Oil and Cultural genocide
“We grew maize beans, rice. We built our homes communally. We built a health center, a room for meetings, a little school, two houses to train health promoters, and a communal kitchen for gatherings. We had three launches, two with motors; and an electric plant that functioned from 6 to 9 PM and for two hours during the day it provided refrigeration in the communal store…the little we had we had achieved with many years of work and sacrifice. The work in the jungle is very hard. Now we had to abandon all that was our life…because of the persecution and killings that the soldiers carry out; they attack us as if we were at war” Reginaldo Aguilar
This week I am going to take you to Consuelo and El Arbolito Peten, Guatemala. A place that was once highly populated with indigenous populations now remains a ghost town with little communities left. Entire populations were ravished of their lands after the discovery of nickel and oil in the area in 1976. Before this no one paid much attention to these communities. They were referred to as the “selva” or in English “the jungle”. The selva was a place where the uncivilized Garifuna and Maya indigenous communities lived, now it is dominated by oil reserves.
Guatemala is located on an old geological belt where 75% of the world’s oil reserves can be found. In 1981 President Lucas Garcia announced that the government had granted permission to allow the extraction of 8,000 barrels per day. A 10-inch pipeline was built eastward to the Atlantic coast, which transports the oil. In the first six months Guatemala oil exports totaled 390,000 barrels. Oil reserves in Guatemala have been compared to those of Alaska.
According to Oil watch Mesoamerica, Guatemala is a place where there are a poorly hidden black markets for buying and selling oil. The oil companies that established themselves in Guatemala include Guatemala Limited, Compañía General de Combustibles, Petro Latina Guatemala Corp. (Peten) and Petro Energy S.A, all work under complimentary conditions. These oil companies have very little environmental or governmental regulation. Perenco, is an independent Anglo-French oil and gas company with a headquarters in London. This company has greatly distinguishes itself from the rest of the group, with policies that upholds an environmental friendly business that focuses on sustainable development. As quoted directly from Perenco website “wherever we operate, every effort is made to improve the quality of life while preserving traditional cultures and values”. However, what they forgot to include is the fact that they support their own monopoly by owning 98% of the concessions in Guatemala, they have widespread political power, and have participated in oil and cultural genocide in the western part of Petén. Induced by a plan to start oil development and in the process wipe out indigenous populations in the way. Does this seem environmental friendly to you?
To date there has been more that 70,000 Guatemalans who seek asylum in Mexico and other part of Central America. This was the after the Guatemalan government’s plan to develop the country in 1976, involved indigenous people being kicked off of their of their land. After oil was discovered in their areas, land values significantly increased. Not only because of the oil, but because an infrastructure of roads (most importantly the main east/west road), communication networks, and hydroelectric power plants have connected this one-time impenetrable area to the rest of the country. In addition a $30 million airport, all became apart of the governments plan.
However, many places like the indigenous in Peten stood in the way by refusing to give up their land to oil companies. Instead they were handled with force by the Guatemalan military, which were backed by oil companies and recieved $85 million dollars of militant support from the United States. The objective was to use fear tactics or do whatever necessary to occupy the territory. Many indigenous people were tortured and even killed by the military. Over 1,901 people from 19 communities had sought refuge in Mexico after battling the dense jungle and crossing the Usumacinta River, which separates the countries. They left their homes and life behind them. The government got what they wanted and as the people fled oil production began.
Today the indigenous communities continue to battle with oil companies. Recently, in September 2010. Perenco condemned the lack of consultation with the 37 settlements located in Laguna del Tigre about Perenco’s extension, a procedure that is called for by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Perenco’s plans consist of extending oil refines and having their own protected pieces of land. Most of the land Perenco wants is called Laguna del Tigre, which is the home to many indigenous and peasant populations. The oil company has already paid off the government officials to evict the people from their homes.
Perenco argument is that they have a right to evict these communities, which are in protected areas that they own. The indigenous communities refuse to go and claim that “the government established the Protected Areas law—without informing nor consulting us.” “Now we are not even allowed to participate as a population, or even just communities, in the administration and development of these protected areas, something, which the same law is supposed to allow for. The only option it gives us is to abandon our land.” This is proof of Pereco’s political abilities to sway the government in getting what they want.
The Guatemalans in Laguna del Tigre are aware that standing their ground comes with a price. Countless of the bloody deeds have already been carried out by “Perenco’s hit men”—as Robert Arias called them in 2006 in his La Hora column, after the murder of Mayco Jonatán García—against those who have denounced the company. The oil companies always wins and still many indigenous people remain displaced from the land that their people have owned for centuries. For Guatemala cultural genocide is a reality of the past and it continues to haunt them in the future. In Guatemala there is a saying “el petróleo es como sangre”. This mean is oil is the same as blood.