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/

 

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Guatemala News Update: November 2-13

Puyasign-machineryUS Congress to Guatemalan President: Halt Illegal Mining Operations at La Puya

This week, GHRC announced that 12 members of the US Congress sent a letter to Guatemalan President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre to raise concerns about abuses related to the El Tambor gold mine in San Pedro Ayampuc, Guatemala. The letter calls on the President to use his authority to uphold human rights and to ensure that the mine’s owner–the US-based company Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (KCA)–promptly halts its illegal operations.

The congressional letter was mentioned in this Prensa Libre opinion piece (in Spanish); you can also read more in our full press release, and read the congressional letter in its entirety here.

NGOs Demand Palm Oil Industry Stop Abuses in Latin America

GHRC joined a coalition of NGOs in delivering a letter to the world’s biggest palm oil traders, alerting them to the gross violations of human rights occurring in the palm oil sector in Mesoamerica — including the recent murder of Guatemalan environmental activist Rigoberto Lima Choc.

“In Guatemala, community members engaging in legitimate actions to protect their water quality and environment consistently face threats, attacks, and assassinations,” said Kelsey Alford-Jones, “often committed with impunity due to a lack of judicial independence, widespread government corruption, and ineffective oversight of corporate practices.”

Read the press release here.

New Report: State of Fear and Terror Deliberately Created to Force Tahoe Resources’ Mine on Guatemalan Communities

A new report reveals the dramatic extent of the militarized security strategy that Canadian-US mining company Tahoe Resources developed to quash community opposition to its Escobal project in southeastern Guatemala. Read the entire report by Guatemalan investigative journalist Luis Solano here.

CICIG Proposes Tax to Combat Impunity in Guatemala

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has proposed the creation of a temporary tax on “large assets” in order to increase funds for criminal investigations as well as other programs related to combating corruption and impunity in Guatemala. While this is just the beginning of a proposal, the head of CICIG, Iván Velásquez, explained that immediate action must be taken to strengthen the Guatemalan justice system. Continue reading

Alarming Developments in Palm Oil Industry in Latin America Spur Global Call To Action For Palm Oil Traders

Logos-PalmOilLtrFOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Global coalition of NGOs says murder, intimidation and the devastation of community livelihoods tied to rampant palm oil plantation expansion must be stopped

November 12, 2015 — Spurred by the recent murder of Guatemalan environmental and human rights defender Rigoberto Lima Choc, a coalition of global human rights and environmental organizations today alerted the world’s biggest palm oil traders of the gross violations of human rights occurring in the palm oil sector in Mesoamerica.

Recent conflicts between companies and communities in Guatemala and other Latin American countries have triggered global efforts to expose bad actors and seek intervention by governments and buyers of palm oil from the region to avoid ongoing human rights violations and environmental destruction.

The coalition has issued a letter calling on global commodity traders that may be operating in Guatemala and the wider Mesoamerican region, including Cargill, IOI, Wilmar, Musim Mas, AAK, ADM, Bunge and GAR, as well as palm oil processors and federations in the region, to disclose the details of all palm oil suppliers and publish credible plans to tackle human rights violations, social conflict and environmental destruction in their Mesoamerican supply chains.

Jeff Conant, International Forests Campaigner with Friends of the Earth-US says, “The murder of human rights defender Rigoberto Lima Choc on September 18, 2015 is yet another shocking example of the violence that plagues the palm oil sector. This should be a wake-up call for the multinationals doing business in Mesoamerica, especially those that have committed to ‘no exploitation’ in their supply chains: the only way to ensure that multinationals are not complicit in violence of this nature is to daylight their entire supply chains.”

Gemma Tillack, a spokesperson for Rainforest Action Network said, “Today, we have alerted the world’s biggest palm oil traders and processors to the human rights crisis unfolding in palm oil industry in Guatemala and Honduras. Through their demand for cheap palm oil, these companies are driving the expansion of palm oil across Latin America. They have the responsibility to ensure their suppliers uphold strict environmental and human rights standards. We will hold them to account for the impacts of their global supply chains, including in new expansion frontiers in Latin America.”

Soren Ambrose, of ActionAid International said, “Communities in Guatemala are being forced off their land to make way for palm oil production. These human rights abuses will not be tolerated. We are calling on global palm oil companies to come clean on their links to dirty suppliers, and to make clear commitments showing how they will address the social and environmental impacts of their partners in Latin America. Consumers around the world will not accept violence and intimidation for cheaper cookies and chips.”

The same day that Rigoberto Lima Choc was killed, three other Guatemalan human rights defenders, Hermelindo Asij Mo, Lorenzo Pérez Mendoza and Manuel Perez Ordoñez, were kidnapped. The murder and kidnapping occurred shortly after a criminal court ordered REPSA to suspend operations, based on charges that Mr. Lima and his environmental group had filed denouncing a massive fish kill along a 100-mile stretch of the Pasión River, downstream from REPSA’s facilities in the region of Sayaxché, Guatemala.

Kelsey Alford-Jones, Executive Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA concluded by saying “In Guatemala, community members engaging in legitimate actions to protect their water quality and environment consistently face threats, attacks, and assassinations, often committed with impunity due to a lack of judicial independence, widespread government corruption, and ineffective oversight of corporate practices. A zero tolerance policy must be put into effect immediately for any suppliers using or benefiting from violence and human rights abuses in their palm oil operations.”

The coalition will be tracking efforts of the global commodity traders and palm oil companies in Mesoamerica to reform their supply chains, starting with disclosing the details of all palm oil suppliers; resolving grievance and advocating for real actions to be taken to reform bad actors in the palm oil industry in Latin America.

Background information

The joint letter was sent to Cargill, IOI, Wilmar, Musim Mas, AAK, ADM, Bunge, GAR, Oleofinos, Henry Lamotte Oils GmbH, Aceites y Derivados Sociedad Anonima (Aceydesa), Corporacion Industrial de Sula S.A. (COINSU), Palmeros de Aguan S. A. (PALMASA), and GREPALMA (The Palm Growers’ Guild of Guatemala).

The signatories to the letter are: Friends of the Earth-US, Rainforest Action Network, Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, Environmental Investigation Agency, Union of Concerned Scientists, ActionAid International, Oxfam America, Forest Peoples Program, Forest Heroes, GRAIN, Alliance for Global Justice, and Other Worlds

A generic version of the letter can be found here.

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CONTACT:

Friends of the Earth-United States, Jeff Conant, jconant@foe.org, U.S. +1 510 900 0016

Rainforest Action Network, Emma Rae Lierley, Emma@ran.org, U.S. +1 425.281.1989

Action Aid USA, Douglas Hertzler, Doug.Hertzler@actionaid.org, U.S. +1 202 370 9922

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, Kelsey Alford-Jones, kajones@ghrc-usa.org, U.S. +1 202-529-6599

Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: October 19-23

IACHR Holds 156 Period of Sessions

From October 17-23, human rights defenders and activists participated in hearings with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, DC. The Guatemala-focused hearings included the topics of transitional justice, criminalization of human rights defenders and justice operators, and the damaging impacts of monoculture African Palm plantations. Photos and videos from each hearing are available here.

First Disbursement of Funds as Part of Chixoy Dam Reparations Plan

The Guatemalan government made its first disbursement of Q22 million to family members in Baja Verapaz, as part of the reparations plan for the 33 communities affected by the construction of the hydroelectric Chixoy Dam. This marks the first action toward the implementation of the plan, which was finally signed by community representatives and former President Pérez Molina in November 2014. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: October 5-9

Appeals court rejects amnesty for Ríos Montt

A Guatemalan appeals court has rejected former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s request for amnesty in a trial regarding Montt’s responsibility for war crimes and genocide. Though Montt was recently diagnosed with dementia, he will face a special, closed-door trial in early 2016. Due to his condition, Montt will be represented by his lawyers.

Ambassador Thomas Shannon Visits Guatemala

US Ambassador Thomas A. Shannon, Counselor of the Department of State, traveled to Guatemala City from October 7-9.

In a meeting with President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, Shannon reiterated US political and financial support for Guatemala and for the Alliance for Prosperity — a development plan created by the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, with support from the US. The plan was initially a response to the influx of child migrants in the US from Central America, and Shannon lauded “advancements” in border security as well as in reducing trafficking and child migration. GHRC and partners presented concerns about migration and the Alliance for Prosperity at a congressional briefing on Sept. 16.

Shannon also reiterated the importance of CICIG, stating that the renovation of its mandate was “very important” for the US Congress.

Guatemala to Investigate Who Is to Blame in Mudslide

Guatemala’s public prosecutor’s office is conducting an investigation into who was responsible for a mudslide just outside of Guatemala City that left at least 250 people dead and several hundred missing. There had been warnings of a mudslide for weeks, and throughout the past fifteen years many have occurred. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: July 27-31

Victory for La Puya: “Communities struggling against mining win major victory in Guatemala”

This Upside Down World article describes the July 15 victory for the environmental movement ‘La Puya’ when Judge Angelica Noemi Tellez Hernandez ruled in favor of the nonviolent community resistance. The judge ordered Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (KCA) to suspend the construction of all infrastructure projects at its El Tambor mine in San Pedro Ayampuc.

GHRC has been supporting communities through a Change.org campaign, calling on KCA to comply with the court sentence. You can also read more about the court ruling on our blog.

Guatemalan Reporters Subjected to Increased Violence

The Association of Guatemalan Reporters (La Asociación de Periodistas de Guatemala) stated that it condemns the increase in aggression against reporters in the year 2015, and denounced the “constant intent to sabotage their informative work.” The CICIG is aware of the the influx in aggression and has expressed concern about this phenomenon.

La Tribuna

Ríos Montt Retrial Halted Once Again

Rios Montt was ordered on Saturday by a Guatemalan court to be transferred to a national hospital for additional psychiatric observation; the decision rejects a prior medical report conducted by Guatemala’s National Forensics Institute (Inacif) that found Ríos Montt senile, and thus unfit for trial. At the last minute, Montt’s scheduled transfer was blocked by a legal maneuver on the part of his defense attorneys, again halting the proceedings of the retrial for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Read more about the latest developments in the case in Spanish. Continue reading