Saturday, October 16, 2021

Palm Oil or People

 The global palm oil market is dominated by Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce more than 80 percent of the world’s supply. In Latin America, though, Guatemala is second only to Colombia – and it is the world’s sixth top producer. Oil palm plantations have nearly doubled in area over the past decade.

Last year, Guatemala produced some 880,000 tonnes of crude palm oil. Roughly 80 percent of it is exported, mainly to Mexico, a few European countries, and other Central American nations. Palm oil and its derived ingredients are commonly found in processed foods, cosmetics, and cleaning products.

Oil palm in Guatemala is concentrated in the north, northeast, and the Pacific slope region. Plantations cover more than 1,800sq km (695sq miles), nearly 2.5 percent of the country’s arable land. 

In the Izabal department, where Chinebal is located, they cover nine percent of arable land.

The indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ community of Chinebal are involved in an escalating land struggle in this remote area of eastern Guatemala. Community members accuse a Guatemalan company of planting oil palm on their traditional lands, and they have built homes to reclaim the disputed tract – spurring an eviction notice, several police operations and  violence.

The established village of Chinebal sits in the foothills of the Sierra de las Minas mountain range, 280km (174 miles) northeast of Guatemala City.

 “All of this was lands our grandparents farmed,” Juan Perez, Chinebal’s auxiliary mayor, said of the disputed land, which stretches a few square kilometres. “This piece of land belongs to us.”

NaturAceites, one of Guatemala’s top palm companies, claims ownership of the land under dispute and had planted it with oil palm. Maya Q’eqchi’ residents claim it historically belongs to Chinebal.

With no land to farm or build a home, some Chinebal residents moved onto the contested land, clearing parts of the plantation. Close to 100 families now live there growing maize and other subsistence crops.

“The expansion of [oil] palm is dispossessing communities of their lands,” said Marcelo Sabuc, the national coordinator of CCDA, a rural development and land rights movement organisation. “It is also causing environmental destruction.”

 Police operations have struck fear in many community members. 

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