Impact of the extractive industry on food sovereignty in rural communities of Guatemala

By Maya Jelali, 2017, CEIU

For many people, the growth of the extractive industry in Guatemala will bring development, create jobs and help to increase the local economy.

But unfortunately this is not the case. My visit to Guatemala definitely proved otherwise. Many, if not most of the extractive industry projects fail to meet the economic goals. The Guatemalan government, who strongly supports the construction and development of the mining industry and hydroelectric dams, is known for its high level of corruption.

Previous government officials, including former President, 9 ministers and 950 others government officials were sentenced because of unethical practices. There were many cases where government representatives where corrupted by organized crime and big corporations who would finance officials to advance their own agenda.

The mining and hydroelectric companies need the support of the Guatemalan government in order to begin the construction and development of their projects. The government has been known to use state-sponsored violence against Mayan people to help out these multibillion dollar corporations by any necessary means.

It’s frequent to see that construction and development begins without proper acquisition of the land, which means that in most cases people are forcibly displaced and evicted from their homes and communities. This usually happens with the intervention of the police force, through violence and, in some instances, massacres.

The Centre for Environmental Law and Social Action (CALAS), one of the most important centres for environmental justice in Guatemala is an organization that works to defend environmental and human rights through citizen advocacy and promotion of public policy, drafting of legislation, and monitoring of national entities responsible for the sustainable use of natural resources.

Dr. Yuri Melini, Director of CALAS, gave us a few examples of cases in the judicial system where mining corporations were involved in trafficking influence, and corruptions in order to avoid prison. Militarization of communities, criminalization of youth, sexual violence against women defending their lands, kidnapping, torture and death on community leaders who openly oppose these projects, are the reality in Guatemala.

Dr. Yuri Melini with the Education in Action Group, March 4, 2017 in Guatemala City

Dr. Melini also informed us that it is not uncommon to see development proceed without a consensus, the proper community consultation and community approval. There are no initiatives in place by the government ensuring that a comprehensive fact finding via consultation is available to residents, to develop a plan to address the needs of the community via compensation and proper resettlement if needed.

It is quite the opposite actually. In many instances, when CALAS tried to organize consultations in communities and mobilize people, they faced strong opposition from the companies and the government who openly opposes and jeopardize the consultation procedure.

In the case where communities held a consultation and voted to reject the exploitation of its natural resources by these corporations, nevertheless, the government went ahead and ignored the decision and granted licenses. The projects are approved without an informed consent of the community, any appropriate social or environmental impact assessments or compensation for the communities affected.

The development of hydroelectric dam projects has numerous social and environmental costs that often involve the forced displacement of the Mayan people in Guatemala. In my opinion, there is also strong evidence of fundamental human rights abuse as well.

The extractive industry and development of hydroelectric dams have disastrous impacts on the local economy.

The loss of productive agricultural land and access to water because of the diversion of rivers affects directly the food security and the ability to be self-sufficient. The aptitude of producing food for consumption is therefore at risk which is demonstrated in the high rates of poverty, malnutrition and infant mortality in the rural areas. This also compromises securing a viable income by not being able to produce a surplus to sale at local markets or by other revenue-generating methods.

During our meeting with CCDA (Campesino Committee of the Highlands), Lesbia Morales explained how the first grade produce is usually exported to other countries leaving lesser quality and sometimes not enough food for local consumptions, causing malnutrition.

Lesbia Morales giving a presentation to EIA delegation – March 6, 2017 in CCDA office in Santa Cruz, Quixaya

Lesbia Morales giving a presentation to EIA delegation – March 6, 2017 in CCDA office in Santa Cruz, Quixaya

The damages associated with the extraction industry and the socioeconomic consequences of these changes on the environment are enormous. The loss of fertile lands and rivers not only affects the ability to generate monetary income but has also disastrous effects on the environment causing pollution and major changes to water flow and biodiversity.

During my visit to different rural communities, I witnessed the poor quality of life of Guatemalans and the lack of basic needs such as access to potable water, electricity and sanitation facilities. It was heartbreaking to see the level of poverty when surrounded by so much natural resources and fertile lands. 

House in the community of Las Marias in March 7, 2017

House in the community of Las Marias in March 7, 2017


Finally, the exploitation of natural resources and development of hydroelectrically dams also threatens the traditional way of life and spirituals beliefs of Guatemalans. Mayans have a huge respect and connection with their ancestral land and it is primordial for them to protect Mother Earth and sacred natural resources. They appeal that their government takes into consideration article 203 of the Norms and Jurisprudence of the Inter-American Human Rights System which states that the government should respect and recognize ancestral law and authority in their decision making.

In conclusion, Mayans have been facing forced eviction and destruction of their communities by the government in the name of economic development.

Unfortunately the economic benefits are not passed out to the people, who for the majority still live in poverty.

There is clearly a need for agrarian reform to provide assurance that people will have access to lands in order to produce. It is primordial to develop state-driven procedures to assist affected communities including restitution, restoration of source of revenue and land compensation for relocated communities.

It is also important for international organizations to support organizations such as CALAS and the CCDA and allow the affected people to exercise their rights to access political and legal resources, and to be heard.

Changes to power structure and restructuring at the state level are much needed in Guatemala. The hidden costs of these projects should no longer go unnoticed.