Palm oil companies acknowledge human rights abuses in Guatemala

Congolese woman processing palm oil to be used for food consumption and soap manufacturing. (Credit: MONUSCO Photos/Flickr)

Palm oil production has a history rife with human rights abuses in countries around the world, and Guatemala is no exception. Last June, a massive spill of toxic palm oil (later labeled an “ecocide) contaminated Guatemala’s Pasión River, quickly followed by the killing of an activist who denounced the spill. Now, one year later, companies in the Central American country have begun to recognize that such violence and ecocide must not be tolerated.

Cargill, one of the largest purchasers of palm oil from Guatemala, published a statement last week requiring REPSA, the Guatemalan company responsible for the spill, to take a series of actions to prevent future violence. The same day, REPSA published a “Policy on Non Violence and Intimidation.

The statements come in response to continued pressure from Guatemalan civil society and international advocacy groups, who are still demanding justice for the killing of Q’eq’chi Mayan schoolteacher Rigoberto Lima Choc in September 2015.

But the fact that it’s taken nearly a year just to acknowledge such incidents is a mark of the striking disconnect between the companies and the locals who are directly affected by their operations.

“Cargill’s public position against violence and REPSA’s promise of reform are significant,” said Jeff Conant, senior international forests program director at Friends of the Earth-US, in a statement. “But real transformation will only come when the rights of local people take full precedence over the profits of agribusiness.”

A key demand of many local groups is that REPSA permanently cease its operations in the region, but for now, the company’s operations remain suspended.

The impact palm oil production has had on Guatemalans is mirrored in regions around the globe. Palm oil is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America and South America, and 85 percent of all palm oil globally produced and exported is from Indonesia and Malaysia alone.

In these two countries, the palm oil industry has been linked to major human rights violations, including child labor. A new report from Rainforest Action Network provided the most recent evidence of this trend, revealing that two certified “sustainable” Indonesian palm oil plantations allegedly exploited workers, exposing them to hazardous chemicals without adequate protection and turning a blind eye to the use of child labor on plantations.

Palm oil plantations are often promoted as a way of bringing development to low-income, rural regions, sometimes in indigenous communities. But frequently, the government will prioritize the economy and allow these corporations to take land owned by local or indigenous peoples for their own financial gain.

With such plantations systematically destroying the land that the local people depend on, communities have little choice but to work on the plantations, often under degrading working conditions and with meager pay. In this way, communities become reliant on the success of the palm oil industry for their income and survival.

In 2004, the palm oil industry responded to international criticism of its negative social and environmental impacts in the launch of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Nonetheless, human rights advocates say the social impacts have not been adequately addressed.

In an attempt to fill this gap, a coalition of NGOs and other groups released a guide last year to set minimum standards for the plantations, providing companies with clear, detailed standards for working conditions and how companies can comply with them.

The palm oil industry still has a long way to go, and progress to reform it has been slow. But the communities most affected by palm oil operations are often also the most vulnerable, and companies have a responsibility to listen to the public’s needs, said Conant from Friends of the Earth.

“There is a clear need for the companies to act – but company engagement in regions suffering high levels of violence and weak governance is extremely delicate,” Conant said in a statement. “The companies must take their cues from the demands of organized civil society in Guatemala to avoid creating more conflict.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com