“Water is life” is the message that countless organizations across Guatemala have rallied around as thousands march more than 260 miles to demand that the Guatemalan government act, and protect right to water. Tens of thousands of protesters set out on the long, and grueling march to Guatemala City on April 11 to demand that the government protect their right to water, and for an end to the privatization of water resources.
“Water is life” is the message that countless organizations across Guatemala have rallied around as thousands march more than 260 miles to demand that the Guatemalan government act, and protect right to water. Tens of thousands of protesters set out on the long, and grueling march to Guatemala City on April 11 to demand that the government protect their right to water, and for an end to the privatization of water resources. The marchers united with other marches from other parts of the country on April 22 to commemorate Earth Day.
“We have marched from the border with Mexico with the objective of denouncing the massive atrocities that we have suffered, such as the destruction of our natural environment, caused by large companies,” said Domingo Alvarez Ajanel, the National Coordinator of the Communities of Peoples in Resistance (CPR), while marching through the Municipality of Mazatenango. “They are privatizing our water and detouring our river by installing hydroelectric projects, and by the production of monocultures.”
People from across Guatemala joined the marcher as they braved the heat, cold, and rain along their way to Guatemala City, with well over 2,000 participating by day ten, and several thousand more by the time the march arrived in Guatemala City.
“We are asking the businesses to respect the use of the rivers and of the land,” said Feliciana Materna, from the department of Quiche, who marched with the protesters since April 13. “We are also telling the companies that they cannot transform our water into a commodity. Without the resources that give life, our children cannot survive.”
Referencing the heat along the march, Materna adds, “There is heat, but we need to see that this heat is the result of climate change, which affects not only the lives of the indigenous populations, but the companies too. The companies need to see that this affects them, and that it comes as a result of the contamination in our environment.”
The rural communities of Guatemala have suffered greatly from the expansion of monoculture production of such commodities as sugar cane, bananas, and African palm oil. These industries have diverted rivers for their production, and left communities without water.
“The large companies are arriving in our community, taking the water, and leaving our rivers dry,” said Nala Selvi, from the community of Cavoraj in the department of Quetzaltenango. Selvi’s community has seen the expansion of sugar cane production, and they have seen the disappearances of their rivers.
But Selvi and other marchers have found support within the Government ministries.
The Guatemalan Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources issued a report that supports Selvi’s and other protesters’ concerns as they marched to Guatemala City. On April 20, nine days into the march, Guatemala’s minister of the Environment, Sydney Samuels, announced that the ministry had identified fifty rivers that had been devastated by agribusiness along the southern coast.
“There are countless industries and countless farms that divert rivers,” Samuels said in a press conference following a meeting of cabinet members. “We thought we would find a few, but all farms of the South Coast who are handling cane, oil palm, banana and other products are diverting rivers at will.”
International Solidarity for Water March
Support for the struggle for water in Guatemala has received support from other countries across Latin America.
“We have to accompany the struggle of the people of Guatemala, because their struggle is the same as ours in Colombia,” said Marlondo Andres from the National Agrarian Coordinator of Colombia (CNA). “We have to say no to the detouring of our rivers, and demand an end of the contamination of our rivers. We also have the struggle for water, and for the land of the campesino. Our struggles are the same.”
The representatives from National Agrarian Coordinator of Colombia had traveled to Guatemala to march along with the march for water. The movement was also accompanied by representatives from Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST).
“We are here as a campesino movement, we’re struggling for social equality and for the rights of all people around the world, not only Brazil,” said Cassi Vajeto from Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, who had traveled from Brazil to march in solidarity. “So we are here in solidarity with the people of Guatemala, and we are here to march along with the Guatemalan people.”
Both Brazil and Colombia have seen the massive displacement of rural populations for the construction of mega-projects, as well as the destruction of the environment by industry.
“We are seeing the continued exploitation of our natural resources by mines, monocultures, as well as our waters and lands,” said Vajeto, while marching down the highway. “The evictions and dispossession of land and territory is happening the same way in Brazil as [it is] here in Guatemala.”
Letters of support also arrived to marchers from Latin America. Bolivian Labor leader, Oscar Olivera Foronda, who was integral in fighting the privatization of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000, penned a letter supporting the march across Guatemala.
“This march that runs today through roads and streets in our beloved Guatemala, is the same as the people who in Bolivia who came out to defend the water 15 years ago,” wrote Olivera Foronda, in a letter of support. “Those people, who like unique weapons, have their bodies, their hopes and dreams, but above all their dignity. They are a clear indication that our people again have stood up and started to walk along with the word, and taken hands and hearts, side by side.”
Olivera Foronda adds, “Water is not intended to be a mineral resource, as the west presumes, it is a necessity for life. Water is more than that. Water is a living being, which also gives us life, the veins that run through the body of Mother Earth and give animation to the universe. It has the same function as the blood that runs through our veins. If it is scarce, we are sick; if we lose it, we die.”
Connecting the Struggle of Rural Guatemala to the Urban Centers
At the heart of the water rights march’s message is that this is an issue that affects not only rural Guatemala, but its urban centers, and middle class populations as well.
And marchers found support in Guatemala City, where thousands joined the mobilization in its final day of the march to the country’s central plaza.
Organizers of the march for water rights are trying to connect the struggle for water in rural communities to the struggle of poor and marginalized communities in the country’s urban centers. They hope that by connecting the struggle, they can bridge the historic gulf between rural and urban communities.
“This is also a call to consciousness for the populations of the capital,” said Daniel Pascual, the national coordinator of the United Campesino Committee. “It is not possible for them to ignore the value of water, or where it is produced. We are marching for more than 11 days to bring attention to this [issue].”
“In the capital it is clear that every day people are buying more and more of their water in bottles,” Pascual adds. “They are buying their water from companies that are taking the water and selling the water to them. Water is the point of unification. Water should be a basic service that should remain within the state, or within the municipality.”
Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social moments in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at VICE News, Truthout, and the North American Congress on Latin America. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo