Global Palm Oil Traders Acknowledge the Need to Prevent Human Rights Abuses in Guatemala

Civil Society Pressure Shines a Spotlight on Ongoing Environmental Destruction and Murder in Guatemala’s Palm Sector

June 8, 2016

One year after a massive spill of toxic palm oil effluent into Guatemala’s Pasión River that was labeled an ‘ecocide’ by a Guatemalan court, and nine months after the killing of a Guatemalan activist who denounced the spill, social movement groups in Guatemala are still demanding justice, and companies have begun to recognize that such violence and ecocide must not be tolerated.

Last week, Cargill, one of the largest purchasers of palm oil from Guatemala, published a statement requiring REPSA, the Guatemalan company that was the defendant in the ecocide case, to take a series of actions to prevent future violence. The same day, REPSA published a “Policy on Non Violence and Intimidation.”

The companies’ statements come in the wake of a series of tragic events, and as a response to continued pressure from Guatemalan civil society and international advocacy groups.

Following a deadly spill of pesticide-laden palm oil waste into the Pasión River in the municipality of Sayaxché in northern Guatemala in June 2015, a Guatemalan court ruled the spill an “ecocide” and ordered that REPSA suspend operations pending investigation. Immediately following the ruling, in September, 2015, one of the plaintiffs, Q’eq’chi Mayan schoolteacher Rigoberto Lima Choc, was shot and killed.

In response, civil society groups in Guatemala have pursued a series of legal actions and non-violent protests, and a coalition of international advocacy groups including Friends of the Earth-US, Rainforest Action Network, ActionAid USA, Oxfam America and the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA have called on global palm oil giants Wilmar, Cargill, IOI, ADM, AAK and Bunge to publicly denounce the violence, cut ties to REPSA, and take clear steps to address human rights risks in their supply chains. Friday’s statements from Cargill and REPSA are the first visible signs that companies recognize the need to address civil society’s demands.

“The clear denunciation of violence by both Cargill and REPSA is a positive step and clearly needed given the recent murder and kidnapping of activists,” said Gemma Tillack, Agribusiness Campaign Director for Rainforest Action Network. “The statement issued by Cargill contains a number of clear demands that REPSA must comply with to maintain contracts – but this falls short of local civil society demands for the shut down of REPSA’s palm oil operations that were responsible for the ecocide of the Pasión River.”

“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. “But real transformation will only come when the rights of local people take full precedence over the profits of agribusiness.”

“REPSA has thus far not engaged civil society groups effectively and there is no indication that the security situation in the region will allow for meaningful and safe dialogue with local groups,” Conant added. “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. The companies must take their cues from the demands of organized civil society in Guatemala to avoid creating more conflict.”

The anniversary of the June, 2015 toxic leak and fish kill that covered over 100 kilometers in the Pasión River was marked by a march in which some 800 residents of Sayaxché took to the streets to demand justice. A key demand of many local groups is that REPSA permanently cease its operations in the region.

REPSA’s Non-Violence and Intimidation Policy is open for two months of public comment, but the company has not yet provided a plan for engagement with local stakeholders. Cargill has made it known that in order to continue doing business with REPSA, REPSA must “engage local communities and civil society groups… to rebuild trust by creating a participatory process in partnership with local communities and civil society.”

Relations between the palm oil supplier and local groups is especially tense due to the unresolved murder of environmental and human rights defender Rigoberto Lima Choc immediately following a court ruling against REPSA last September. The international NGO coalition is concerned that the companies’ positions are out of touch with local communities that are calling for the full rejection of REPSA’s operations in the region.

“Lima Choc’s murder shows the severity of the threats facing activists, and remains an open wound that will not be healed by words on paper,” said Kelsey Alford-Jones, Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. “Yesterday, hundreds of brave community members gathered in Sayaxché to demand that REPSA permanently close down its operations.”

“Thousands of Guatemalans rely on the Pasión River to earn a living and feed their families, but the negligent actions of REPSA are putting their way of life at risk. REPSA and its parent company, Grupo Olmeca, must be held to account for the damage its operations have done to these communities,” said Doug Hertzler, Senior Policy Analyst at ActionAid USA.

It is too early to tell what repercussions Cargill’s statement may have for the resolution of grievances in Guatemala, or for its palm oil supply, much of which is sold in Europe.

“While some companies that source from REPSA and Grupo Olmeca, including Cargill, have listened to civil society asks and taken positive steps, others remain silent,” noted Oxfam America Policy Advisor Aditi Sen. “All companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, and must have transparent processes in place to investigate human rights impacts in their supply chains and ensure that those harmed by their operations or suppliers are able to access remedy.”

Other companies that purchase from REPSA, directly or indirectly, include global palm oil traders Wilmar, IOI, ADM, AAK and Bunge.


Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
Friends of the Earth-United States
Rainforest Action Network
Oxfam America
ActionAid USA

For more information on the case, visit GHRC’s website:


Organizaciones internacionales celebran la apertura a juicio del caso CREOMPAZ

GHRC has joined six other international organizations in applauding the recent ruling in the CREOMPAZ case. On June 7, a Guatemalan judge ruled that 8 former military officials would face trial on charges of forced disappearance and crimes against humanity. The judge had heard weeks of testimony and reviewed extensive evidence uncovered on the CREOMPAZ military base in Cobán, including 565 bodies exhumed from 85 clandestine cemeteries. Fourteen people were initially detained in January, and eight others remain fugitives of justice. International organizations expressed concern about acts of intimidation and hate speech used during the process, but called the ruling an important step in the fight against impunity.  

8 de junio de 2016

El día de ayer, la jueza Claudette Domínguez, del Juzgado de Mayor Riesgo A, ordenó que Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, exjefe del Estado Mayor General del Ejército, junto con otros 7 exmilitares, deben enfrentar un juicio por desaparición forzada y crímenes contra los deberes de humanidad, sobre la base de pruebas científicas y testimonios de sobrevivientes. Asimismo concluyó la etapa intermedia del proceso que había iniciado el 3 de mayo de 2016.

En 2012, en el marco de la investigación del caso, fueron hallados 85 cementerios clandestinos en la zona militar de Cobán—hoy sede del Comando Regional de Entrenamiento de Operaciones de Paz, CREOMPA—, en los cuales se exhumaron las osamentas de 565 personas, entre niños, niñas, adultos y mayores, pertenecientes a los pueblos maya de Poqomchí, Achí, Q’eqchí, K’iché, Poqomchi’, Achi, Q’eqchi’, K’iche’ e Ixil. Hasta la fecha, se ha logrado identificar a 128 víctimas, representadas en el proceso penal por seis organizaciones que actúan como querellantes, y apoyan la labor del Ministerio Público, para poner fin a la impunidad que persiste desde hace más de 35 años.

El pasado 6 de enero, fueron detenidos 14 exmilitares de alto rango, quienes desempeñaron sus funciones en la zona militar 21 de Cobán, entre 1980 y 1987. En esa época, ocurrieron numerosas desapariciones forzadas y otras graves violaciones a los derechos humanos contra la población civil, cometidas por el Ejército de Guatemala en todo el territorio nacional. Ocho personas siguen prófugas de la justicia en este caso.

Además, en mayo del presente año, el Juzgado dictó la falta de mérito en contra de tres de los exmilitares capturados, y separó del proceso penal a otro de los acusados para determinar su capacidad mental para enfrentar un juicio penal.

Son preocupantes los actos de intimidación ocurridos en el marco del proceso en contra de los defensores y las defensoras de derechos humanos con vinculación al mismo, por parte de personas y organizaciones afines a los militares procesados. Asimismo, hubo varias manifestaciones en pro de los militares sindicados en frente del Tribunal, antes y después de las audiencias, con carteles y eslóganes hostiles y agresivos en contra de las personas y organizaciones cercanas al caso. Estos hechos evidencian un discurso de odio que pretende desacreditar a las víctimas y los querellantes adhesivos y generar un clima de miedo. Cabe recordar que es responsabilidad del Estado brindar las medidas adecuadas para garantizar la seguridad de los sujetos procesales y del público presente en las audiencias.

Las organizaciones internacionales que suscriben este comunicado celebran la apertura a juicio en el caso. Esta decisión representa un paso importante para la lucha contra la impunidad de las graves violaciones a los derechos humanos, ocurridas durante el conflicto armado interno en Guatemala, y para el cumplimiento de la obligación del Estado de investigar, juzgar y sancionar dichos crímenes. Decisiones como ésta, representan el camino a seguir para garantizar el acceso a la justicia y a la verdad, de las víctimas de estos graves delitos y sus familiares, así como de la sociedad guatemalteca en general.


Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
International Platform against Impunity
Due Process of Law Foundation
Lawyers Without Borders Canada
Impunity Watch
Washington Office on Latin America
Center for Justice and International Law

Relatos del Tribunal: La primera semana de audiencias del caso Sepur Zarco

Por Dania Rodríguez*

[Read in English]

El camino de la justicia para las mujeres q’eqchí, sobrevivientes de violencia sexual y doméstica en el destacamento de Sepur Zarco finalmente ha llegado al inicio del debate oral y público el 1 de febrero de 2016. Los acusados, detenidos en 2014, son el Teniente Coronel Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón y el comisionado militar Heriberto Valdez Asig.

Los delitos que el Ministerio Público y abogadas querellantes probaran en contra de los acusados son, en el caso del teniente Coronel Reyes: delitos de deberes contra la humanidad en su forma de violencia sexual, esclavitud sexual y doméstica en contra de 11 mujeres; asesinato de tres mujeres (madre y dos hijas) y tratos crueles en contra de dos niñas. Para el comisionado militar Valdez: desaparición forzada de seis hombres, esposos de seis mujeres víctimas y delitos de deberes contra la humanidad en su forma de violencia sexual en contra de una mujer. Para ello se presentaran peritajes antropológicos, históricos, sociológicos, militares y testimonios de las mujeres víctimas y sobrevivientes y de otras personas que presenciaron los hechos. Continue reading

International organizations applaud the initiation of the Sepur Zarco trial

[Abajo en español]

International organizations applaud the initiation of the first trial for sexual slavery and violence during the armed conflict in Guatemala: the Sepur Zarco Case

Guatemala, Washington D.C. and San José, February 1, 2016.- Today the trial begins in the “Sepur Zarco” case of acts of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery committed from 1982 to 1986 by members of the Guatemalan army against Maya Q’eqchi’ women and the forced disappearance of several men. The accused in the case are former soldier Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig.

This will be the first time in the world that a national court has tried a case of wartime sexual slavery case – other cases have been heard in international criminal tribunals – and the first time in Guatemala that crimes of sexual violence have been tried as international crimes. “The Guatemalan judicial system has been a pioneer in investigating complex crimes, demonstrating to other countries that confront similar challenges that it can be done,” stated Leonor Arteaga, a program officer with the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF). Continue reading

Victoria para La Puya: Corte guatemalteca ordena suspensión de trabajos de construcción en la mina El Tambor

La GHRC aplaude el fallo de un tribunal de amparo de Guatemala que el 15 julio ordenó que se realice una consulta de vecinos sobre proyectos que los afecten y ordenó la suspensión de trabajos de construcción en la mina El Tambor.

El fallo es un indicio positivo para los miembros de las municipalidades de San Pedro Ayampuc y San José del Golfo quienes se han unido en resistencia pacífica para oponerse a un proyecto que consideran altamente dañino.

El movimiento conocido como ‘La Puya’ ha mantenido una presencia los 24 horas al día, 365 díal al año en la entrada del sitio por más de tres años. Durante ese tiempo La Puya ha denunciado actos intimidatorios e ilegales de parte de la empresa guatemalteca que posee la licencia de minería, EXMINGUA, junto con su casa matriz Kappes, Cassidy & Associates, empresa estadounidense con sede en Reno, Nevada.

La querella legal presentada en octubre de 2014 por las autoridades de dos comunidades afectadas, El Carrizal y El Guapinol, acusa al gobierno municipal de no cumplir con su deber de actuar por el bien de los ciudadanos.

La denuncia acusa al Consejo Municipal de San Pedro Ayampuc -donde se ubica la mina – de fallar en su deber de detener los trabajos de construcción en la mina y de no defender los intereses de las comunidades afectadas. Argumentan que el Consejo tenía la responsabilidad de actuar dado su conocimiento que la empresa había violado la ley operando sin licencia de construcción, teniendo documentación de preocupaciones sobre la contaminación y la cualidad del agua y por no haber llevado al cabo una válida consulta previa.
Continue reading

From Shared Stories, Solidarity

I just got back from Guatemala, and wanted to share my experience while I was there. As an intern, I had the opportunity to attend GHRC’s August delegation to Guatemala, titled Women in Resistance. In addition to meeting with different human rights organizations and the U.S. Embassy, we were fortunate enough to listen to the testimony of Ixil genocide survivors. Before beginning their testimony, they admitted that repeating their stories to us would be emotionally draining. Yet they understood that we were there to foster solidarity, and we assured them that we would share their experiences with our contacts back in the U.S. After three hours of listening to the five women speak about their experiences during the conflict, the room fell silent. None of the delegates knew how to respond to what we had just heard. I personally could not imagine the suffering that these women expressed to us: horrific details of rape; soldiers burning everything they owned; families fleeing to the mountains, just to watch their own children die from starvation. I had read similar stories through my GHRC internship. However, as I listened to these women weep and scream while recounting their experiences, I understood the raw reality of the genocide and witnessed the strength of these women for surviving to tell their stories. Ixil survivor with poster As we absorbed what we had just heard, Kelsey, GHRC Director, broke the silence by presenting the survivors with a poster. The poster displayed comments posted by our supporters to GHRC’s Facebook page. The comments demonstrated the vast international support and solidarity with all victims of the Guatemalan genocide. The women in turn expressed their gratitude that they are not alone in the fight to achieve justice. From Mara Goldberg, Intern, GHRC/USA