In a hut with dirt floors on the verge of becoming mud, Rosli Oded and her husband Aroldo Morales López swung their baby in a hammock. The rain that pounded the sheet metal roofs and tarps overnight had finally died down, ushering in a cool, grey morning. The new family offered us hot, sweet coffee, warmed up on a small fire at the edge of the shack where they’ve lived since September, when they were forced out of their homes by police and soldiers.
Oded and Morales are once again landless peasants, just like they were when they first migrated to this remote area of Guatemala to help found the community of Nueva Esperanza 12 years ago. “We heard that there was land here, so we came,” said Oded’s mother, who lives in a shack next door to her daughter.
The original community of Nueva Esperanza was established in Guatemala’s Lacandón National Park, in the state of Peten, near the northern border with Mexico. The park was created in 1990, while civil war still raged in Guatemala. It is co-managed by “Defensores de la Naturaleza,” a private nongovernmental organization, and the National Commission of Protected Areas (CONAP). But instead of assisting a community whose environmental footprint is tiny — they live without cars, plumbing or electricity — the government of Guatemala threw them out.
A community under attack
The Agro-Ecological Community of Nueva Esperanza was founded by 40 landless families in 2000.
“We needed more people to live in the community, and so when we met someone who needed land, we would tell them [to come], and support them, and we all supported each other to build our community, and that’s how it grew to a total of 150 families,” said Marcelo Martinez Morales, who moved to Nueva Esperanza after being displaced by Hurricane Mitch. “We started to work the land, planting corn, beans, chiwa, sweet potato, yucca, macal, peanuts, sesame — that’s what we planted.”
From the beginning, the community tried to get legal title to the land. “We tried for a long time, and instead of recognizing our community we were evicted for the first time” in 2007, said Martinez. A second eviction took place in 2008. Both times, they were forced from their homes by soldiers and police, who said they had orders to protect the forest. Some families fled in fear, but with nowhere else to go and no other options, most returned.
The latest eviction, which took place on August 23, 2011, was different. This time families fled the area to the sound of gunfire. They watched as their homes were destroyed with chainsaws, doused in gasoline, and set on fire. Many of them ran to the hills, hiding out for days in the forest, eating what they could scavenge. Oded and Morales hid with their then four month old baby, scared and hungry. The majority of the families in the community have young children.
The soldiers didn’t leave the remote village after the eviction, nor did the police or the armed park rangers. Instead, they occupied the few buildings they hadn’t burned to the ground.
It’s still not entirely clear why the eviction of Nueva Esperanza took place when it did. The official reason for the eviction was that the people of Nueva Esperanza were illegally occupying private property. Others say it was a move by the Colom government to clear the area as part of Cuatro Balam, a mega-project in Peten that includes the promotion of tourism in the region. After the August eviction, Carlos Menocal, the former interior minister of Guatemala, claimed the families of Nueva Esperanza were involved in drug trafficking.
For their part, residents said they’ve been told there is a corridor used by cocaine traffickers that runs through the park, but they say their community has never been involved in the drug business.
After the August eviction, the community decided there was only one safe place to go where the Guatemalan army and police couldn’t come after them: Mexico. They set up lean-tos and tents in a fivemetre- wide strip that marks the border between the two countries, an area sometimes referred to as no man’s land. Their decision marked one of the first times since Guatemala’s 36-year internal conflict officially ended in 1996 that an entire village has crossed into Mexico in search of safety. After being forcibly removed by Mexican authorities in January, the community returned and set up their makeshift shacks a few metres from the line. They drink and bathe using water from shallow wells dug alongside a stream that trickles across the border from the Mexican side.
Living in poor conditions, harassed by police and army
Once they set up their camp, the community went to Brother Tomás Gonzalez Castillo for help. Castillo is a Franciscan priest based in Tenosique who is known for having helped establish a sanctuary for Central American migrants.
“The Guatemalan government evicted them four months before it left office,” said Castillo in an interview in a small, plain room behind Tenosique’s central cathedral. “We read that as a clear intention to not resolve the problem.” Castillo describes the negotiation with the government of ex-president Alvaro Colom as a game, and says negotiations with the new government of Otto Pérez Molina are no better.
Castillo and others have organized church support for the community, which is prohibited from planting anything until their “situation” is resolved. The men work for local Mexicans as farmhands when they can, pocketing about $9 on a good day.
“The people are very tired. There is a kind of collective depression. They’ve been in the camp for seven to eight months, living under tarps, eating whatever they can, with no drinking water,” said Castillo. “It’s tragic.” On April 10, just a week after we left the community, 12-month-old baby Yorleni Yolet Zacarías Escobar died from fever, dehydration and diarrhea. Her death was entirely preventable.
A short walk along a narrow dirt trail from the cramped, muddy camp is the former village of Nueva Esperanza. Remains of the destroyed houses still visible under the weeds were pointed out to us by Mynor Morales, who accompanied us to the old village, together with his young son and another youth. Over the deep cries of howler monkeys that live in the lush forest, Mynor Morales explained how the community tried to live in harmony with nature, showing us a sign indicating where animals could and could not graze. “Now pretty much all you can see is bush, because everything grows fast here,” said Morales, who pointed out that the police and army also cut down the community’s fruit trees.
A short ways into the bush from the village site is a pristine stream that widened out under dense forest cover. As the little boy swam, police armed with semi-automatic weapons appeared, and it was made clear we were not welcome in Lacandón National Park. Other community members told us the army still bothers them, sometimes even patrolling at night, and that soldiers have threatened that women who try and access the stream for washing, bathing and drinking water will be raped. Even with small children and no other safe source of water, people like Yorleni’s parents now stay away from their stream. “It hurts us a lot, in our souls, to see where we lived before. This is where our children were born, where we lived for years, where we had dreams of a better life,” said Mynor Morales.
Other communities also under threat
Though the situation facing the people evicted from the Lacandón National Park is perhaps the most severe, they are far from the only community under threat. Ten percent of Guatemala is classified as national park, compared to about two percent in Canada.
Not far from Lacandón National Park is another protected area, the Laguna del Tigre National Park, Guatemala’s largest. The 25 odd communities began settling there as a Canadian oil company, Basic Resources, built a road through the forest in the mid- 1980s. Basic has since been sold to a French company, Perenco, which is still active in the park. The Laguna del Tigre National Park was created in 1990.
“Now that it is a protected area, the communities are being told they can’t live there… their rights are limited,” said a local I interviewed in the nearby town of El Naranjo. He requested anonymity because of fears for his safety.
Laguna del Tigre and Lacandón have been included in debt-for-nature swaps between the US government and Guatemala, brokered by Conservation International (CI), by which the US government forgave $24 million of debt, and in return for which Guatemala promised to spend the equivalent savings on conservation. CI also owns a 77,000-acre tract within Lacandón, making it the largest private landholder in the park.
Far from meaningfully including residents, the master plan for the park was put together by Defensores de la Naturaleza, together with CONAP and The Nature Conservancy, with financial assistance from USAID. The official park documents don’t even recognize the existence of the community of Nueva Esperanza. The community has indicated that it would be willing to be relocated to another area of Guatemala, as long as each family receives a minimum of 55 hectares, which is what they say they need to survive. So far, the government has offered three per family. Their struggle, it seems, is far from over.
- Dawn Paley is a journalist and co-founder of the Vancouver Media Co-op.