African Palm Oil in Guatemala – A Fishy Situation

Nicholas Moffa
June 30, 2015

When I first watched the YouTube video one of our Guatemalan sisters sent me, I thought the white material coating the water of the La Pasión River was some sort of foam or other foreign substance that should not be present in a river used by many Guatemalans as a source of food and water. Little did I know that the “material” coating the water used to consider the river its home: the surface was covered by thousands of dead fish!

On June 7, reports of an ecocide in the municipality of Sayaxché in the Petén department of Guatemala first started to gain national attention. Less than a week later, it was discovered that the mysterious deaths of hundreds of fish and other aquatic life had extended 100 kilometers down the La Pasión River, affecting over 30,000 people in 16 communities who depend on fishing for their livelihood and sustenance. Local fishermen immediately pointed out that this was the second time something like this had occurred in recent months, and that a palm oil company called “Reforestadora de Palma del Petén,” or REPSA, was at fault.

This immediately raised a number of questions: what is REPSA? Who owns it? How long have they been operating in Petén? And, most importantly, is this an isolated incident or symptomatic of something much larger? A quick Google search yielded horrifying results.

It turns out that palm oil was first introduced in Guatemala in the mid-1980s. Increasing demand (palm oil is now the most-consumed oil worldwide) led to skyrocketing production. The cultivated area dedicated to palm oil quadrupled in the first decade of the twenty-first century; the area now snapped up to serve as palm oil plantations roughly equals the quantity of land that 60,000 subsistence farmers could use to grow food. This exponential increase has steadily transformed Guatemala into the ninth-largest palm oil-exporting country in the world and the second-largest in Latin America.

Doesn’t sound too bad so far, right? Well, the ownership is where things start to become a bit fishy: no more than eight Guatemalan companies control the entire palm oil production process, from farming to commercialization. According to Oxfam, these companies “operate like a cartel, as they avoid competition and dominate production, sales and prices.” Concentration of power in the hands of such a small number can often lead to dangerous human rights violations, and the African palm oil sector is no different. The cultivation of African palm in Guatemala has resulted in severe environmental damage, labor violations, unjust land grabs, and dangerous health and safety risks for workers and those who live nearby, just to name a few.

Land for palm plantations is often acquired through the “direct purchase” of territory. This process, organized by land agents sent by larger agribusinesses, displaces local families and small farmers. In one instance, agents paid indigenous Q’eqchi families about $190 on average for hectares of farm land valued at almost $900. They get away with such extortion through threats, with agents telling people that if they refuse, the agents “will return later to negotiate with your widow.” People who used to work in subsistence agriculture are then forced to seek employment in the palm oil sector, which is less labor-intensive than other agricultural sectors and provides fewer job opportunities.

Even for those who have jobs, the pay is incredibly unjust: men who work on the plantations earn about $7.50 per day, while women earn even less ($5.00 per day). Overall, as the leader of a local environmental group explained: the national and transnational palm oil companies “pay workers poverty wages, contaminate the ground and water supply with agrochemicals, encroach on protected areas, and take land away from producing food for people here to eat.”

So what do the companies say about these violations? According to Felipe Molina, the owner of the largest producer of palm oil in Guatemala, Grupo Olmeca, labor leaders are trying to stir up trouble among the workers. Instead of refuting claims of human rights violations with evidence, he insulted the intelligence of those who work for him: “these [workers] are not making semiconductors, so people of this intellectual level are easier to influence.” And guess what? His conglomerate, Grupo Olmeca operates under several names throughout Guatemala, including Hame, Santa Rosa…and REPSA!

REPSA (and, indirectly, Mr. Molina) remains under fire in Sayaxché, Petén for the ecocide in the La Pasión River. On June 8, the departmental government, the National Coordinator for Disaster Relief, and Environment Minister Óscar Medinilla declared a type of state of emergency called a yellow alert in the region. Governor Antonio Morales Ozaeta also met with representatives from REPSA and affected community members to try to determine the cause of the mass deaths of so many fish. They also discussed the first ecocide in the region, which occurred in early May; the cause of that devastation was determined to be a pesticide called Malathion, which is toxic to both humans and animals. REPSA, meanwhile, continued to deny any role in either crisis. It also continued to claim it never used Malathion.

However, damning evidence against REPSA continued to mount when it was reported on June 11 that REPSA workers had been trying to hide all signs of the ecocide by collecting the dead fish and burying them. On June 13, the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry of Guatemala (MARN, the Spanish acronym) officially announced in a press conference that REPSA was under investigation for its role in the ecocide.

Investigations continued throughout the month of June. MARN discovered that REPSA never actually completed an Environmental Impact Study for their work in the region, and a Third Civil Court judge ordered REPSA to suspend all of its work in the region indefinitely. Despite this seemingly positive conclusion, REPSA continues to threaten community members who speak out and the federal government remains mostly hands-off. Aside from suggesting a significant government-backed military presence in Sayaxché, the Guatemalan government has failed to come up with an action plan to respond to the environmental and health effects of the disaster.

The legal battle over the events in Sayaxché, Petén are far from over. More importantly, the fight to end the human rights violations surrounding the production of African palm oil in Guatemala has only just begun. In the words of a local indigenous person, “for us, palm oil does not generate employment; it generates poverty.” It also generates unjust land grabs and environmental degradation. Hopefully, the ecocide in the La Pasión River will serve as the first step on a long road towards achieving justice for our Guatemalan sisters and brothers.

As explained above, the human rights violations that follow the cultivation of African palm oil have grown into issues of global prominence. If you are interested in learning more about the palm oil sector, Petén, or the demand for palm oil across the world, please feel free to read the following reports:

The Power of Oil Palm: Land grabbing and impacts associated with the expansion of oil palm crops in Guatemala: The case of the Palmas del Ixcán Company (2011)

Labor and Human Rights Risk Analysis of the Guatemalan Palm Oil Sector

Running from your own shadow: palm oil, narcos and peasants in Petén

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