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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: Americas | International | North Coast | Environment & Forest Defense
Fires And Drought Force Migration Of Palm Oil Production
Rigoberto Lima Choc was fatally shot in broad daylight in Sayaxché, in front of the building housing the local justice of the peace court in the center of town. “Lima Choc was a 28-year-old primary school teacher who lived and taught in the village of Champerico, in the municipality of Sayaxché. Twelve days before his murder, Lima Choc was elected to form part of the local government in Sayaxché and would have become a municipal councillor in January. He was also one of the first people to speak out nationally about the ecological disaster on the La Pasión River and to formally denounce REPSA.”
Fires And Drought Force Migration Of Palm Oil Production
Faced with hunger and oppression due to the expansion of palm oil and sugar cane Guatemalan youths are returning to growing food for community and markets. Young Campesinos are choosing to stay on the land instead of hitting the migration trail.
In the background is the Latin Hemisphere of palm oil, The June 8, 2016 Guatemalan Human Rights Commission post is titled: “Global Palm Oil Traders Acknowledge the Need to Prevent Human Rights Abuses in Guatemala”
“Following a deadly spill of palm oil waste into the Pasión River in the municipality of Sayaxché in northern Guatemala in June 2015, a Guatemalan court ruled the spill an “ecocide” and ordered that REPSA suspend operations pending investigation. Immediately following the ruling, in September, 2015, one of the plaintiffs, Q’eq’chi Mayan schoolteacher Rigoberto Lima Choc, was shot and killed.”
One year after the spill, and nine months after the killing of a Guatemalan activist who denounced the spill, social movement groups in Guatemala are still demanding justice, and companies have begun to recognize that such violence and ecocide must not be tolerated.
Image of Pasión River:
Just last week, Cargill, one of the largest purchasers of palm oil from Guatemala, published a statement requiring REPSA, the Guatemalan company that was the defendant in the ecocide case, to take a series of actions to prevent future violence. The same day, REPSA, the company indicted in the 'ecocide' published a “Policy on Non Violence and Intimidation.”
“Cargill’s public position against violence and REPSA’s promise of reform are significant,” said Jeff Conant, Senior International Forests Program Director at Friends of the Earth-US. “But real transformation will only come when the rights of local people take full precedence over the profits of agribusiness.”
“REPSA has thus far not engaged civil society groups effectively and there is no indication that the security situation in the region will allow for meaningful and safe dialogue with local groups,” Conant added. “There is a clear need for the companies to act – but company engagement in regions suffering high levels of violence and weak governance is extremely delicate. The companies must take their cues from the demands of organized civil society in Guatemala to avoid creating more conflict.”
Cargill has taken the position with REPSA that; “Cargill is concerned about the economic, health and environmental impacts of pollution along the La Pasión River. We expect REPSA to fully participate in the legal proceedings on this matter. To further strengthen environmental and social protections, REPSA must issue a responsible palm oil policy and action plan that comply with Cargill’s palm policy no later than June 14, 2016. The policy and action plan must include commitments to sound environmental management, human rights, labor rights, respect for communities and ongoing transparency.”
Another required action is that REPSA “Engage local communities and civil society groups. The companies’ statements come in the wake of a series of tragic events, and as a response to continued pressure from Guatemalan civil society and international advocacy groups.
The company REPSA is responsible for an ecological disaster in June 2015, when aquatic life turned up dead along a 100-mile stretch of the La Pasión River. Rigoberto Lima Choc was fatally shot in broad daylight in Sayaxché, in front of the building housing the local justice of the peace court in the center of town. Two unidentified suspects were seen fleeing the scene on a motorcycle.
“Lima Choc was a 28-year-old primary school teacher who lived and taught in the village of Champerico, in the municipality of Sayaxché. Twelve days before his murder, Lima Choc was elected to form part of the local government in Sayaxché and would have become a municipal councillor in January. He was also one of the first people to speak out nationally about the ecological disaster on the La Pasión River and to formally denounce REPSA.”
“For days, the surface of the river was awash with dead fish and other aquatic life for 100 miles. At least 23 species were among the dead. Government officials estimated 12,000 people were directly affected. Many communities in Sayaxché depend on the river for drinking water, bathing, washing, and fish. REPSA’s palm oil plantations occupy more than 96 square miles of Petén, the biggest, flattest and northernmost region of Guatemala. A century ago, this region was completely covered with rainforest vegetation.”
In a followup story at Mongabay in February 2016 the sad saga continues…
“Today, Sayaxché is a town of about 48,000 people surrounded by some oil extraction towers, subsistence crops, and a lot of African palm oil. According to Oil World magazine, Guatemala is the Latin American country with the fastest growth in African palm oil production; a growth of 11 percent since last year. In the country, palm oil cultivation often means forced labor, child labor, health impacts, and environmental damage, according to a statement put out a year before the environmental disaster by Verité, a global labor rights organization.”
2 months later top officials in the Guatemala Government stepped down!
Corruption In Guatemala
“The country was shaken by revelations in April 2016, by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala and the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office of wide-reaching corruption involving the customs agency. More than a dozen officials were charged and arrested for their alleged participation, including Vice-President Roxana Baldetti. In September, President Pérez Molina resigned, one day after Congress stripped him of his immunity from prosecution. Otto Pérez Molina was the first ever serving president to face criminal charges.”
“The Guatemalan human rights organization UDEFEGUA documented 337 acts of aggression against human rights defenders in the first half of 2015, more than the number recorded in the whole of 2012, the year President Pérez Molina took office. Documented abuses rose by over 166% during his presidency.”
“UDEFEGUA stated that almost 71% of all documented attacks and intimidation against human rights defenders in the first half of 2015 targeted Indigenous leaders and defenders working on environmental and land rights issues.”
Another well documented resource of the hunger in Guatemala for land, and the struggle to survive globalization of biofuels and ethanol exports is Danilo Valladares “GUATEMALA: The War Over Land” published in September 2011.
“The violent eviction of 91 rural families in northern Guatemala was the latest incident in the age old conflict over land in a country where the army is frequently called in to force peasant farmers off their land.”
“This has been the government with the most violent stance against the campesino (peasant) struggle. It has carried out 115 evictions since 2007 because of its ties to strong economic groups, which mean its actions have been in line with the interests of local and transnational companies,” Israel Macario, with the Agrarian Platform, a coalition of 21 groups pressing for land reform, told IPS.
Moving forward in time to 2013 the NY Times ran an honest piece - “For Guatemala’s largest landowners, long-term leases with large biofuel companies are more profitable and easier to manage than cattle ranching or renting to subsistence farmers. “
“The use of maize to make biofuel has led to crazy prices,” said Guy Gauvreau, head of the United Nations World Food Program in Guatemala. It is not ethically acceptable.”
“In part because the agency’s primary food supplement is a mix of corn and soy, it cannot afford to help all of the Guatemalan children in need, Mr. Gauvreau said; it is agency policy to buy corn locally, but there is no extra corn grown here anymore. And Guatemalans cannot go back to the land because so much of it is being devoted to growing crops for biofuel. Almost no biofuel is used domestically.”
In the NY Times piece (now-migrant) peasant farmers tell their personal stories, as do those that may still have a home but have experienced the loss of farmland. “Félix Pérez, 51, used to grow corn, beans and fruit behind his home. He now walks about three miles to a cheap hillside plot that he rents for four months of the year. Every day it’s more difficult to survive since we live off the land, and there’s less and less.”
It is important to view what is happening in Guatemala from a global perspective. Much of the palm oil nexus centers on snack foods and processed food products, perhaps because we, as consumers can grasp that on a personal level. Global biofuel and biodiesel mandates for the oil palm (ethanol from sugar cane) are also key market drivers of the mechanisms that foster the environmental and human rights crises in Guatemala. This could be applied to other Central and South American palm oil producing countries as well.
Investments in land grabs and International Trade Agreements move commodity flex-crop production across global landscapes for fuel feedstock to meet demand at the expense of Indigenous communities and the rural farmer.
Promoting investment in Guatemala, the Ministry of the Economy boasts “88 percent of fertile soil available to cultivate. This statistic ignores the indigenous populations that live on the land, and demonstrates the historic unequal land distribution that has plagued Guatemala since the Spanish conquest. Today, nearly 85 percent of land is owned by 3 percent of the population.”
The Rise And Fall Of Sustainable Palm Oil Prices, Production, And The Weather
Friday, April 1, 2016
“In the last week the price of a metric ton of palm oil went from $560 to $710, due to increased demand for the product to be used as biofuel and the fall in production in Asia. The rise in biofuels and the fall in production of palm oil in Asia, the world's leading supplier, has benefited the price of oil derived from these plantations worldwide, rising from $560 to $710 in the last week of March.”
“Drought in Southeast Asia is creating opportunities to export more palm oil to Europe, where the entry of the product is duty free because of the Association Agreement with Central America.”
“The fall of up to 45% in the production of palm oil in Southeast Asia (the world's leading producer) due to El Niño has opened up an opportunity for Central American countries to export the product to markets such as Europe. This is a relief for the industry, hard hit by reduced demand for biofuels because of the fall in oil prices.”
Not too long before the pollution of 100 miles of the Pasión River in the municipality of Sayaxché in northern Guatemala in June 2015, and before the murder of Q’eq’chi Mayan schoolteacher Rigoberto Lima Choc in September, there was a gathering of many grassroots organizations in Guatemala who together “released a statement criticizing the public consultation process of the corporate social responsibility principles and criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The signatories reported that they had joined together to consider, analyze and discuss the principles and criteria in order to contribute their opinion to the Public Consultation on the RSPO National Interpretation Document, which concluded on 7 December 2014.”
“With regard to the principles and criteria of the RSPO National Interpretation Document which is being reviewed and will serve as the basis for the certification of oil palm plantations already established in our country, we state the following:”
“The public consultation process has followed a methodology that has not fostered real participation by and consultation of the affected and interested communities. Only four national meetings were held, in Guatemala City, Cobán, Sayaxché and Escuintla; in Sayaxché and Cobán, the meetings were convened by the oil palm plantation companies themselves and were essentially informative rather than consultative...”
“We maintain that the interested parties – the affected communities and interested social organizations – have the right to decide whether or not they want the establishment of new oil palm plantations and/or the expansion of existing plantations in their territories. As such, the RSPO National Interpretation Document should explicitly provide the communities with the option of saying ‘no’, rather than considering the only alternatives in the event of disagreements between the companies and the communities affected to be negotiation mechanisms, the establishment of ‘mitigation plans’ and ‘management plans’, or the renunciation of rights on the part of the communities and compensation for the rights of the company.”
“We further maintain that no certification process is legitimate if it does not take into account the serious denunciations made by the communities affected regarding the theft of lands, the contamination of water sources and waterways, the destruction of ecosystems and the proliferation of pests, as well as the violation of labour rights. It is important for the certification process promoted by the RSPO to incorporate and use as baseline references the denunciations made by the communities affected, as well as the studies conducted by social organizations and academic institutions on the various social, economic and environmental impacts of oil palm plantations.”
“Finally, we considerate as inadmissible the inclusion of Principle 7 concerning the conditions under which new oil palm plantations could be established in our country. We maintain that no new oil palms plantations should be established in our country, nor should already existing plantations be expanded, given the demonstrated and proven negative impacts in terms of food security and sovereignty, and the environmental, economic and social impacts.”
Guatemala, 11 December 2014
It's a lot to consider… but there's more;
Cargill and Bunge, two of the world’s largest agricultural commodity traders, are refusing to cut ties with a leading Malaysian palm oil producer and trader IOI, in spite of allegations that it failed to prevent its subsidiaries’ involvement in deforestation in Indonesia in 2015.
Hannah Furlong, an Editorial Assistant at Sustainable Brands, based in Canada provides this historical context: “Six years after NGOs released a scathing report on Malaysian palm oil producer IOI Group, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) decided to suspend IOI last Monday. The 2010 report from Milieudefensie and Friends of the Earth Europe alleged that IOI Group was not following through on its sustainability commitments as a founding member of the RSPO. The report went on to form the basis of the formal complaint against IOI Group to the RSPO, lodged by Amsterdam-based Aidenvironment in March 2015. Satellite images and on-the-ground investigations have continued to find that IOI Group has failed to protect peat areas and forests from deforestation and has not met its commitments.”
“The decision to continue trading with IOI Group is in marked contrast to large consumer groups, including Unilever, Nestlé, Kellogg and Mars, as well as traders Archer Daniels Midland and Louis Dreyfus Company, which have ceased trading with the Malaysian group after its sustainability certificates were suspended in March 2016.”
Both Cargill and Bunge said they believed that it would be easier to drive change at IOI if they remained trading partners. “We’ve had a longstanding policy across our supply chains...”
Cargill, The Largest Palm Oil Importer To The U.S. And ConAgra
ConAgra has finally agreed to “source palm oil from suppliers that have been vetted as not procuring palm oil from such affected areas (where increased production has opened a Pandora’s Box of problems, including increased human rights violations, land tenure abuses, and a host of environmental woes resulting from the loss of mangroves and peatlands) by December 2015. The company also said it would immediately suspend any supplier violating it's policy.”
“ConAgra thus follows its largest palm oil supplier (and largest importer to the U.S.), Cargill, which recently announced a more rigorous palm oil sourcing policy.” ConAgra made the commitment in response to a shareholder proposal filed by Green Century Capital Management and the New York State Common Retirement Fund.
“As one of North America’s largest packaged food companies, ConAgra uses palm oil in a variety of its branded products. An estimated 55% of ConAgra’s sales rely on palm oil. Approximately 85% of palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil production is a leading driver of deforestation in those areas. Due to high levels of deforestation and conversion of carbon-rich peatlands, Indonesia was ranked the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally. The palm oil industry is also notorious for using child and forced labor, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.”
“Companies that fail to uphold strong environmental and social values throughout their supply chains have faced significant reputational damage and consumer rejection of their products. ConAgra is currently the public target of a coalition of environmental and consumer groups for sourcing palm oil from suppliers allegedly engaged in illegal deforestation in national parks and human rights violations. Although ConAgra has pledged to source 100 percent of palm oil from RSPO sustainably certified sources by 2015, ... the company’s approach to that goal emphasized purchasing so-called GreenPalm credits from other sources growing palm oil sustainably, rather than preventing physical acts of deforestation in its own supply chain. Human rights violations and the clearing of existing peatlands in ConAgra’s supply chain are not eliminated by purchasing offsets attributable to production elsewhere.”
“Proponents (shareholders) believe meaningful indicators would include:
Percentage of palm oil traceable to ConAgra’s suppliers verified by credible third parties as not engaged in (1) physical expansion into peatlands, High Conservation Value or High Carbon Stock forests, or (2) human rights abuses such as child or forced labor;
Providing a time-bound plan for 100% sourcing consistent with those criteria;
Estimates of number of physical acres of existing peatlands or forests eliminated during prior year due to ConAgra’s palm oil supply chain;
An explicit commitment to strengthen third-party certification programs to prevent development in its supply chain on high carbon stock forests and peatlands.”
And that's how it came to be that ConAgra Pledged Deforestation-Free Palm Oil.
Since then, ConAgra Foods Inc. has purchased Blake’s All Natural Foods, the latest food-products company to acquire a smaller, natural brand in an effort to shore up sluggish sales. “ConAgra Buys Blake’s All Natural Foods” (May 12, 2015)
Are your meals organic? The Blake's ConAgra “line of organic meals contain at least 70% organic ingredients….”
Boycott Palm Oil
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