Guatemala’s Palm Industry Leaves Locals Contemplating an Uncertain Future

The growing global demand for palm oil threatens to change life irrevocably for people in the northern Guatemalan state of Petén

Source: The Guardian

Entering the community of Semochán involves a slow, bumpy drive off the highway. Through the window, perfect lines of young, green palm trees stretch out interminably in the gathering morning heat.

A dozen dirt-floored homes dot Semochán, in the northern Guatemalan state of Petén. The predominantly indigenous Q’eqchi residents harvest maize and beans from small plots of family-owned land. But over the past decade, the semi-tropical climate and flat terrain has attracted the interest of palm growers. Hoping to cash in on the growing global demand for palm oil (used mainly in commercial baked goods), they have reportedly bought more than 20,000 hectares of arable land in the region.

“They have encircled us and we no longer have the right to cross our community,” says Sandra*, who – since former neighbours sold the plots between her own and the town itself – must cross an oil palm plantation in order to reach the land she legally owns. An agreement has been reached to allow her access, but she fears the plantation workers, far from honouring it, will continue to intimidate both her and other women in the community with threats of eviction.

“They came on my parcel, and they asked me: ‘Are you going to sell your land?’ I told them I wouldn’t,” she said of her latest conversation. “They told me that, someday, I would find myself not enjoying my land any more, no matter what. That is how things were left.”

Residents in several nearby villages are uneasy about the future of their land, with many worried that the environmental side-effects associated with the palm plantations will render it worthless.

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