This is the extended version with previously unpublished images of the story about our October 2013 expedition to a Mayan burial ground: a cave full of ancient human remains in the mountains of Sierra de las Minas in Guatemala. It also includes the story of the Q’eqchi community Caxlampom Pataxte where a foreign palm-oil corporation presently exploits the land and pollutes the environment, with transcribed and translated testimonies given by two members of the indigenous community.
Smoke over the village in the morning
“Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets.”
-Rigoberta Menchu Tum
„Are you afraid of death?” he asks me with the same intonation as if he is asking Do you like yellow flowers. I don’t know how to answer. My mouth becomes dry. „When you go to the graveyard, are you scared?” he clarifies.
„When I was a little girl, yes, I was scared of death and to go in graveyards, but now no. Now I am more afraid of the living than of the dead.“ We both lough at the joke.
We are walking fast on a dirt road through a vast plantation of palm trees, the guy and me, past a palm-oil processing plant, across a wide shallow river, and into the shadow of a jungle-covered mountain. Ivo, Joni, and two other local guys are walking ahead of us.
Ivo, Joni, and two of the guides walking across a palm plantation.
One of the guys is propping a little radio on his shoulder, his ear stuck to it, and is listening to the news the entire time.
“Something happened in Syria again” he announces.
He is small and very serious, with a melancholic expression. His Spanish is good and most of the time he is the one speaking with us. One of the other two guys is his brother; I like him a lot. He is slightly chubby and has the most sincere beautiful smile every time someone is talking to him. Makes him look happy. The third guy doesn’t speak Spanish and doesn’t smile. He is like a ghost. Walks way in front of the group; appears from nowhere, and then disappears again. Sometimes they use signals to communicate between each other from far away.
We have met them this morning. We don’t know their names. We don’t know if they are good guys or bad guys. All we know is that they are young indigenous Q’eqchi men who had nothing to do this particular day and agreed to take us to a cave in the mountain above their village. They are wearing jeans, t-shirts and black rubber boots, carrying small backpacks and machetes.
Mira with the guides before the hike.
The machetes are worrying me a bit. Are they for our protection or what? Protection against whom? And what was this question about death? We are heading to a cave hidden in the jungle with three unknown men armed with machetes who like to talk about death and the war in Syria. Great.
The whole thing happened spontaneously. We were sailing along the remote edge of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s biggest lake, near the valley of river Polochic. The area is largely uninhabited. It is one of the world’s most bio diverse regions where manatees and crocodiles chill in the waters of the delta, giant anteaters, sloths, and jaguars roam the forested land, and howler monkeys, like sad demons, announce from the tops of the trees the end of each day, the most ominous heartbreaking roars. The few villages scattered on the shores of the lake are tiny Mayan Q’eqchi communities whose inhabitants live pretty much the same way as their ancestors hundreds of years ago: fishing, working their milpas harvesting beans and corn, raising chickens and pigs.
Q’eqchi people gathered on the shores of Lake Izabal, Guatemala.
It was getting late; we had to find a place to anchor overnight. We approached the shore where a big column of grey smoke was coming out of the forest: a village, we thought, and that’s where we stopped. From the two boats we saw a few traditional Mayan homes on the banks of the lake. Tiny, made of thin logs and roofs of dry palm leaves. Behind them, like the back of a sleeping iguana, rose the heavy humid mountains of Sierra de las Minas: white limestone covered with thick intensely green jungle.
As we drew closer we realized that the grey smoke was not coming from any of the houses; it was very dense and did not smell of firewood or tortillas. There was something else, something hidden between the village and the mountain, exhaling thick mysterious clouds into the afternoon sky. The night fell.
In the morning the entire village gathered on the shore to greet our kayak. Cacxlampon Pataxte is a small community of about thirty-forty indigenous Q’eqchi families; the majority are children. Tourists don’t stop here often, and so our visit is a huge event.
Caxlampom Pataxte greeting us
“Are there caves near-by?” I ask. Only a few speak Spanish.
„Yes, there is a cave not too far; we can take you there if you like“, says the guy with the melancholic expression.
Thus began our journey.
In the village
Once we enter the jungle and start climbing the mountain there is no road anymore. Our progress upwards is slow and difficult. Our improvised guides use their machetes to cut a path through tangled vegetation, dig holes in the slopes making steps for us, and remove thorns from spiky trees so we can hold on to them. The terrain is extremely harsh, at places seems impossible to pass. We go over crevices stepping on fallen trees and slippery rocks; we zigzag where the mountain is too steep. Here, one mistake, one wrong step could be fatal.
We stop to rest a few times even though the Q’eqchi guys are not tired at all. They tell us they are used to this kind of hikes in the mountains. They have been doing it since kids, since they can remember. They would walk for hours, sometimes days to gather firewood and logs for the construction of their houses and cayucos, and to get from one place to another. “We don’t have other roads but the rivers and mountains. And we don’t have electricity in the village. We depend on the forest. Without wood we cannot make fire, we cannot make tortillas and roast fish; without the forest our children will not eat.”
A traditional Mayan house
We didn’t bring any food and it is already lunchtime. One of the guys pulls out a big bottle of atol from his backpack and passes it around. I love atol: a thick drink prepared with cornflower and water, but this one is without sugar. Still, it is the best thing to bring on a hike: it’s like liquid bread: food and water mixed in a bottle. I take a big gulp. The guy with the nice smile cuts a few small round balls from a thin spiky tree and opens their hard shells with his machete. “We call it Monok, he explains, because the little spikes on the shell make it look a bit like the fur of the howler monkey, como los monos: monok”. The little white nut inside tastes like hazelnut but is softer. Two-three of those contain as much protein as a full meal, and they are everywhere in the forest. You just have to know. When you know, it is easy to reach and take what the forest is so generously offering. But the forest has many secrets.
As we are enjoying our forest snack, I look around. In our feet lies the vast river valley, and beyond: the lake, sparkling, delicious, immense liquid mirror in which the mountain contemplates itself. Behind us, grey rocks like towers without roofs, and in their skin: tiny fossils of ocean creatures, pale empty skeletons, ancient remains of underwater creatures, witness of another time.
Taking a rest from a steep trek.
We are at the bottom of the jungle, on top of the mountain, surrounded by insane vegetation, abundant, pulsating with juices and life, like a still image of some mad extravagant festival: The Secret Life of the Forest. Thin palms with dark spiky skins dance behind luxurious fans of oversized ferns. Giant elders with yellow barks smooth like paper walk heavily, as very important kings do, up and down the mountain, their majestic wigs made of leaves, birds, clouds, and mysteries. Lianas like garlands fall from the forest roof twisting around, stretching and swinging in the shadows of the roaring mountain.
The names of these plants and trees, like poetry, testify to the transience of cultures known to these forests: Poc-xum, Saqi Lokab, Q’eqi Lokab, Lindernia Rotundifolia, Hyptis Recurvate, Russelia Longifolia, Zygadenus Elegans, Quequescamote de Culebra, Plumilla de Gallina, Santa Maria, San Pedro…
By the time we reach the cave, our guides tell us all about their struggles against the palm-oil company which, since over a decade now, is exploiting and polluting their land. The vast plantations of palm trees we have seen on our way, the smoke of the palm-oil treatment plant, the channels dumping chemical waste in the lake, are all killing the trees, poisoning the water, and bringing disease to their children. They have been robbed of their ancestral land by a corporate giant and are now fighting to get it back.
A channel carrying thick dark waste waters across the palm plantation to the lake.
By the time we come back from the cave, we have become friends. The kind of friends who can count on each other. We could count on them for protection against the village crooks and the company people who saw us taking pictures and filming around the palm-oil processing plant; they could count on us to tell their story of struggle against injustice.
Their story is not an exceptional one. It resembles all the other similar stories which take place in a third-world country, where the poorest indigenous people live in a most remote, beautiful, bio diverse setting. Rivers, mountains, forests, and lakes. Endemic wild animals. Abundant evergreen vegetation. Explosion of life. In the rivers: fish. Under the lakes: oil. In the forests: jaguars. Under the mountains: nickel, aluminum, copper, and gold. Vast fertile valleys. A foreign corporation shows up with promises of “progress and development”.
But there is one obstacle for the corporation: the local people. A few people. Small indigenous communities. Small obstacle. The mine/plant/company moves in. Animals/people/communities move out. Or rather, are being moved out/displaced/killed, their habitat destroyed, their homes burned down. Economic interests equal exploitation, corruption, destruction. The story continues with evictions, massacres, pollution, devastation.
Waste waters from the processing plant
Actually, it’s not The End because the story goes on, but that is how it ends for a lot of people and ecosystems throughout the world.
A child drinking water from the river.
In reality, what happened is that they didn’t respect our indigenous rights.
In the beginning, when our grandfathers lived, our grandfathers lived in this part of the land. There, on the lakeshore are the lands we occupied for over two hundred years; the place known as Caxlampom Pataxte. This is the name. ‘Caxlam’ means ‘chicken’. ‘Pom’ is the thing we extract from the trees and we use it for ceremonies and cults.’Pataxte’ is the name of the river, just there next to the lake. For this, our community is called Caxlampom Pataxte.
People from the community.
But then what they’ve done is evict us. The palm-oil company came and the owner of the company told to our grandfathers:
“What a poor life you are living here on the shores of the lake! It is not good! Better, what I am going to do”, said the owner of the company, “I will move you up there, up in the mountains, so that you will live better.”
The company took the lands and promised our fathers to give them work and progress. Thus, our fathers had to move and build their houses in a very small piece of land. But our fathers had ten children. And then the children had children of their own. Where to live? For this reason, taught our fathers, better if we take back our land, which has been ours. We belong to this land.
The only thing the company has done for the community is building a non-functioning clinic which is closed down and deserted.
But the company now said the land is not ours, they called us invaders. ‘People who are stealing land’, this means the word ‘invaders’.
In our political constitution of Guatemala, in the article 122 is said that there is on the shore of lake Izabal a National Area of the State of 200 meters, all along the banks of the lake. No one can be owner of this piece of land. Only an ‘organized community’ can own these lands.
Thus says the article 122. If the law in Guatemala is worth nothing, then let them say we are invaders. But if the law is to be respected in our country, let it be applied! I believe I am not superior to the law, nor are they. We have to respect the law. So, this is what I am asking. If the land is theirs, then what happened with the article 122? And they call us invaders. I pull out my ID. Look, my ID says I was born here; let me see yours. You are foreigners. Señor Juan Melg is foreigner; I think he is from Germany. He came here a few years ago and is calling me and invader? How is it possible?
Now the rich and the foreigners have the best flat lands and our communities are pushed up in the mountains. Why? Because they know how to manipulate the law. There is a great corruption.
NaturAceites was founded in 1985. In 1998, the company began production of palm and palm kernel oils, with the first planting of palm cultivation in the Polochic region. In 2002 started the cultivation, production, extraction, refining and marketing of edible oil, butter, and margarine based on palm fruit
NaturAceites currently operates in three agricultural areas located in Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in Alta Verapaz , El Estor in Izabal and San Luis in Peten , two extraction plants , one in Fray Bartolome de las Casas and the other in El Estor and a refining plant in Escuintla. In previous years local communities have been evicted, their houses and crops burnt, and people slaughtered as a result of locals protesting against the company taking over their lands.
Plantation of palms for palm oil.
In 2011 they kicked me out of work. I worked there for 18 months. My first job was on the irrigation pump. But it was very strong, the chemical waste coming out of the processing plant. In wintertime the pool overflows and the waste gets to the rivers and contaminates them. And the rivers contaminated the lake and the fish died. There is not much fish left in the lake.
Waste-water pool. The stink is indescribable.
The company takes advantage of us, the indigenous people. Even though they pay us a bit of salary our work has more value. But they take advantage of us, as if we are basura (garbage). They put us to work in all the dirtiness and we become very affected because we have to breathe the contaminated air and it is very dangerous for us and also for our children; it is a risk we are taking. All this contaminated air… And the waste they are dumping under the palm trees attracts flies. Now we cannot eat in peace, there are so many flies everywhere, and the children get diseases. Sometimes children die and we don’t know from what class of a sickness. It’s from the contamination. The contamination of the environment is very strong.
Blue fly-catchers placed around the processing plant.
Before it was not like this. Before all this shores of the lake were very beautiful, there were lots of birds, there were monkeys, but now they are no more.
One day there was a visit, I think it was from the United Nations, to inspect the plant, but they only spoke English. Then the engineers told me, as I was the one in charge of all these ugly things, the irrigation pump and the pool that contaminates the rivers with all these chemicals, so what they told me was: ‘There will be a visit now, if they ask you if the pool overflows, you tell them that it never happened. Because if you tell them that the waste overflows in the rivers they will shut down the plant.’
Black waters flow to the rivers and lake.
When they came, they didn’t ask me anything. At the end, the inspectors left satisfied. The bosses gathered us in a room to congratulate us, to tell us that the visit was excellent: the inspectors didn’t see any cont
I was very happy when we finally started to organize with my friends and to recuperate our lands. We organized a group and started discussing things with our grad-parents. Our grand-parents told us that, yes, this land is ours, that the company cheated us. The company promised many things, but all we got is contamination. This is the reality.
I am very happy now that you came here. When people from outside come they can see the reality and tell our story to the rest of the world, they can explain what is happening in our community, what is the company doing. The owners of the company think that we don’t know what is happening, that we cannot express ourselves and tell what we experience. But thanks God our fathers sent us to school and we learned a bit of Spanish. Now we can speak a little bit Spanish, not only Q’eqchi, so that the world understands us more. Now it is not like before. Now, we, the indigenous peoples, are organizing and uprising.
We get to the cave’s entrance after about three hours of extreme hiking through the jungle. It is a small opening in the grey rocks leading down. Our guides stop at the edge of the opening to say a muffled prayer in Q’eqchi before going in. We follow. It is a place they rarely visit, they say, a sacred site for prayers and rituals; for secrets and secret knowledge. We are the first white people to ever enter this cave.
The cave’s entrance.
They lead us into a narrow dark corridor, humid and cool. We get to a small chamber. The light of a small flashlight illuminates scattered objects on the floor: yellow bones, human skulls, lower jaws with crooked teeth. Some are calcified to the cave’s walls; others lay loose on the ground. It is a Tomba Maya, they explain, a Mayan burial ground. The skeletons must be hundreds of years old, they say, from the times before the Conquista.
Human remains inside the cave and a cacao-fruit offering.
Being in the presence of ancient Mayan remains is something both strange and beautiful. In the dark, my mind begins to wander. The cave with its breath of a carnivorous flower becomes a temple; I become a ghost from a faraway land.
“We didn’t think you will make it all the way to the cave”, tell us our Q’eqchi guides, laughing, upon our return from the mountain that day, and invite us to a “celebration” the same evening. I imagine it will be some sort of a party with local food, music and alcohol, maybe even dancing.
As we return to the village at dusk, we are escorted to a house with wide-plank walls and a few separate compartments. There we meet the leader of the organization fighting to recuperate their lands. He shows us documentation and maps proving that according to the Guatemalan law the palm-oil company should not occupy the 200 meter stripe on the shores of the lake. He also says that this area of Sierra de las Minas is a protected national park and therefor industrial activity and environmental pollution should not be allowed, but they are.
Looking at documents in the dark.
A chart of the lake’s shores.
There is no electricity in the village even though the company has promised “progress” and, as the night falls, our hosts bring candles and flashlights. We are served tortillas and fried fish the women have just prepared for us over open-fire stoves. We eat in silence, in the flickering light of the candles, thinking how we can help. What can we possibly do for these people who see in us some sort of saviors?
A woman frying fish for us over the fire.
There are many people in the house: young women working in the open kitchen with dirt floor and no running water, holding flashlights over black pans on the fire; shy kids giggling, sitting in the corners, watching us with respect and curiosity; men walking in and out: impossible to know who exactly lives here, and who is just passing by driven by curiosity to see the ‘foreign visitors’.
The furniture in the room consists of one massive rough wooden table, a few chairs, a plank bed and a few hammocks. All sorts of objects hang on the walls: family photos, green fishing nets, machetes, bags, clothes, instruments. To us all this seems impossibly miserable, yet it is one of the biggest and ‘richest’ houses in the village.
After supper, we start for the church. One of our cave-guides now leads us across the broad cobbled streets of his village without electricity, illuminating our way with a small flashlight. The darkness of a village without electricity is intense. We hear dogs barking from the blackness of yards, we see tiny beams of blue light in the distance: other people with flashlights going somewhere, we choose our step carefully over stones, puddles, and animal dung.
The church, one of four in the small village, is nothing but a hut with wooden walls, palm-leaf roof and dirt floors where a generator allows for a single light bulb to illuminate the space inside. There are huge nails sticking on the inside of the walls on which bundles of sleeping babies are being hung. Three rows of long benches occupied by men, women , and children are placed on both sides of a narrow walk leading to the front stage where men take turns to sing and read passages from the bible in Q’eqchi and, just because of our presence tonight, in Spanish as well. The only musical instrument accompanying the singing is a turtle shell which a young kid rhythmically bangs away with a stick while the rest of the congregation claps hands. Many young men sit close to the electricity plugs where the generator is and charge their cell phones during the entire service. Not exactly the sort of ‘celebration’ we, atheists, have imagined. Yet, we are overwhelmed with joy and so happy to witness all this.
Inside the church.
We are presented to the fifty-sixty people gathered for the celebration as the “guest-foreigners who will help us”, a related passage from the bible is read in our honor, and we are asked to say a few words. I thank them for the hospitality and the friendship, for the food they have shared with us and the trust they have placed upon us, and express my profound humility and joy to be among them. My words are being translated in Q’eqchi for the audience and everyone applauds.
More singing from the Bible follows, a baby receives a blessing in exchange for a bag in which something moves, maybe a chicken, and the celebration ends with a performance by kids who sing for us.
The next day we return to the village to document some more of the palm-oil company secrets. Our new friends show up with a small motorbike with a flat tire and say only one of us can go on the bike with only one of them. That one is me and my camera. After an epic motorbike ride through endless plantations of African palm trees, and a few stops to pump some air in the flat tire, we arrive to a place where a small channel runs across a dead forest and finally dumps its thick black waste-waters in Lake Izabal. I have never before seen a dead forest. It is a haunting apocalyptic vision of what pollution does to nature.
A thin channel carrying chemical waste flows through a dead forest in the outskirts of the village.
Before we leave, we decide it is our turn to invite our new friends to visit us on the boat. We invite only the three cave-guides and their wives but the entire village shows up. It is funny how we think of a home as a one-family unit, and how the Q’eqchi perceive ‘home’ as a community and not as a private space.
Guests on the boat.
I remember asking someone, the first time when we went ashore with the kayak, if it is OK to leave the kayak there, on the shore, and they were amused telling me of course it is OK, it is no one’s land in particular. And then I remember how people were going in and out of houses and yards without knocking on the doors or asking permission. And then I remember how one of our new friends explained to me the meaning of ‘community’ and how the land is to everyone and no one in particular. With this kind of mentality one must expect that if one person from a community is invited, the entire community is invited. And thus, we have almost the entire community of Caxlampom Pataxte, men, women with babies, and children aboard Fata Morgana.
Our kayak in the company of the visiting lanchas and cayucos.
Q’eqchi kids aboard Fata Morgana.
For them it is like visiting a spaceship. I show the women my kitchen with running water and a fridge, Ivo shows the men the solar panels and the electronics: the GPS and the autopilot and explains how we produce freshwater out of saltwater using a special machine, and how the sails work with the wind and the boat moves without engine.
Q’eqchi men aboard Fata Morgana.
“Would you like to travel as well and visit the world?” we ask them.
“We don’t even think of traveling. Every people has its place. This is our place. We are connected to our community, our home. Our land it is our life.”
A Q’eqchi home built with bamboo trees.
A turtle from the lake makes for delicious soup, a great delicacy.
A kid carrying the turtle.
Young Q’eqchi woman with a baby washing clothes in Lake Izabal.
Early morning fisherman.
Mira holding a baby at Comunidad Indigena Caxlampom Pataxte, Lago de Izabal, Guatemala
I have promised to help our Q’eqchi friends. Even if ‘help’ only means ‘expose’. I promised them I will tell their story to the world.
If you want to help too, please share this story, and contact me if you know of an Indigenous Rights organization or a group who could help them further. Thank you- Bantiox!
For further information about the palm-oil company NaturAceites and the history of violence surrounding the Q’eqchi communities in the region, please read the following article by clicking here.