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February 1, 2018

Last week the Guatemalan attorney general and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) announced that arrest warrants for bribery charges had been issued for three key figures in the country’s palm oil trade: Carlos Arévalo Garcia, legal representative of the palm oil company REPSA, and Hugo Molina Botrán and his son Juan Milton Molina Botrán, both executives of the HAME group which owns REPSA as well as several other Guatemalan palm oil companies.

At this time the three reportedly remain fugitives. They were charged with 29 others in a scheme in which nine Guatemalan companies paid officials within the Guatemalan Revenue Service in order to receive massive tax refunds.

Unfortunately, this sort of news is not new to us. ActionAid, along with our supporters, has been working in solidarity with indigenous communities in their struggle for justice against the palm oil companies in the northern lowlands and southern coast of Guatemala. These companies have been gobbling up indigenous lands and water resources to provide biofuel and processed foods for global markets.

REPSA in particular has a history of bad labor practices. It is alleged to be responsible for a toxic spill that destroyed the livelihoods and water sources of communities along the Passion River in Guatemala in 2015. Shortly afterward community activist Rigoberto Lima, who had denounced the spill, was murdered by gunmen on a motorcycle. The persons responsible for hiring the killers have never been identified. However, witnesses have reported that REPSA staff were involved in a day long kidnapping and acts of intimidation against other community activists who had denounced the spill.

But the demands of community activists are starting to make a dent in the palm oil industry. Last month the U.S. palm oil trader Cargill, and also the Malaysia-based Wilmar, responded to the demands of civil society groups, including ActionAid USA, by suspending their relationship with REPSA. However, many palm oil buyers that operate in the United States may have supply chain links to REPSA or other HAME palm oil companies, including Colgate-Palmolive, Conagra Brands, Dunkin’ Brands, Ferrero, Grupo Bimbo, The Hershey Company, Kellogg Company, The Kraft Heinz Company, Krispy Kreme, Mars, Mondelēz, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever.

The recent charges show the corrupt nature of the palm oil companies in Guatemala and the need for all of us to take a strong stand for human rights in addition to good governance. Global companies need to recognize indigenous peoples’ rights over their territories in Guatemala. They must stop doing business with palm oil companies that are undermining those rights and harming communities.