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.

Signed:

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: http://www.ghrc-usa.org/our-work/current-cases/african-palm-oil-production-repsa-ecocide-case/

 

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.

Firmado:

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

La Puya Protest at the Ministry of Energy and Mines

Gallery

This gallery contains 7 photos.

La Puya activists staged a protest in front of the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Defense (MEM) in Guatemala City today to demand that the government body act on the Supreme Court’s ruling to suspend the license of Kappes, Cassiday … Continue reading

In Ferguson and in Guatemala

Over the last week, we have listened with growing horror as news reached us from Monte Olivo, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Since 2010, residents of the region who oppose the construction of the Santa Rita hydroelectric dam have been victim to various attacks, including one in August 2013 that left two young boys dead.http://org.salsalabs.com/dia/track.jsp?key=-1&url_num=2&url=http%3A%2F%2Forg.salsalabs.com%2Fo%2F2690%2Fp%2Fdia%2Faction3%2Fcommon%2Fpublic%2F%3Faction_KEY%3D16152

Then, last week, according to the Prensa Comunitaria, the government deployed over 1,000 police to Monte Olivo to evict 160 families of the community 9 de Febrero. As helicopters flew overhead, police and day laborers destroyed homes and assaulted residents, leaving several people injured. Five people were also arrested in Monte Olivo, as well as two others in nearby Raxruhá. In response, hundreds of people blocked the highway to prevent the passage of the police. In an ensuing conflict between protesters and police, three men were killed in the community of Semacoch, allegedly by police gunfire, and several people were injured, including six police. Eight police were also detained by protesters, but have since been released.

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National Maya Peoples’ Strike – Press Release from the Western People’s Council

On June 23, 2014, thousands of people from various indigenous organizations and communities marched at several points across Guatemala to demand that their rights be respected. Read why they marched, from the Western People’s Council, below.

[En Español aquí CPO Comunicado Paro Nacional del Pueblo Maya]

Equal dignity and rights is one of the fundamental pillars of peaceful and harmonious living; but history shows that we as Maya Peoples have been robbed of these rights for over 500 years.

National Maya Peoples Strike

Reasons:

We were and continue to be who supports the economy of the State and it’s clearly demonstrated that if we stop working, the economy of Guatemala will come to a halt.

Our political proposal consists of institutionalizing the practice of a dignified life in all policies of the State. Therefore, we are promoting the effective participation of the legitimate authorities and representatives of Maya Peoples chosen by an assembly process.

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Guatemala News Update March 8-14

Under the Volcano: Mining conflicts in Guatemala erupting in violence

Tensions continue to grow over mineral exploitation in Guatemala. One mining resistance movement, extraordinary for its dedication to non-violence and its success to date, is La Puya. The movement celebrated its second anniversary on March 3rd. The movement has lessons to offer other movements in Guatemala, as well as environmental movements in the U.S. 

Backlash continues over hydroelectric projects in Guatemala

An estimated 20,000 people demonstrated in Guatemala City last week against a plan to expand energy projects throughout rural areas of Guatemala complaining that energy prices are too high and that hydroelectric projects would result in displacement and land seizures. Of 57 sources of conflict identified by the country’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, 17 are hydroelectric projects, including Chixoy and Xalalá. 

“There’s no justice for the people whose human rights were violated,” Kelsey Alford-Jones, executive director of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission USA, said. Major hydroelectric and mining projects are notorious for “corruption and rubber stamping of environmental impact reports,” which has “led to severe lack of trust in public institutions.”

Survivors remember victims of Río Negro Massacre

Carmen Sánchez, whose son Miguel was murdered in the Río Negro Massacre at three years old on May 14, 1982, remembers her son and other victims of the massacre that was the devastating result of the installation of the Chixoy Dam. Community members, including Carmen, knew there were conflicts related to the pending dam, but never thought the soldiers would come to Río Negro. Thirty-two years later, justice has still not come. Through the Appropriations Act passed by the U.S. Congress, Carmen and other survivors are hoping that peace will come one day.

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Guatemala News Update February 1-7

Attorney General Paz y Paz ordered to step down in May

Guatemala’s Constitutional Court provisionally ruled that Attorney General Paz y Paz will end her term in May of this year instead of December.  International bodies, and Paz y Paz herself, argued against the decision. They claim that the decision was because those who have been affected by “crusader” Paz y Paz’s quest for justice while in office want her removed. The court ordered Congress to convene the commission to find Paz y Paz’s successor, but despite support from the Patriot Party there were not enough votes in favor of doing so.

Photo: mimundo.org

Photo: mimundo.org

Guatemalan government to respond to conditions in the U.S. Appropriations Act

Government officials are preparing a response to the conditions imposed on the Pérez Molina administration in the U.S. Appropriations Act. Pérez Molina has rejected the conditions, and blamed them on Appropriations Committee Staffer, Tim Rieser. Meanwhile, Vice President Roxana Baldetti stated that it wouldn’t be possible to compensate the communities affected by the Chixoy Dam because the government doesn’t have the resources to do so. Continue reading