The U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill has suspended its business relationship with controversial Guatemalan palm oil company Reforestadora de Palmas del Petén, S.A (REPSA). The announcement comes after years of campaigning by civil society groups in Guatemala and the U.S., calling attention to the serious breaches of environmental and human rights standards committed by REPSA in the cultivation and extraction of oil palm in the municipality of Sayaxché, in Petén, Guatemala, including connection to massive pollution of local rivers and the brutal intimidation of local land defenders.
Cargill’s announcement, made on its public grievance log on November 24, 2017, is attributed to REPSA’s failure to comply with Cargill’s sustainable palm oil policy.
“This is an important step in the struggle of the indigenous and peasant community organizations of Sayaxché Petén for defending life and nature,” said Helmer Velasquez, Director of CONGCOOP, a Guatemalan civil society network. “It particularly demonstrates the importance of the struggle waged by the Commission of the Defense of Life and Nature of Sayaxché, which has maintained its resolve in defending the community’s interests.”
“Cargill’s withdrawal sends an important signal to the palm oil industry, and sets an important precedent for environmental and social accountability. However, it brings with it real concern for ongoing repression,” said Jeff Conant, Senior International Forests Program Director for Friends of the Earth, which played a key role in pressuring the company to withdraw. “Unfortunately, land defenders continue to be under threat, and companies that have profited from activities in the region have a responsibility to prevent these threats.”
REPSA continues to operate, while social and community organizations charge that the company has not changed its production practices or addressed the consequent environmental damage, violations of the human right to food, or the labor rights abuses of workers.
Cargill gave REPSA a set of parameters to implement improved practices, and set a deadline of October 31, 2017 for the company to comply. REPSA failed to fulfill the requirements, and Cargill suspended commercial relations with REPSA. At the time of this release, Wilmar International, REPSA’s other major global customer, has not publicly announced a suspension of its business relationship. Civil society organizations have asked the company, as well as the Guatemalan authorities, to ensure that human rights and environmental defenders be ensured heightened protection in the wake of these events.
“This measure should oblige the State of Guatemala to review the manner in which operation and extraction licenses have been granted to REPSA, whose economic activity is detrimental to national and community interests in environmental justice, labor rights and food sovereignty,” added Velasquez, of CONGCOOP. “The state cannot ignore the fact that REPSA began its operations without prior consultation of the communities in the area, which makes its operation illegitimate and illegal.”
“In the wake of multinationals’ suspending palm oil sourcing from this controversial supplier, local communities may face heightened risks as they continue to demand justice,” said Gemma Tillack, Forest Policy Director with Rainforest Action Network (RAN). “Cargill, Wilmar and other companies operating in the region, and the RSPO certification body of which REPSA is a member, must do everything in their power to ensure the safety and security of land and human rights defenders––and to ensure that their rights to land, life, and liberty are fully respected.”
“REPSA’s complete disregard for the rights of local people and the environment shows the dirty nature of the palm oil industry that is undermining indigenous people’s access to land, water and food in Guatemala,” said Doug Hertzler, Senior Policy Analyst, ActionAid USA. “Cargill’s actions finally recognize the serious flaws in REPSA’s production processes. Big projects like these need the consent of local communities before they are set up and during operations.”
Background on the issue: In June 2015, REPSA was identified by community, national and international entities as being likely responsible for massive contamination of the La Pasión river (one of Guatemala’s largest rivers), which resulted in water pollution and the death of more than one hundred and fifty tons of fish, impacting over a hundred communities that depend on the river. A local community group, the Commission of the Defense of Life and Nature of Sayaxché, filed a lawsuit which was upheld by a Guatemalan court in September 2015, with a charge of “ecocide”. The court ordered REPSA to suspend operations. Immediately following the ruling, however, Commission spokesperson Rigoberto Lima Choc, an Indigenous professor and human rights defender, was killed in Sayaxché. Three other members of the group were kidnapped as well, and REPSA forced the ruling to be overturned.
An international campaign followed, as Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and others exposed the multinational companies that bought palm oil from REPSA, several of which had previously committed to ridding their supply chains of human rights violations. In June 2016, two of REPSA’s major buyers, Cargill and Wilmar International, required REPSA to implement a “Policy to Prohibit Violence and Intimidation”. The policy was not enough to restore the company’s reputation, however.
A judicial investigation to establish the origins of the contamination has been stalled for two years by appeals filed by REPSA’s lawyers, which community defenders describe as malicious litigation. The investigation into the murder of Lima Choc has not advanced in the courts of justice.
The coalition of organizations working on this issue includes CONGCOOP, Friends of the Earth U.S, Rainforest Action Network, ActionAid USA, International Labor Rights Forum, SumOfUs, Mighty Earth, Environmental Investigation Agency, Due Process of Law Foundation, Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala/NISGUA and Forest Peoples Programme.