GUATEMALA CITY – While Guatemala’s government and agribusiness community is embracing the ethanol boom, groups representing the country’s mass of rural and mainly indigenous poor worry that diverting food resources to production of biofuels will only worsen the problem of hunger.
Although ethanol is already produced in small quantities in this Central American country, it is not possible to use it because of the lack of a law allowing it to be mixed with gasoline in the local market.
According to Armando Boesche, of the Azasgua sugar-industry association, the sugar refineries are already working with ethanol with the intention of selling to markets in the United States and Europe, which have opened to the product as a partial substitute for petroleum.
The Guatemalan sugar industry currently has four factories that produce ethanol that is exported to Mexico. One of the largest refineries, the Magdalena facility located on the country’s southern coast, produces some 420,000 liters of ethanol daily for conversion into fuel.
But the project being promoted by the U.S. government in Latin America to use agricultural products, mainly corn, for making biofuels has been rejected by local campesinos, indigenous and grassroots groups.
Orlando Blanco, of the Collective of Social Organizations, said this project would result in a “world food catastrophe” because using a large quantity of corn to produce one gallon of ethanol “is an offense to the people who are dying of hunger.”
In Guatemala, Blanco said, the project would cause a “devastating” crisis because it would cause the production of basic grains to disappear in the country, where 50% of the population depends on subsistance agriculture and the basic food in the diet of virtually everyone is corn.
The head of the National Campesino Organizations Coordinator, Aparicio Pérez, seconded Blanco’s warning, saying that the ethanol-from-corn production project would cause more poverty and hunger in a nation where malnutrition is already widespread.
Pérez said that government approval of planting and exporting corn to produce biofuels would violate the Food Security Law.
The massive cultivation of corn with the goal of fuel production is “a grave threat to the food security of Guatemalans,” said Carlos Arreaga, of the Kabawil Campesino Council.
Arreaga said that big landowners here are going to dedicate themselves to the production of corn for export to the ethanol producers, a move that will affect the campesino sector substantially and cause more malnutrition and famine.
Official figures indicate that one in every two children in the interior of the country suffers from chronic malnutrition, and 80% of the 13 million Guatemalans live in conditions of poverty.
Campesino Unity Committee head Daniel Pascual said that ethanol is the response of the great powers to the crisis caused by their lack of control over petroleum production.
The campesino sectors say that the United States wants to make small countries like Guatemala “the paradises of mono-cultivation for corn or sugarcane so that they provide the raw materials to produce ethanol.”
The governments of Brazil and the United States, the world’s two main producers of ethanol, last March signed a memorandum of understanding to increase their cooperation in biofuels and involve the countries of Central America and the Caribbean in the production and local consumption of the product.
Guatemalan Foreign Minister Gert Rosenthal said last March that his country is interested in diversifying its energy market to increase the use of ethanol because it has the possibility of being an important provider of that biofuel from sugarcane.
Guatemala has some 213,000 hectares planted in sugarcane, which in the 2006-2007 harvest produced some 2.3 million tons of sugar.