Samuel Choc's house was destroyed by the floods. Photo: Jody García

David vs Goliath in Guatemala: how palm oil companies encroach on indigenous land

A community in northern Guatemala is fighting against the force of nature and against the expansion of palm oil.
A community in northern Guatemala is fighting against the force of nature and against the expansion of palm oil.

In late 2020, Samuel Choc’s community was affected by floods caused by hurricanes Eta and Iota. Choc’s house was buried under rainwater. Together with his family and his neighbors, he joined other 156 families in a move to an improvised shelter made with a few wood sticks and zinc foil.

Las Mercedes is a small and poor town located in Chisec, Alta Verapaz, in northern Guatemala. The community is surrounded by the Chixoy river, the country’s third-largest river and a smaller river called Chiribiscal.

The population lives by harvesting corn and beans. Each winter, they fight to keep their houses and their harvest standing because the river levels rise and affect their belongings. The families are still there despite the tragedy of each winter’s river level rise: they have nowhere else to go. 

The community also lives in a constant struggle to defend its territory from palm oil companies, in this case Industrias Chiquibul.

Palm oil plantation in Guatemala
The expansion of palm oil is making the community’s jurisdiction smaller. Photo: Jody García

A divided community

Since 2012, when the first company settled in that area, the Las Mercedes community has been divided. While some support the firms because they offered them work, others oppose it out of fear of the depredation of natural resources.

Samuel Choc belongs to the group that opposes it. He justifies his position in that the palm oil companies began to buy land from the community members. Little by little, the firms made the town’s jurisdiction smaller.

“What they are doing is taking the land from the communities,” he said.

Samuel explains that his community has become more vulnerable to natural hazards because the land has been affected by palm oil plantations. People in the community say that palm companies have cut the trees that contained the rivers when it rained.

Lack of regulation

In Guatemala there is no law regulating the purchase of land by companies from indigenous communities. Such lack of legislation has caused great social conflict, as the communities claim ancestral property of the land.

Las Mercedes is located at the end of a large field of oil palm. The town has become, according to Samuel, the only one missing for Industrias Chiquibul to control the entire area. The company tried to buy the land from Samuel’s father, but he objected.

“We are running out of space because the river is getting wider and the oil palm companies are buying up the land. [My family and myself] don’t want to sell our lands because we want our children to have a place to live,” Samuel said about his family properties.

Horizons closing in

The horizon of Las Mercedes is made of rivers and hectares of palm oil, and both of them are getting closer and closer. As a result, people live in a continuously shrinking space

Hurricanes Eta and Iota made the rivers overflow. Hence, the inhabitants had to flee and leave all their belongings behind. Water washed away entire houses and later people had to use canoes to recover some of their things.

“We lost all the harvest and there are people who saw the walls of their houses collapse, lost their corn plantations, chickens, pigs… There was no time to get anything out when the hurricanes began,” said Estebal Caal, an indigenous authority in Las Mercedes.

A month and a half after the floods, the water evaporated but the river widened, and the community’s area has shrunk as a result. At the same time, the harvest that survived the flood is now infected with fungus and worms.

“We are suffering because there is no one to help us nor do we have anywhere else to go. We are in sadness. We lack food, money and work, ” Esteban Caal said.

The crops that survived the floods are now infected with worms. Photo: Jody García

The consequences 

For years Samuel has denounced the abuse and pollution of the palm oil companies. And as a consequence, the palm oil company accused him of invading one of their lands, he said. He has faced a lawsuit for a year now..

The lawyers defending Samuel point out that the evidence that the Prosecutor’s Office holds against him is contradictory. In addition, the defense lawyers highlight that the farm that he allegedly invaded does not exist in the country’s official records.

“The company puts pressure on the communities by offering money. Some people have yielded and that is why the companies’ hectares are growing. Others refuse to sell and are criminalized,” Javier Garcia, Samuel’s lawyer, said.

Samuel was imprisoned for seven months following this accusation and is now facing a trial. Human rights organizations refer to these strategies as criminalisation  Criminalisation alludes to a manipulation of the laws with the purpose of sending community leaders and nature defenders in jail. In this way, his fight for natural resources and territory is neutralised.

“Samuel’s case is a good example of criminalisation practices. His personal, economic and work situation, as well as his health and family are impacted. In these cases, the whole system colludes to get rid of the problem. For palm oil companies, people like Samuel are the problem,” specified Garcia.

While the trial against Samuel continues, the community is slowly rebuilding the damage caused by the 2020 floods. 

Industrias Chiqubul, the palm oil company that Las Mercedes complained about, denied having any conflict with the community. A spokesperson claimed that their activities do not pollute the rivers.

Las Mercedes community has denounced contamination of the rivers that surround it. Photo: Jody García