land.

“I’ve shared my experience with my family,” she says. “I tell them, 'What are we going to live off if we don’t have land? One day we will have children, and the next generation, where are they going to work?'”

African palm plantations remain in operation despite the widespread environmental and labor problems they have brought to Sayaxché. Nonetheless, Q’eqchí families are organizing to ensure that the coming generations still have access to land and a connection to their roots as subsistence farmers. 


This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.