As part of its new ‘Grow’ campaign, Oxfam has been highlighting the desperate situation of the poor in Guatemala, who already spend 70 per cent of their income on food. And with the country increasingly reliant on imports of staple foods, Guatemalans are struggling to provide for their families.
Part of the problem is that large areas of Guatemala’s land are devoted to cash crops for export, such as as coffee, sugar-cane and cotton. A few years ago, campaigners for the advancement of Guatemala’s poor put their hopes in legislation which would have required landowners to allocate a tenth of arable land for planting grains. However, this legislation was squashed by powerful land-owning elites. In Guatemala, around two-fifths of land is owned by less than 8 per cent of agricultural producers. Small farmers also receive low prices from supply chains and legislation to try and redress the balance was also dropped.
This week the Guardian reports on a new threat to local food production in Guatemala – the global demand for palm oil. According to the National Institute of Agrarian and Rural Studies in Guatemala City, the area of land taken up by palm plantations increased over 140 per cent between 2005 and 2010. With biofuel schemes attracting around 20 billion dollars each year in subsidies from western governments, palm oil fetches a high price for use in agrofuels. Vast quantities of palm oil are also used by food companies in products such as margarine, chocolate, biscuits and ready-made meals. The World Bank estimates its use in these kinds of processed foods will double between 2000 and 2050 as consumers in developing countries change their eating habits.
The rising demand for palm oil means many Guatemalan growers are abandoning old crops of cotton, cattle and coffee, to grow palm. And there is a grab for more land. Agents for large agribusinesses are reported to be intimidating smallholders to sell or rent out their land for cultivation. Protected wetlands and forests are also being cleared at an increasing rate and rivers are being diverted to irrigate fields of palm trees. Climate experts warn that with extreme weather conditions, rivers may revert to their natural courses washing away any land caught in between.
Oxfam’s country director in Guatemala says that with corn and soya bean production decreasing and little investment to help small farmers, the country is experiencing a food crises, with more than 800,000 Guatemalans suffering from acute malnutrition. The Guatemalan government recognizes the huge level of poverty and hunger faced by its citizens, but so far has proved powerless to implement the deep changes necessary to improve the food situation.