POLOCHIC VALLEY, GUATEMALA—Echoes from armed raids still seem to resound in this valley, eight hours north of the capital city. In early 2011 military and paramilitary forces forcibly evicted 13 communities of indigenous Mayan peasants—some 300 families were dispossessed of disputed land they had been living on for three years to secure the property rights of one powerful local family, the Widmanns, and its agribusiness company Chabil Utzaj.
"They came in great numbers and heavily armed," says 18-year-old Tecla Kuxh while holding her one-year-old infant, via a translator. (Names in this story have been changed to protect those involved from any reprisals.) "They don't respect anything or anyone, not even babies. We cried, there were shots and screaming." Further evictions are planned for villages and lands where these communities have been living for some 60 years.
In the middle of a maize field, a piece of fabric held up by four wooden stakes makes for the roof of her family's makeshift shelter. Their only possessions: gourd seeds, two bottles of water and a patched radio.
"We are not thieves," argues Marco Kuxh, her husband. "If we occupied this land, it was only for a living. We didn't destroy anything, these lands were not even used for years. We cleared and reclaimed the land and sowed some milpa [corn], beans and a bit of tomatoes. Without land we have no future, nowhere to sow."
The Kuxhs, like many other farming families around the world, are the victims of a land grab for agribusiness. The land they used to work will soon grow sugarcane or palm oil intended for U.S. and European biofuel markets that have developed in response to those nations' governments goals for alternative transportation fuels.
Since 2008 more than 56 million hectares worldwide—an area of land the size of Italy—have been subject to "land negotiation," according to the World Bank. This land grab is not all dedicated to biofuel production, of course: China, India, Japan, Korea and the United Arab Emirates as well as others have purchased vast tracts of agricultural land in Africa and elsewhere for food production for their home markets. Private investors, such as Goldman Sachs and BlackRock, Inc., have also gotten into the game via funds to speculate in agricultural commodities and land. "Nobody believes that these investors will feed Africans," says Obang Metho from Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, an Ethiopian human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO). In other words, food-producing fields worked by and for locals are expected to be converted to serve international business interests.
In Guatemala the goal is biodiesel, and its production is now key for national and international agro-industrial companies and, consequently, local incomes. "It's sad, but we all depend on palm [oil] now. There is no other solution," says a peasant in Arroyo Santa Maria in the Peten Department. That village, in the northern part of the country, is a tiny island in the middle of a vast palm grove belonging to agro-industrial company Hame. That peasant adds: "They came over and over to the village and said we'd better sell our land before they will take it from us. So we all sold our parcels. Today, we can't go through the land; it all belongs to the palm. We have no firewood, no access to water and, even if we do, it's all polluted because of their chemicals flowing in their canals. They just kill us slowly."
But the palm oil plantations are intended to create economic opportunity and jobs, according to investors. "To fight poverty and the food crisis, we are going to create here 2,000 [jobs], directly and indirectly, thanks to a $50-million investment in this little valley," says Carlos Widmann, the agribusiness leader. "Otherwise, the contrary is condemning them to misery. What can they do with some 'maizito'" the traditional small-plot agriculture?
Others argue the palm plantations have not provided the jobs—nor quality of life—promised or anticipated at the time that the land transfers were executed. "The palm company pays them eight [U.S. dollars] for one day of labor," says Ernesto Tzi, manager of SANK, an NGO working with Maya rural communities to preserve their land and their traditional family agriculture. "The work is getting harder and harder all the time, and if we can't make it, they bring in outside workers. Is that the benefit to the community they promised?
At the root of the problem—outside of forced evictions and other pressure—is a lack of clear land laws or policy at the federal, regional and local levels. "We want a state of law to apply," Widmann says of these land conflicts. "We don't want to live like savages, according to the law of the strongest. We wish to live in peace."
Sales negotiations, if they occur at all, are usually one-sided, peasants and their advocates say. "Negotiations for land acquisition often take place behind closed doors, quickly and in a context of unequal power," explains Lorenzo Cotula, a legal researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, an independent international research organization specializing in sustainable development.
Many such sales in Guatemala occurred after local rural families were granted rights to a parcel of land as part of a post–civil war governmental program known today as Fontierras and supported by The World Bank. Each family received land rights to a parcel, but large landowners and agribusiness typically moved in to purchase the land from peasants, who wound up with little in the way of recompense and no land then to feed their families.
"These policies have created a market of access rights to land," says Oliver De Schutter, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food. "Over time, they are in favor of great landowners who have the means and the power to acquire those lands from the hands of little peasants once he has a formal title. We therefore witness a process of agrarian reconcentration into a few elite hands."
Despite this array of challenges, some Guatemalan peasants have held on to their land. Amalia Luc from Semuy village in Alta Verapaz still farms 10 hectares in the traditional way—small parcels of various tree and plant crops, such as bananas, pineapples, cardamom, avocados, coffee and cacao as well as a handful of medicinal plants and beehives. "I will never give up my land for palm," she says. "After I feed my family, I still have enough surplus for those landless and poor families who have nothing and come to me. The excess is sold on the local market."