Fish kill in the Rio Pasión, June 6 2015. Photo courtesy of La comision para la defensa de la vida y la naturaleza.

Justice delayed is justice denied in Guatemala’s palm oil-driven human rights crisis

by Jeff Conant, senior international forests program manager

One year after one of the biggest environmental disasters in Latin America — the massive spill of malathion-laden palm oil effluent into Guatemala’s Pasión River — none of the companies involved have been held accountable.

It was June 6, 2015 when palm oil effluent ponds belonging to Guatemalan palm oil company REPSA overflowed into the Pasión River, causing massive fish kills and impacting the lives of 120,000 people that rely on a 100-mile stretch of the river in the municipality of Sayaxché.

REPSA’s palm oil plantations occupy more than 96 square miles in the Petén, the flat, hot, northern region of Guatemala — an area that, only decades ago, was completely covered with rainforest. REPSA is a member of Grupo Olmeca — a conglomerate owned by one of Guatemala’s most powerful families, which controls nearly 46,000 hectares of land across this small Central American country. REPSA sells its product to a number of multinational palm oil traders and consumer brands, including Cargill, Wilmar International and Mexico’s Grupo Bimbo.

The effluent spill, which a Guatemalan court recently ruled is unequivocally linked to REPSA, is one problem. Another is the company’s reaction: when a local community group called the Commission for the Defense of Life and Nature took legal action and won a court ruling last September that called the spill an “ecocide” — the first such ruling ever — and made the company temporarily cease operations, assailants allegedly linked to the company kidnapped three members of the Commission, and shot and killed a fourth, Rigoberto Lima Choc. The company then appealed the court’s decision and carried on with business as usual.

In response to the ecocide and the killing, Friends of the Earth and a coalition of international NGOs called on major palm oil traders that source from Grupo Olmeca, including Wilmar, Cargill, IOI, ADM and Bunge, to publicly denounce the violence and to cancel contracts with Grupo Olmeca, for breaching their palm oil sourcing policies — not to mention flat-out disregard for human rights. This demand is in line with the bottom-line demand of the Commission that REPSA permanently close down its operations.

As a result of the international call, several of the global companies have begun investigating the issue. But none of the companies — neither the multinationals like Cargill and Wilmar nor the Guatemalan companies REPSA and Grupo Olmeca — have been willing to publicly denounce the violence — an action that would send a crucial message that such violence will not be tolerated.

Palm oil cultivation in Guatemala often means forced labor, child labor, serious health impacts and environmental damage.

Guatemala is the Latin American country with the fastest growth in palm oil production; a growth of roughly 10 percent per year. According to a statement put out by Verité, a global labor rights organization, a year before the environmental disaster, palm oil cultivation in Guatemala often means forced labor, child labor, serious health impacts and environmental damage. This is not surprising, given that roughly 8 percent of agricultural producers in Guatemala own 92 percent of agricultural land; in the palm oil sector, six families control an area equivalent to that used by 60,000 subsistence farmers. The growth of Guatemala’s palm oil sector immediately followed the country’s brutal, decades-long civil war, and today, the regions where palm oil is expanding most rapidly are precisely the areas where entire villages were disappeared or displaced — and some of the families that control the palm oil sector are known or believed to have ties to the political and military forces behind the war.

All of which is to say, the violence associated with palm oil in Guatemala will not be quelled overnight. But a clear course of action by multinationals like Wilmar and Cargill, including a public denunciation of the violence and cancellation of their contracts with REPSA, could go a long way towards foregrounding the need for justice.

Every day that these palm oil traders fail to take action is another day that activists remain at risk. On June 6, social movements in Guatemala will take to the streets to demand justice — and when they do, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, and our allies in the environmental movement will stand with them to demand an end to the violence. Justice begins with accountability, and accountability begins with publicly acknowledging the problem; a step that, so far, none of the companies involved have been willing to take.

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