Guatemalan Court Orders Palm Company to Suspend Operations

Alto Palma

A Guatemalan judge has ordered the oil palm company Reforestadora Palma de Petén S.A. (REPSA), to suspend operations at their Sayaxché palm plantation, pending an investigation into the environmental disaster in the Pasión River, which led to the death of millions of fish in May and June of 2015. Sayaxché community leader Roberto Lima Choc was assassinated the day after the judicial order.

Alto Palma

Photo: STOP: We forbid palm companies from entering these communities” This sign is in the Municipality of Vista Hermosa, Chisec, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.

A Guatemalan judge has ordered the oil palm company Reforestadora Palma de Petén S.A. (REPSA), to suspend operations at their Sayaxché palm plantation, pending an investigation into the environmental disaster in the Pasión River, which led to the death of millions of fish in May and June of 2015. The court’s September 17th order states that the firm must suspend operations for 6 months.

The following day, workers from the REPSA plantation were informed that they would be laid off. The workers responded by taking to the streets in protest over the temporary closure of the company. They shut down the highway  in the community of Torres, which is on the way to the plantation, and, in a ploy to pressure the communities to withdraw their legal complaint against the oil palm company, workers kidnapped three human rights defenders and community leaders, Lorenzo Perez, Manuel Pérez Ordoñe, and Hermalindo Asig, who had traveled to the town.  The three were subsequently released the following day.

The confrontations turned deadly in the municipality of Sayaxché on September 18th. Rigoberto Lima Choc, a 28 year-old schoolteacher from Champerico, one of the communities heaviest hit by the ecological disaster, was shot and killed by unknown assailants riding on a motorcycle outside the Sayaxché Justice of the Peace office.

REPSA is a subsidiary of the powerful Grupo Olmeca, Guatemala’s largest palm oil producer, which is owned by the powerful Molina family. The conglomerate was the first to begin the production of African palm in the late 1980s, and today cultivates nearly 46,000 hectares of land in Escuintla, Ocós in San Marcos, and Coatepeque in Quetzaltenango, and Sayaxché.

Lima had been at the forefront of the movement to hold REPSA accountable for the contamination of the Pasión River. In June, he was the first person to travel to Guatemala City to file public charges against the firm for the ecocide. He had spoken openly about the impacts of palm in Sayaxché, and other regions of Guatemala.

“Unfortunately, there has been a massive pollution of our river,” Lima had told Upside Down World in an interview in June. “We need to put an end to the problem of palm in northern Guatemala.”

Rigoberto Lima ChocPhoto: Rigoberto Lima Choc speaking at a press conference before his assassination.

“Sadly, it is incalculable the amount of land that has been lost to palm in Sayaxché,” said Lima. “But we can estimate that between 70 and 80 percent of the land is now used to grow palm.” He had traveled to Guatemala City along with community leaders from other communities to denounce the contamination. Lima had recently been elected to the Sayaxché municipality as a member of the UNE party.

Human rights organizations have called for an immediate investigation into Lima’s assassination. There were no known threats against the community leader.

The assassination of Lima appears very similar to the 2014 assassination of Manuel Xi, a community leader from near the municipality of Sayaxché. Xi had been organizing his community to boycott the palm firm Palmas del Ixcan. Two men on a motorcycle assassinated him outside the Sayaxché courthouse, two blocks from the police station. There still has not been an investigation into the murder.

Community members have openly accused Palmas del Ixcan for the assassination.

“It was Palmas del Ixcán that killed Xi,” Hermalindo Asig told Truthout during an interview in July about the contamination. “The company wanted to get rid of him. A year later there has still not been an investigation.”

Many have expressed the concern that Guatemala may be returning to the tactics of the past, when business owners, and military officials would assassinate community leaders and activists. Tactics such as these were used to intimidate communities and discourage protests.

The presence of the military in indigenous communities is another tactic. Politicians from Petén requested that the administration of disgraced President, Otto Pérez Molina, declare a State of Exception in the region following the contamination in May. The State of Exception would suspend the constitution, and deploy the military to discourage protests. But the administration declined.

The Ecocide

The Pasión River in Sayaxche, Petén has been the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in Guatemalan history. And the environment of fear created by the recent violence only compounds the ecological violence that remains in communities following the die-off of millions of fish. Communities have been living with the impacts of the environmental disaster since May.

Heavy rains in the region at the end of April caused the oxidation pools at the REPSA processing plant to overflow, spilling into streams that led to the river. Shortly after, fish began to die-off. At no point during the contamination were communities advised of the disaster. Residents along the river continued to fish, bathe, and wash their clothes in the now toxic river.

Initially, the palm firm admitted responsibility for the disaster. On May 5, representatives from the company sent a letter informing the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources or the disaster. The firm quietly collected the fish that appeared on the surface, and continued as if everything were normal. But following a second and third die-off of fish, and a growing movement of angry residents, the palm firm reversed their story.

On June 17, the company, the mayor of Sayaxché, and community members gathered in Guatemala City to sign a document stating that the company “was not responsible for the death of the fish,” and that there “was no ecocide.” In exchange for the signing of the document, the company agreed to provide the communities with water, the improvement of town streets, and the construction of wells. The document also states that the company is committed to taking better care of the river, but they stress, “They are not the cause of the killing of fish.”

The communities have been heavily impacted by the loss of the use of the river. Prior to the disaster, which residents have called an ecocide, the river was their source of water and food. But now they are left with nothing.

“There weren’t just thousands of fish that died,” said Hermalindo Asig, in an interview in July. “There were millions of fish that died.” Furthermore, communities have seen health impacts from the use of the river, including dermatitis, and even lesions.

The Social Costs of Palm

The oil produced from the fruit of the oil palm can be used as a cheap vegetable oil, industrial lubricant, among other purposes. Increasingly, the oil has drawn the attention of the growing biofuel production, which has especially driven the expansion of production in Guatemala.

Oil palm production has exploded since the 1980’s in Guatemala. Today, Guatemala is one of the top 10 world producers of oil palm, but still behind Honduras and Colombia. But communities across Guatemala have been heavily impacted by the expansion of the production of African palm oil.

According to communities, the palm plantations have brought contamination, and plagues of flies that are attracted to the processing. Communities have experienced heavy social division, with those who are lucky enough to receive work at the plantations becoming the stark defenders of the firms, while campesinos and small landowners seeing an impact on their own subsistence.

“We are paying the costs,” said Vicente, a resident of San Miguel Limon in Alta Verapaz. “The plant uses a lot of water, and our crops suffer. Before they arrived there were good harvests, but now the maize is weak.”

San Miguel Limon is one site of palm plantations, and an oil palm processing plant. In 2014, the community experienced its own case of contamination, when tens of thousands of fish in a nearby lake died off. The company has since closed access to the lake, saying it is on the company’s property.

Cases of contamination such as these have made communities weary of the expansion of palm into their communities. Residents of Vista Hermosa know the precedent of what occurred in Sayaxché and in San Miguel Limon.

In the community of Vista Hermosa, in the municipality of Chisec, Alta Verapaz, communities have begun to organized against the expansion of palm into their community.  In June, residents of Vista Hermosa organized a series of protests after a palm grower, the Chiqubul Lumber Company, began to purchase land in the region to sow oil palm.

The company  utilized a local wealthy landowner to arrange the purchase of land from the campesinos, a technique commonly known as using a Coyote de Tierra [land trafficker]. The small farmers were told that the firm was going to reforest the area. The protests began after community members learned that the new owners were actually going to be sowing oil palm in the region.

“We are afraid,” said Jorge Kat, a resident of Vista Hermosa. “We know that the palm industry utilizes a lot of chemicals in the production of the palm; this is what contaminates the rivers. The expansion of palm production doesn’t give us security if the rivers are contaminated. We are afraid that the palm will bring more sickness.”

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He is a regular contributor to Upside Down World. His work has also appeared at VICE News, Waging Nonviolence, Truthout, and North American Congress on Latin America. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo