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Palm oil production tied to revolutionary ruling of ‘ecocide’ in Guatemala

La Pasión river in the northern region of Peten, Guatemala. (Credit: PAHO/WHO – David Spitz)

The cultivation of palm oil has long been blamed for the pollution of rivers, destruction of forests and the displacement of communities worldwide. Today, the industry has also been accused of violating human rights – possibly including murder – which led to a revolutionary ruling of ‘ecocide’ in Guatemala.

An African palm oil corporation, Empresa Reforestadora de Palma de Petén SA (REPSA), has been blamed for the contamination of La Pasión river in the northern region of Peten, Guatemala. The contamination occurred on April 28, two days before millions of dead fish showing signs of asphyxiation emerged along the river.

Gathered under the Commission for the Defense of Life and Nature, a dozen collectives and public entities filed a lawsuit against the company for the fish die-off and its effects on more than 22,000 residents living in the region, according to TeleSUR.

On Sept. 17, Judge Carla Hernandez of the Peten Environmental Crimes Court ordered the company to temporarily suspend operations while the charges were investigated (an order which, according to a report from the Guatemalan newspaper La Hora, REPSA ignored).

The ruling immediately sparked controversy. The day after the court’s decision, 28-year-old environmental activist Rigoberto Lima was shot and killed in broad daylight by two unidentified men, who were seen fleeing on a motorcycle. Lima was a leader among those who filed the lawsuit against the company, which raised some suspicion over whether REPSA was involved in the shooting.

So far, the company has denied all responsibility for the river contamination. A small group of residents who sympathize with REPSA filed an appeal to overturn the court’s decision, although it was rejected last month, marking an important victory for activists and international organizations seeking wider recognition of ‘ecocide’ as an international crime against peace.

Guatemalans first noticed the contamination of the river when waves of dead fish began washing up on the riverbanks of La Pasión near the Mexican border. According to an investigation by the Guatemalan Indymedia Center, the deaths of the fish and other reptiles, mammals and birds occurred after basins of insecticides used by REPSA overflowed and formed a 70-centimeter layer over the river’s surface. The run-off, which is believed to have consisted mainly of the pesticide Malathion, effectively suffocated the organisms underneath.

People living nearby showed symptoms of intoxication – skin welts, fever, headaches, nausea and diarrhea – and were unable to use the water for drinking or for personal hygiene, according to TeleSUR. The environmental catastrophe is especially traumatic for a rural country like Guatemala, whose people rely on natural sources of fresh water to fish, cook, clean and drink.

“We can call the case a crime against humanity, because not only were various species of the river are dying, but the river is also part of our historical culture, of our territory,” community leader Saul Paau told the Guatemala Indymedia Center. ”We get our food from it, and the contamination and the fish deaths today have violated the food security of all of us.”

The production of African palm oil dates back to its introduction to the global market in the 1970s. As demand grew in recent decades, according to Alternet, Guatemala opened its lands to the production of the monocrop. Since 2000, much of the land in northern Guatemala has been acquired by palm oil plants, which manufacturers promote as a cheap vegetable oil that can be found in most detergents, shampoos, polishes, industrial lubricants and biofuels.

(Credit: Oxfam America)

(Credit: Oxfam America)

Palm oil production in Guatemala has been tied to the displacement of indigenous communities and has supposedly rendered previously fertile land incapable of growing new crops, according to Alternet, due to the invasive root structure of the monocrop. And as the palm oil industry grows, farmers are being forced from their land and become more reliant, instead, on the rivers for their livelihoods and survival.

“We need the fish from our river,” said Juan Ixic, a member of the Committee for Community Development, in an interview with Alternet. “We are without land because of the expansion of the palm. There are people migrating to Mexico, and we are seeing the disintegration of families. We have become poorer.”

The contribution of palm oil production to these people’s suffering is hard to deny, but not everyone supports the accusations against REPSA for the contamination and the mass fish die-off. Some critics question whether it is fair to blame the river’s contamination on palm plantations at all, instead suggesting the contamination may have occurred as a result of drug labs in the jungle pouring chemicals into the river.

For now, the louder argument is from those who see REPSA’s denial of the incident as a broader issue of governmental compliance with foreign industries at the expense of local communities and ecosystems. In line with this view, Juan Castro from the Association of Mayan Lawyers argues that the REPSA case exposes the lack of oversight on the palm industry.

“This was not an accident,” Castro said in a news conference. “This represents an economic model that cannot be controlled. There also exists compliance by the government and its institutions have not put in place a control over the industry, and hold those responsible for the pollution.”



About Author

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 or see her latest work at