Palm oil’s toxic legacy in Guatemala

by Jeff Conant, senior international forests program manager

One year ago, a series of spills dumped toxic palm oil effluent into the Pasión River where it runs through the municipality of Sayaxché in Guatemala’s Peten region. The spills were the latest in a long history of abuses associated with Guatemala’s palm oil industry — in this case likely tied to a Guatemalan company called Reforestadora de Palmas del Petén, S.A. (REPSA).

In a landmark decision, a judge in Guatemala ruled that the spill constituted “ecocide” and ordered REPSA to temporarily cease operations in order to undertake an investigation. Then things got ugly: the day after the decision, Rigoberto Lima Choc, a community leader who denounced the spill, was killed in broad daylight, the judge was forced to step down, and the ruling was overturned.

Today, the killer remains at large while the company remains in business.

Today, the killer remains at large while the company remains in business. The palm oil produced by REPSA continues being sold to the palm oil industry, and the multinational traders involved, including Cargill and Wilmar, the biggest in the business, have largely carried on with business as usual.

To be fair, popular pressure has led to some changes: in June, Cargill published a statement requiring REPSA to take a series of actions to prevent future violence, immediately followed by a similar statement from Wilmar. REPSA itself published a “Policy on Non Violence and Intimidation” and developed a sustainability plan, which brings with it a strong dose of public relations, including this promotional video.

But few of the company’s statements cohere with the version of events portrayed by the communities affected by the spills, which is why Friends of the Earth has produced a short video, Palm Oil’s Toxic Legacy in Sayaxché, Guatemala that tells a different version of the story:

There are immediate steps that can be taken to address the disaster in the Pasión River — most notably, requiring companies that source palm oil from the region to denounce the events and to produce publicly accessible documentation of their efforts to undertake human rights, environmental and legal due diligence, which is what Friends of the Earth is calling for. At the same time, there is no doubt that this particular case must be understood within the long history of conquest, colonization, violence and marginalization suffered by the indigenous peoples of the region — part of what is discussed, if briefly, in the video.

Berta’s presence has become ubiquitous at gatherings for social and environmental justice…yet absolutely nothing has changed in the investigation of her death.

Across the border in Honduras, the concerns are little different. Recently, September 3 marked the six-month anniversary of the assassination of Berta Cáceres. In the months since her murder, Berta’s presence has become ubiquitous at gatherings for social and environmental justice, from the Democratic National Convention to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs — yet absolutely nothing has changed in the investigation of her death. The Honduran government has still not captured the intellectual authors, nor have they provided any new information to the Cáceres family about the proceedings. Support continues to build for Congressional efforts to advance the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act HR5474 and demands the government of Honduras to allow an international independent investigation into her assassination.

Berta Cáceres, co-founder of the National Council of Popular and INdigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) speaking with community members. Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

Both cases are given attention in a report released last week by Amnesty International called “We Defend the Land with Our Blood.” The report documents what the human rights organization calls “an insidious wave of threats, bogus charges, smear campaigns, attacks and killings of environmental and land activists in recent months” that “has made Honduras and Guatemala the most dangerous countries on earth for those protecting natural resources.” The report is focused not only on the situation of human rights defenders, but specifically of environmental human rights defenders — those fighting to protect the environment from large-scale mining, logging, agri-business and hydroelectric projects.

“Defending human rights is one of the most dangerous professions in Latin America but daring to protect vital natural resources takes these risky jobs to a whole new, potentially lethal level,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International in the press release for the report.

An astounding 65 percent (122 out of 185) of the murders of human rights defenders working on issues related to land, territory or the environment registered across the world in 2015 were from Latin America. At least eight of these killings took place in Honduras and 10 in Guatemala — making them the highest rate per capita in the region.

As we campaign to hold multinational corporations accountable for their impacts on the environment, the broader human rights context, the impunity that reigns among government security forces and the astounding lack of legal remedies must be front and center in our understanding of the forces at work.

Amnesty International’s report also includes an update on the ongoing crisis in the Aguan Valley, another region where palm oil interests have caused serious social upheaval, and where activists are brutally criminalized for defending their lands. “Between 2010 and 2016,” Amnesty reports, “around 700 campesinos (peasant farmers) from the [Aguan Valley] were the subjects of legal proceedings. In the past year they have been the victims of six attacks, three kidnappings, 16 cases of permanent surveillance, five cases of infiltration of the movement and eight cases of harassment.”

We believe these companies have an obligation to publicly disclose their links to such abuses as ecocide and human rights violations, to provide some degree of remedy…and — when it becomes abundantly clear that the abuses are intractable — to get out and stay out.

Both Cargill and Wilmar, among other multinationals, source palm oil from the Aguan Valley and sell it on the global market. Behind the scenes, both companies are taking some steps to address the violence — but, with their primary motivation being to continue extracting resources and profit from these troubled regions, we need to question whether these companies are the appropriate actors to address an out of control human rights crisis.

With the lives of environmental human rights defenders increasingly under threat, what is the role of the multinational companies, and their financiers, that drive and incentivize resource extraction and the violence that too often accompanies it? At Friends of the Earth, we believe these companies have an obligation to publicly disclose their links to such abuses as ecocide and human rights violations, to provide some degree of remedy (as called for by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights), and — when it becomes abundantly clear that the abuses are intractable — to get out and stay out.

Take action: Tell Cargill and Wilmar to cancel their contracts with REPSA until justice has been done!