Menu close

Land Grabs, Palm Oil, and Migration: The Tragic Story of Byron Lopez Xol

April 28, 2023

In a tearful interview in a Q’eqchi Indigenous community of Rio Zarquito in Alta Verapaz Guatemala, Florinda Noemí Xol, told Prensa Comunitario why her 25-year-old son, Byron Lopez Xol, had left to migrate to the United States and had perished along with 38 other migrants abandoned to die in a horrific detention center fire in Ciudad Juarez on March 27. It was because of the land grabbing of one of the palm oil plantations of NaturAceites, a member of the so-called Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that supplies Unilever. I have translated part of the article below:

“I am leaving,” Noemí remembered the young man saying. She indicated that her son decided to migrate because of the conflict caused by the plantation San José Panorama.

“They want to evict us. They have threatened us. We have been harassed so that they can plant oil palm,” she said. “What happened was he lost hope because of the many years this conflict has persisted.”

She also indicated that she feared for her life and her other children. The family grows corn, beans, and melons, but that doesn’t matter to the owners of the plantation company, who send men to watch them [the Indigenous community]. 

Now, the mother is asking the Guatemalan government for justice: “We took on debt, hoping our son could arrive, all because of the problems here, the needs, the poverty,” Noemí said through her tears. Her son was the oldest of her children, and she said he always helped her. Her last communication with the young man was on March 26, when he said it wouldn’t be long before he would make it to the United States.  

Those of us in the U.S. and Europe must also demand justice. The immediate cause of the death is clear. There was inhumane treatment and murderous neglect by Mexican detention center officials, which happened because of U.S. government policies that have prevented asylum seekers from having their cases heard, resulting in forcing migrants into detention on the Mexican side of the border in unprecedented numbers.

However, a root cause is the denial of land and territory to Indigenous peoples around the world and food and agriculture policies which favor large-scale plantations over small-scale farmers and Indigenous food producers. 

In Guatemala, San Jose Panorama is one of the palm oil plantations of NaturAceites, which, as mentioned above, is a company belonging to the RSPO and supplies the major consumer brand Unilever. Unilever uses palm oil to produce many brand-name processed foods and personal care products like ice cream, margarine, mayonnaise, baked goods, soap, and toothpaste sold in the US and Europe.

NaturAceites and other companies in the region have been grabbing Indigenous land for years with the support of local officials. They have continually harassed and filed false criminal charges against Q’eqchi’ leaders who try to defend the land and territory of this Indigenous nation that numbers well over 1 million people. 

I first wrote about Q’eqchi migration in 2018 when the Q’eqchi’ child Jakelin Caal died of abuse and neglect in a U.S. detention center. Q’eqchi people do not have a long history of migration to the United States – it is only in recent years that the encroachment of oil palm and mining on their lands has pressured them to migrate. 

The ability to migrate is a key part of the economies of both the Global North and Global South, and for those forced to flee violence and threats to their lives, receiving asylum is a human right. We must demand just immigration policies and that governments and transnational companies address the root causes of migration.  

Unilever and other traders must stop buying palm oil from NaturAceites and other suppliers because of the widespread denial of Indigenous land rights in Guatemala. NaturAceities and others violating land and human rights should be expelled from the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil.

The U.S. government must pressure the Guatemalan government to respect human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights. The U.S. must stop funding repressive police and military forces. It must fix its immigration policies and take the pressure off Mexico while demanding the Mexican government treat migrants with dignity and provide justice for the families of the 39 people who died in Ciudad Juarez on March 27.