Guatemalans march on capital for water rights

Nearly 15,000 converged on Guatemala City on Earth Day, April 22, the culmination of a cross-country march by peasants and popular organizations to demand local rights over access to water. Marchers set out April 11 from Tecun Uman in the southern coastal department of San Marcos, and from Puruhá, Baja Verapaz, in the central highlands. The March for Water, Mother Earth, Territory and Life was called to "defend water resources against the voracity of agro-industry and extractive industry," according to a statement form the indigenous organization Winaq. The statement said the movement "condemns the abusive, inhuman and impune use of by companies linked to agro-industry and extraction of metals, and the commercialization of the same." The statement called access to water an "elemental human rights," and called for it to be enshrined in Guatemala's constitution.

"We have suffered for many years from the theft and contamination of our rivers," said Daniel Pascual, leader of the United Campesino Committee (CUC). "There is a massive contamination that is generated by the production of African palm oil and the production of sugar cane. Every year these companies use all the water, and leave the campesinos in drought-like conditions due to the divergence of rivers. Water is a point that affects every citizen, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in the city and in rural areas, with money or without money. This is a grave problem."

The march won some support from Guatemala's authorities. A delegation from the Prosecutor for Human Rights (PDH) accompanied the march on its entrance into the city. On April 20, as the march approached the capital, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) issued findings that supported protesters' claims of water being diverted from peasant communities. Said Environment Minister Sydney Samuels in announcing the findings: "There are countless industries and countless farms that divert rivers. We thought we would find a few, but all farms of the South Coast that are handling cane, oil palm, banana and other products are diverting rivers at will." (UDW, April 29; Waging Nonviolence, April 28; La Hora, Prensa Latina, April 21)