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

GHRC Condemns the Assassination of Berta Cáceres – Human Rights Defender from Honduras

Berta Caceres Picture

The Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA condemns in the most strongest of terms the killing of world renowned environmental activists and human rights defender Berta Cáceres of Honduras. According to reports Berta Cáceres was killed by armed assailants early in the morning March 3rd. Berta led and founded the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), and was the winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Gustavo Castro, a fellow activist from Otros Mundos, was also injured in the attack. GHRC calls for an immediate investigation into this heinous crime and that those responsible be prosecuted and held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. GHRC also calls for immediate action to be taken to ensure the protection of Gustavo Castro, a key witness in this murder.

2 Found Guilty in Historic Sepur Zarco Sexual Slavery Case

On Friday, February 26, 2016 Judge Jassmin Barrios read a summary of the verdict in the historic case of sexual and domestic slavery against Maya Q´eqchi´ women in 1982-83.

The Guatemalan court found both Colonel Esteelmer Reyes and Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij GUILTY of Crimes Against Humanity for abuses that include sexual violence, sexual slavery, domestic slavery, and cruel and degrading treatment, and sentenced them to 30 years in prison.

Additionally, the court found Reyes guilty on murder charges, adding 90 years to his sentence, 30 years for each of 3 victims. The court also found Asij guilty of enforced disappearance, adding 210 years to his sentence, 30 years for each of 7 men. In the parallel civil process for economic reparation, the men were ordered to pay indemnization to the victims and their families.

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The trial took place over four intense week of testimony of survivors and expert witnesses, who detailed the pattern of military operations in the area, and the lasting impacts of the violence suffered by the women.

“The day of the sentence was so important for justice in Guatemala,” said Dania Rodriguez, GHRC’s representative in Guatemala who observed much of the trial. “The verdict was to be read at 4pm, but some people began waiting in line hours before to ensure they could be present in the courtroom.”

As Judge Barrios read the sentence, a palpable silence fell over the crowded room. She detailed the violence the women suffered, reiterating their innocence, and explaining the evidence that confirmed the command responsibility of the two accused.

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“This isn’t only about the victims,” the sentence concludes, “but about all of society. These acts should not be repeated.”

When the judge finished reading, a moment of silence hung in air, before the room erupted in applause, and chants of “Justice.”

“We all felt the gravity of the moment, the long-awaited response of the justice system for these brave women,” said Rodriguez.

The following week, on March 2, the court heard arguments for reparations. Colonel Reyes was ordered to pay a total of 5.5 million Quetzales ($732,700 USD) to the 11 women. Military Commissioner Valdez Asij was ordered to pay a total of 1.7 million Quetzales ($226,500 USD) to the families of the 7 men who were disappeared.

The court also ordered the sentence be translated into 24 Mayan languages, that information about the case be included in school curricula, that monuments be built to honor the women who suffered sexual violence by the army, and that the Defense Ministry give trainings on human rights and violence against women.

GHRC celebrates this important ruling and reiterates our solidarity with the brave women who came forward to tell their testimonies.

GHRC Kicks Off November Speaking Tour with Lorena Cabnal

This week, GHRC kicked off our November Speaking Tour with Lorena Cabnal — an indigenous Xinka woman and community feminist — in Houston, Texas. After earning her degree in Community Social Psychology, Lorena co-founded the Association of Indigenous Women of Santa María Xalapán (AMISMAXAJ) in 2003.

GHRC-speaking-tour

Lorena Cabnal and GHRC Executive Director Kelsey Alford-Jones with Father Gerry, of Maryknoll house, and members of the RPDG and ADOGUAH — co-sponsors of a great event on Monday evening!

At out first event, Lorena discussed the status of Xinka women in Guatemala, as well as her experiences as a community activist. She described seeing a great amount of violence against women, young girls getting pregnant at the ages of 12 or 13, and women with up to 15 children. There were also issues with human trafficking, with young girls being sold into prostitution or into illegal international adoptions.

As Lorena and other members of AMISMAXAJ began to denounce these attacks against women, they also organized against oil extraction on their ancestral lands. The group discovered that there were 31 licenses for exploration for extraction projects in the Jalapa region, and warned the indigenous government that oil and mining projects “will become a serious problem.”

Lorena also explained what she called a “statistical ethnocide” against the Xinka people — the fact that the Xinka were not recognized as an ethnic group until the peace accords were signed in 1996, and that the Guatemalan government estimate of the Xinka population was much lower than a self-organized census found. Continue reading

Urgent action to avoid further violence in Huehuetenango, Guatemala

Urgent! Communities in Huehuetenango are under siege by Guatemalan military and police. The security forces were sent to break up peaceful protests in reaction to the illegal detention of a local resident. Several people have already been injured and we fear that there could be further violence.

Please call the Guatemalan Embassy to express concern about the safety of peaceful protesters in Huehuetenango. Urge the Guatemalan government to avoid further conflict, uphold the rule of law and respect human rights. 
In the US: 202-745-4953. In Canada: 613-233-7188.

Please tweet at the Guatemalan government to ask them to avoid further conflict and ensure the human rights of peaceful protesters. Suggested tweets (with translations to English) are below.

Over the last few years, various municipalities in northern Huehuetenango have protested against planned mega-development projects including the Canbalam Dam in Santa Cruz Barillas. Recently, protests have included roadblocks across the region to pressure the Guatemalan Government to enter into a real, public dialogue with those opposed to the projects
On Sept. 28, Mynor López, who has been active in the resistance movement, was seized by men in civilian clothes, taken to a military helicopter, then handed over to the police. In response to the abduction, protests erupted across northern Huehuetenango, blocking various roads. The government mobilized hundreds of police and soldiers to break up the protests using tear gas launched from army helicopters as well as live rounds fired by security forces. A soldier was killed in the clashes. Despite evidence that his injuries were self-inflicted while attempting to fire a tear gas canister, the government publicly blamed protesters for his death.
In addition, the Interior Minister announced that 40 arrest warrants would be carried out for various acts allegedly committed since 2011. Over the past year and a half, over a dozen community members have been arrested for their resistance to the Canbalam Dam. Several of them were incarcerated for up to eight months before being released because of a lack of evidence against them.
A delegation organized by the International Commission of Jurists visited Mynor in jail and report that he shows evidence of physical violence, even torture.
Community members are now asking the government to respect an agreement reached on September 30 to withdraw security forces and have a real dialogue regarding the proposed hydroelectric dam. Can you stand with them and help prevent further bloodshed?

Suggested Tweets

@ottoperezmolina Decimos no al uso del ejército o un estado de sitio para reprimir a protestas pacificas y legitimas en Huehue  #Guatemala

(We say no to the use of the army or a state of siege to repress legitimate and peaceful protests in Huehue #Guatemala)

@mlopezbonilla Garantice la protección, bienestar y los #derechoshumanos de los ciudadanos en Huehue #Guatemala

(You must guarantee the protection, well-being and #humanrights of citizens in Huehue #Guatemala)

@pncguatemala Insisto que dejen de usar la violencia en Huehue #Guatemala y que se retiren del lugar para evitar más conflictos

(I insist that you stop using violence in Huehue #Guatemala and that you remove yourself from the area to avoid further conflict)

@GuatemalaGob Respeten los #derechoshumanos en Huehue #Guatemala. Cese la violencia contra las manifestaciones pacificas.

(Respect #human rights in Huehue #Guatemala. Stop the violence against peaceful protests)

@PDHGt Pedimos que hagan una visita a Huehue #Guatemala para monitorear la situación y la integridad de los detenidos

(We ask that you visit Huehue #Guatemala to monitor the situation and the well-being of those detained)

@Oacnudh_GT Pedimos que hagan una visita a Huehue #Guatemala para monitorear la situación y la integridad de los detenidos

(We ask that you visit Huehue #Guatemala to monitor the situation and the well-being of those detained)

@usembassyguate We are very concerned about the situation in Huehue #Guatemala and the evidence of #humanrights abuses against protestors

@mlopezbonilla @ottoperezmolina Hay que respetar el acuerdo con las comunidades ayer para evitar más conflicto en Huehue #Guatemala

(You must respect the agreement reached with the communities yesterday to avoid more conflict in Huehue #Guatemala)

GHRC visits Qanjobal community in Omaha, NE

On August 9th and 10th, I traveled to Omaha, NE, and had the honor to get to know the Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim (CMPI). Juana Marcos, Executive Director of CMPI, was a recipient this year of GHRC’s Voiceless Speak Fund. She and her husband, Luis Marcos had invited me to participate in the first annual Omaha Celebration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

The celebration included religious and spiritual observance, cultural activities, and a conference on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As I waited for the activities to begin on Friday evening, I chatted with Ricardo Ariza of the Creighton University Multicultural Center and watched several dozen teenagers file shyly into the room. They were joined by members of the local Qanjobal community.

Nebraskan Youth experience Mayan Ceremony

Qanjobal is one of the 22 Mayan linguistic groups in Guatemala, which is concentrated in the north western department of Huehuetenango. I was surprised to find such vibrant Qanjobal culture in Omaha of all places, and delighted every time I heard children switching seamlessly between speaking English, Spanish and Qanjobal.

Brothers Juanatano and Daniel Caño display elements of Mayan Ceremony

Brothers Juanatano and Daniel Caño display elements of Mayan Ceremony

Mayan spiritual guides had been invited from Guatemala to perform a ceremony and explain its significance. Professor Daniel Caño, who teaches at Rafael Landivar University in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, laid out some of the elements used in the ceremony to shared with us why they are used.

Overall, he said, the ceremony is a way to thank the earth for what we receive from her. So, many of the elements are used because they are pleasing such as sugar, flowers, cigars, and an incense made out of pine sap. Candles of six colors are also burnt, each representing a different element. The six directions are also an essential part of the ceremony—north, south, east, west, up and down.

Dr. Rudi Mitchell explains the Omaha people's Cedar Ceremony

Dr. Rudi Mitchell explains the Omaha people’s Cedar Ceremony

As the four spiritual leaders prepared the elements for the ceremony, Dr. Rudi Mitchell,elder in the Omaha tribe, performed a cedar ceremony, and told us about its significance for many tribes around North America.  Then, as day fell, the Mayan ceremony began. 

Mayan spiritual leaders, Professor Caño explained, are also called day counters in Qanjobal, as they are keepers of the Mayan calendar. Over the next two ours, while the candles and other materials burned, the four leaders listed the 260 days of the lunar calendar.  

Mayan Spritual Leaders prepare materials for the Ceremony

Mayan Spritual Leaders prepare materials for the Ceremony

The next morning, the conference began. Keynote speaker, Bishop Ramazzini discussed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIPS), as well as other pieces of international law such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169. As he pointed out, ILO 169, which Guatemala has signed, is the most binding and complete legal mechanism for upholding indigenous rights.

Both ILO 169 and DRIPS uphold indigenous people’s right to control the lands they the traditionally occupied as well as the natural resources contained in those lands. This right is routinely violated in Guatemala as indigenous communities are evicted or minerals or oil are taken from beneath them without their permission.

Bishop Ramazzini

Bishop Ramazzini

Bishop Ramazzini also discussed how the right to equal treatment is not upheld for indigenous communities in Guatemala, especially when it comes to basic services. He pointed out that in Huehuetenango, which has one million inhabitants, there is only one public hospital, and it doesn’t have the technology to provide basic services like ultrasounds.

Bishop Ramazzini lamented that when he and others in the Catholic Church speak out against this rampant racism, they are accused of being terrorists. His prescription for change was to place more indigenous Guatemalans in positions of power to gain more political clout and push for greater respect for indigenous rights.

I also had a chance to speak about UN-DRIPS and the way that GHRC’s work supports the rights enumerated in the declaration. Obviously, our work around access to land and natural resources reflects the rights I outlined above. However, our work against militarization is also backed by the declaration, as it calls for the demilitarization of indigenous lands. I also had the opportunity to describe the strategies that GHRC uses to carry out our work to support human rights and invite the audience to join us.

KeJ on Panel

On the panel with me were representatives of the Omaha tribe who outlined the concerns faced by indigenous peoples in the United States, including poverty, contamination of their water supplies and dislocation. Strikingly, they could have been describing the situation faced by Mayans in Guatemala.

The second day of the celebration closed with an evening of cultural activities including marimba music and dance. Touchingly, a group of young men and women performed a dance they had choreographed themselves to honor the four cardinal directions. Luis confided to me later, that these same youth not long ago had been ashamed of their identity as Maya because of the discrimination they faced. It was heartwarming to see them now, celebrating their culture and sharing with their community.

Written by Kathryn Johnson