Climate Change in Guatemala
By Rachel Warden
“Last season I lost my crops because there was too much rain, this season I lost them to drought. We used to be able to distinguish between the seasons, and now we can’t. The rains used to bring relief and life, now they bring more heat and disease. ” These are the words I heard over and over again from small farmers (campesinos) in Ixtahuancan, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. I was there to meet with KAIROS’ partner, the Association for Community Development and Promotion (CEIBA), and to better understand its work in resource extraction and climate change.
While climate change has meant a growth in a “green” market in the Global North, for some communities in the Global South, climate change is a matter of life and death.1 For communities in Guatemala, climate change has meant: losing family members to mudslides, avalanches of mud and garbage as a result of excessive rains; losing their homes to hurricanes (hundreds of Guatemalans are still without homes as a result of Hurricane Stan in 2005); losing crops and livelihood to excessive rains or drought; and being displaced from their land by hydroelectric and agro-fuel mega projects that are promoted as alternatives but are in fact not.
“We are two times victims of climate change,” says Naty Atz from CEIBA, “We’re victims of the actual impacts of climate change and victims of the ‘solutions’ of climate change”. These false solutions include: massive hydro-electric dams, the use of vast amounts of land for agro-fuels and huge mono- crop plantations of trees that are supposed to act as carbon sinks for all the greenhouse gases produced in the North.2 These projects are not alternatives. They do not address the root causes and impacts of climate change. They are being implemented in the same way as any other resource extraction mega projects – without consultation, dividing communities, with huge disparity in power. And the impacts are the same – displacement of Indigenous communities, threatened livelihoods and threats to those who oppose the development. Furthermore, the community does not feel the benefits of these projects. They are false solutions because they allow for the perpetuation of an unsustainable development model and energy consumption that got us into this climate change mess in the first place.
In the tragic irony of this world, communities are threatened and killed for resisting projects that contribute to climate change. The campesinos in Ixtahuancan described how the threats to their communities escalate: “ First the companies start gently (suave), trying to bribe the community. They offer a package of 9 projects; 8 of these projects will be for the community (money for schools, hospitals
etc), but these projects are conditioned on the acceptance of the ninth project which is a hydro-electric dam. Communities have to accept the package. This divides communities. If communities continue to resist, they face criminal charges and arrests. If the community still continues to oppose the project and to demand their rights, then the assassinations start.” Already community leaders have had to flee and seek refuge in other countries. Real solutions lie within the wisdom and expertise of the community itself, not on large mega-projects that only add to the wealth of the elites. One of the cardinal rules that must be enshrined in any and all agreements reached in Copenhagen is that the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous and local peoples must be obtained before any project moves forward. Further, they must be involved in an ongoing way to ensure that it benefits those most concerned.
From the perspective of the local communities in Ixtahuancan, an important aspect of their work around alternatives is the recognition and recuperation of Mayan culture and spirituality. “We are not inventing these alternatives. In many cases they are based on the traditional relationship of Mayan communities to land and to nature,” explains Naty Atz. “At first, people asked why the Mayans had so many Gods, why we worshiped the wind, the water, the trees, the animals. Now with all these at risk and as we face the destruction of the planet and everything that sustains life, people are beginning to see why.” These voices from communities in Guatemala are essential in our understanding of climate change in Canada and internationally. In our search for solutions from the community level to the international stage, it is the victims of climate change who must take the lead.
1 Godinez, Mario, Agricultura y Cambio Climatica, CEIBA Guatemala, July 2008
2 Cambio Climatico, sus consecuencias y propuestas para la sobrevivencia, Comunidades Ecologistas, la CEIBA, Costa Rica, September 2008