Since Saturday reports have surfaced that fishers from Guatemala have set up illegal camps on the northern bank of the Sarstoon River well inside Belizean territory. Belize Territorial Volunteer (BTV) founder, Wil Maheia, has said that Belizean authorities have done nothing to address the problem.
Today, when we contacted the Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of National Security, Ret’d Colonel George Lovell, he told us that he had not been informed of the illegal dwellings, but he did undertake to look into the matter.
In speaking with journalists about incursions by Guatemalans into Belize, Maheia also spoke of incursions along the western border in Toledo in the Columbia forest and near the Maya village of San Vicente. According to Maheia, he got a call two days ago reporting that Guatemalans are pushing across the border in the village of Dolores, where they have been developing pastures. He said that there has not been any response to stop those incursions.
While he called out the Government of Belize, he also called out the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA), asking them to “jump onboard with this issue…” and to take a stand.
“Those on the Guatemalan side have a great level of boldness in coming further and further into Belizean territory,” said Pablo Mis, coordinator of the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and Toledo Alcaldes Association (MLA), when we asked him to address Maheia’s comments to the press.
In speaking with Amandala today, Mis said that ongoing incursions in the area are a clear and present threat to Maya communities living on the border,that the villagers have had to constantly push back Guatemalans who have been intent on developing illegal pastures and cattle ranches inside Belize.
The Maya villagers live in fear because of violent attacks which villagers and leaders have suffered in the past, Mis explained.
“When night sets in, they have to be concerned about their safety…” said Mis, adding that the actions taken to protest incursions should not aggravate the situation.
“We, of course, admire our colleague [Maheia] and some of our leaders who have participated in the journeys that the BTV have done, but that’s not the end of it,” he commented, pointing to the need for a permanent solution.
Mis took issue with aspersions which he said have been created to suggest that the Maya are not concerned, adding that the Maya continue to defend that territory on a day-to-day basis.
“Those who live along the border live under a great deal of stress, because they are the ones who directly feel the impact when there is a situation along the border,” he told us.
According to Mis, six villages along the border have been most impacted: Machaquilha, Dolores, Otoxha, San Benito Poite, Jalacte and San Vincente, where the story, he said, has been the same.
“If they had not been staunch in their position to defend their land, the situation would be the same as in Chiquibul,” said Mis, adding that Maya presence in those border communities has made a substantial difference.
He pointed specifically to illegal occupation and squatting by Guatemalans in Dolores. Over the years, he said, they have made numerous reports to Belizean authorities to address the border incursions, since it is beyond their ability to tackle the magnitude of the incursions.
“For a very long time, there was great discontent among Maya villages because they have been abiding with directives from Government to refrain from being active in using the adjacency zone [the line a kilometer to the east and west of the Belize-Guatemala border],” but, he said, “to their frustration, they see that the Guatemalans keep coming, closer and closer…” into places like Dolores, Otoxha, and San Benito Poite.
He said that Belizean authorities have not been addressing the incursions to the extent needed and so Maya villagers have begun to protest directly with village leaders on the other side of the border, calling on them to dissuade their residents from venturing into Belizean Maya territory.
At times Belizean authorities who have discovered illegal dwellings and pastures have destroyed them, but Mis said that attempts to curb illegal activities are sometimes met with retaliation from the other side.
He said that when BTV engaged in tree planting on the border some years ago, the Guatemalans were aggravated and soon after an alcalde was shot at and held hostage for four hours. The alcalde was held at gunpoint while his son was told to run for it.
When the Belize Defence Force (BDF) destroys crops, the Guatemalans, who believe the Belizean villagers to be the informants, threaten villagers. Another leader would have been shot in public had the gun of the assailant not jammed, we were told. This, Mis said, happened after BDF destroyed a plantation near Poite.
We asked Mr. Mis for his views on what transpired on Saturday at the Sarstoon, where Guatemalan armed forces blocked a small group of Belizeans who were planning on taking a commemorative trip up the river to the Gracias a Dios border marker, one year after a group of Belizeans were detained and taken to Livingston, Guatemala.
“The Maya were the first to say that this is Belize’s territory. The Maya have long fought for recognition of land rights, and we wish to be made a key part of the fabric of what is Belize. We want to work with the Government; we want to work with any other party which wants to address [the problem] in an objective manner and that takes into [account] the realities on the ground and the practical arrangements that already exist,” said Mis.
We asked Mis what the stance of the Maya community of Toledo is, on the proposal for a referendum to have the Belize-Guatemala differendum heard at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). He said that the community has not yet taken a position, but, he said, the differendum is “a priority point” which had been raised by Toledo alcades and which ought to be considered in discussions with the Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission, installed earlier this year.
Mis noted, though, that although the Commission is specifically responsible for implementing the order of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), addressing the conflict is critical, since they do not agree with Guatemala laying claim to lands that they have defended as a part of Belize.
Pablo Mis that they intend to be more engaged in the national discussion on the territorial dispute, but added that, “…we have, as a country, failed to take concrete actions on the ground to ensure that we address this national issue appropriately.”
Guatemala: A state of land grabs
The concerns about the massive land grab of Belize, whether it be up to the Sibun River, or the entire 8,867 square miles of land in addition to sea territory, are serious. The oligarchy of Guatemala has made a habit of usurping land from those to whom it belongs, for hundreds of years.
When Spain colonized the territory – made up of differing regions of towering green mountains, wet lowlands and thick forest – the millennium-old communities living there resisted the genocide, slavery and land theft with tenacity. The resistance of the Indigenous was so fierce colonizers expressed frustration at being unable to overcome them. Dictatorships then ruled over the land with the force of the infamous European arrival (that began in the Americas in 1492), and dictatorships continued to reign for almost all of Guatemalan history.
The majority Indigenous population of over 20 different Mayan nations, the Xincaand the Garinagu all have well recorded histories of rebelling against the enslavers who had arrived to plunder resources, export wealth to Europe, and create a local, mostly European-descended ruling class. Not only Spanish but others arrived to colonize. In the late 1800’s the Germans expanded mostly in the form of coffee plantation barons also responsible for massacres (including their descendants’ orchestration of the 1978 Panzos massacre), and USA-based multinationals such as the United Fruit Company and mining conglomerates that produced nickel used for weaponry. All terrorized the local population and were expert at violently displacing people from their ancestral homes and destroying the natural environment. The Guatemalan ruling class facilitated these land grabs.
Today in 2016, as Belizeans contemplate the significance of the words of a president and the actions of the military, the Guatemalan state remains an elite not only capable of horrific land theft, but in regular practice of it.
Briefly in the early 1950’s, a governmental attempt was made under the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz to, among other things, stop the land grabs. The plan was to redistribute some of the land that was unjustly in the hands of United Fruit Company, and through the Dulles familial connection, the US State Department. This was swiftly crushed as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) swooped in to defend free market enterprise, and in 1954 oust the democratically-elected president Jacobo Arbenz.
Many Belizeans remember this invasion – it took place just “the other day”. For those with interest in Che Guevara, it was a moment of realization of the military might and brutality that states and corporations are willing to use against a people. Being in Guatemala at the time deeply influenced his commitment to Indigenous and grassroots revolution. And for those who study Central American history, it is marked as a pivotal moment in which the US state and corporate collusions cemented its “defence of democracy” claim as part and parcel of Latin American and Caribbean foreign policy (Grenada under Bishop, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, Panama in 1989, Chile under Allende, Haiti under Aristide, etc.).
And so, after the October Revolution, the 1954 invasion returned Guatemala to its neo-colonial state in the service of mining, monoculture agro-export and anti-left military terrorism. This monster consistently flared up during the 36-year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people were murdered, many more tortured, raped and disappeared – most of the victims of the massacres and genocide were Indigenous and campesino (peasant farmers).
Again, this war from 1960-1996 happened just next door and just “the other day”. The Indigenous have resisted colonialism and neo-colonialism for over 500 years. In Guatemala before and throughout the civil war, the Indigenous campesinos and campesinas formed a guerrilla (or grassroots, mountainside) revolutionary movement. They were up against military trained in the School of the Americas (like Efrain Rios Montt, the ex-President tried for genocide), Israeli intelligence and USA counterinsurgent military might in the name of so-called “democracy” and “anti-Communism.” Throughout these decades of war, the government continued to enrich the wealthy and give out concessions to big business.
Lands that had been in the hands of farmers for millennia were handed over to mining companies. Fertile grounds upon which crops were farmed for subsistence were sold – or given at no cost and tax-free – to companies that would dam rivers, poison watersheds and make big profits. Massive plantations of coffee covered the mountainsides and campesinos were forced to work for no pay, surviving off tortillas with salt, while big businesses got bigger, stealing more land and making more people poor.
Throughout these years brave people organized in the mountainsides for justice. Despite the constant public relations attempts to label guerrillas as murderers, the truth continues to surface that the label ought to apply only to the US-backed military (ex-officials are finally being tried for war crimes and sexually enslaving mostly Indigenous people). Otto Perez Molina was a general in the Guatemalan military at the time, and current President Jimmy Morales – who as a comedian donned “blackface” for laughs – is backed by the same military elite.
In the mountains many learned to read for the first time, share dreams of autonomy and to fight for it. In 1996 the Indigenous campesino revolution pushed the state to sign the Peace Accords. Not without fault, including the failure to specifically address Indigenous autonomy, the 1996 Peace Accords were signed by the four different guerrilla groups – the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of People in Arms (ORPA), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), and the National Directing Nucleus of PGT (PGT-NDN) – joined together as the URNG-Maiz (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity in English) and the Guatemalan government. The Accords are one of the most beautiful agreements a corporate state has been forced, by the goodwill of the people, to sign. Organizers today say that not even 20% of the Peace Accords have been respected by the government. Particularly, access to land, nutrition, education and freedom to organize without violent oppression have been ignored by succeeding government policies.
Land grabs for megaprojects such as mining, hydroelectric dams, monoculture agribusiness and petroleum extraction continue and even intensify. For Belizeans concerned about losing their beloved homes to the Guatemalan oligarchy, they have only to go across the border to the Polochic Valley, to find Indigenous brothers and sisters who are currently suffering that nightmare. Land theft, violent displacement and targeted killing are not a thing of the past.
In a region much farther from Belize, Sololá, in 2004 the Kaqchikel people refused to let pass a 50-ton mining cylinder that was destined for a different department. It was of interest internationally because at the time there was no strip mining was taking place in Sololá. Many wondered why the community called out “No a las minas!” “No to mining!” with no strip mining in their area. But the communities, under the leadership from Juan de Leon Tuyuc Velasquez, were acting in solidarity with the communities whose land had been stolen and whose water had been poisoned. And they acted in the knowledge that their natural resources would be the target of plunder at a time fast approaching.
In 2014, Juan Tuyuc disappeared and his body was found along the Panamerican Highway. According to family and friends, his face and chest were cut nearly in two down the middle, and the soles of his feet had been severed from his body. They say that these wounds were inflicted while he was still alive. Tuyuc had led the fight in the region for land and justice for decades. He was one of the highest-ranking Indigenous guerrilla commanders (where most were Ladino) and he was loved by many. During the war he saw many relatives disappeared and murdered, but continued to organize against the disastrous megaprojects the Guatemalan oligarchy and multinational business community continued to promote. This assassination style is of the right wing, and more typical of those working in the interest of land theft, resource depletion and genocide.
Mining companies including the Canadian Tahoe Resources and the GoldCorp Inc. are denounced by grassroots movements in Guatemala, and by human rights organizations throughout the world. As showcased in the film Gold Fever, a recipient of multiple human rights film awards, metallic mining in Guatemala is socially and environmentally disastrous. Along with poisoning rivers with cyanide and other toxic chemicals, they often rely on simply removing and stripping down entire mountains, much like that in the Mina Marlin. But the Indigenous and campesino of Guatemala continue to resist the land usurpations and fatal extraction.
WhenTelesforo Pivaral was murdered in San Rafael Las Flores; he and others in his community were critical of the silver mine setting up operations there in 2013, and continued to organize against the mine’s expansion. Oxfam and 23 other organizations called for investigations into the organizer’s murder, writing on their website: “Señor Telesforo Pivaral participated in actions protesting the establishment and expansion of mining projects in the region, and supporting municipal consultations of residents and peaceful actions of communities.”
These, and many other human rights abuses and targeted killings of organizers are commonplace, and particularly when the target is defending the right to land and to protect natural resources. According to The Guardian newspaper, Daniel Pascual explains that “more than 300 requests for land have been made in the past few years by large companies to mine for gold, silver and nickel; prospect for oil; develop hydroelectric power; or grow biofuel crops. More than 150 other areas have been identified as places of potential conflict over resources.” And Polochic, a stone’s throw away from Belize, is faced with a biofuel industry heavily funded by the European Union (in the name of a “green economy”), despite the cases of land grabbing to plant sugar cane and palm oil, in Guatemala, Honduras and across stolen lands in Africa and Asia.
Oxfam, not known for being particularly radical or revolutionary, has brought some attention to the land grabs for sugar cane plantations in Polochic: “In March of 2011, 769 families were forcibly removed from the Polochic Valley. Their homes and crops were burned, and three campesinos died during the eviction by the security forces of the Guatemalan government and the company… the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urged the Guatemalan government in June 2011 to assist the families by providing food, security, health care, and housing.” In the name of multinationals and large profits, the cash poor of Guatemala have been violently evicted from their homes, their crops destroyed and their family members killed. Even with the IACHR’s urging, the government has dragged its feet to comply with basic human decency.
According to PhD candidate Alberto Alonso-Fradejas, although the government describes the move to agro-export (much like the United Fruit Company banana plantations of past), the wealth remains in the hands of a few. “The benefits of this export boom are highly concentrated. Only 14 companies—owned by 14 oligarchic families—make up the powerful Sugar Producers’ Guild (ASAZGUA), with control of over 80 percent of the country’s sugar plantations and 100 percent of the sugar mills. Five companies control all of the country’s ethanol production and eight families make up the influential Oil Palm Growers’ Guild (GREPALMA), which controls 98 percent of the harvested oil palm and 100 percent of the palm oil mills.” He goes on to explain that the investments are local and international. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has allocated US$150 million to fund “sugar and bioenergy companies and exporters especially in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, El Salvador and north-eastern Brazil.” The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) gave US$20 million “for highly controversial land deals for sugarcane agribusiness in Guatemala’s Polochic Valley. The loan was approved on the basis of a single socio-environmental impact assessment report developed by the agribusiness industry itself.” The plan is evident: the Guatemalan elite work with international funding agencies and multi-national corporations to displace people from their lands to the benefit of the rich and all in the name of “environmentally friendly biofuels”.
Resistance to the European-descended oligarchy, a handful of families who control immense amounts of wealth and continue to hoard and steal land from the poor, is consistent. In Belize, a country renowned for its incredible cultural diversity, its biodiversity, its verdure mountains, sandy beaches, bountiful Belize coral reef system and fertile lands, when people wonder if the Guatemalan state, propped up by international lending agencies, EU biofuel incentives and US foreign policy, is willing to destroy homes and ancestral territories, the answer is simply: yes. The Guatemalan grassroots are waging a campaign against the megaprojects: mining, dams, petroleum extraction, monoculture agro-export and mega-tourism. The Belizean people are being tasked with the same struggle.