Skip to content Skip to footer

Mass Die-Off of Fish Underscores Dangers of Palm Oil Industry in Guatemala

The increased commercial popularity of African palm oil has contributed to environmental disasters across Guatemala.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

Help Truthout keep publishing stories like this: They can’t be found in corporate media! Make a tax-deductible donation today.

Crossing the River Pasión today, nothing would appear out of the ordinary: Boats ferry people across the river while a woman washes clothing in the murky brown water. But a little over a month ago, the scene was different. On May 30, residents of the municipality of Sayaxché, in the Guatemalan department of Petén, awoke to find tens of thousands of fish floating in the river. For residents, it was clear who was responsible for the die-off: the local palm company, Reforestadora de Palma del Petén (REPSA), a member of the powerful Olmeca Group.

“We rely on the river for fish and our water,” Hermelindo Choc, a resident of Arroyo Santa Maria, one of the towns most affected by the contamination, told Truthout. “But now we are afraid to drink the water and to eat the fish. The palm company has left us with nothing.”

“We are afraid to drink the water and to eat the fish. The palm company has left us with nothing.”

The environmental tragedy, which community members have called an ecocide, first began on April 29 when heavy rains caused the oxidation pools at the palm firm’s finca to overflow, pouring into the river. The firm took steps to hide the impact of the pollution by collecting the dead fish that appeared in the river. But it could not conceal the mass die-off of river life, including 23 species of fish and 21 species of animals that feed on the fish.

The affected communities along the river have demanded that the company’s operations be investigated and closed down because of the contamination.

But the firm denied responsibility. On June 15, the company issued a statement stating that there was “never an ecocide,” and that the company “was not responsible” for the contamination. But this claim contradicts both scientific evidence and the company’s statements immediately following the incident.

On May 5, REPSA’s legal representatives sent a letter to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources informing the ministry of the contamination and admitting the firm’s (unintentional) role in causing it.

The firm could not conceal the mass die-off of river life, including 23 species of fish.

“Unusually heavy rains provoked the overflow of oxidation pools,” wrote Carlos Arevalo, the legal representative for REPSA, to Gustavo Chacon Cordon, a representative from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources. “Fish were found with signs of asphyxiation. We have sent samples to the University of San Carlos to determine the cause of death.”

The report from the toxicology department at Guatemala’s National University of San Carlos found high levels of the chemical malathion, an illegal pesticide, in samples collected from the river. But the government has shown little interest in investigating the contamination.

Juan Castro of the Association of Mayan Lawyers represents the communities affected by the ecocide. “This represents an economic model that cannot be controlled,” Castro said during a press conference. “And it represents the negligence of the government to put into place regulations on the palm industry.”

This is not the first time the palm industry has contaminated Guatemalan ecosystems. Palm companies have been tied to environmental disasters in 2012, 2013 and 2014, but none of the firms accused have been held accountable for the pollution.

A Militarized Response to Environmental Protests

Since the May 30 ecocide, community members have organized regular protests at the entrances of REPSA’s fincas in Sayaxché and in Guatemala City, demanding the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources open an investigation into the contamination.

In response, politicians from Petén, including Manuel Barquin, a congressional deputy for the party Líder, approached Vice President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre to ask that President Otto Pérez Molina declare a “state of exception” in Sayaxché, which would have suspended the constitution and led to the deployment of the military to quash the protests. On June 23, soldiers from a nearby base began to appear alongside the river and to accompany company vehicles, but a state of exception was never declared.

“We don’t need soldiers here, and a state of exception,” Arroyo Santa Maria resident Choc told Truthout. “What we need is a state of calamity and humanitarian aid. The communities affected by the contamination don’t have water, and now we cannot eat the fish. It is a desperate situation.”

The Expansion of the Palm Oil Industry

Monoculture of African palm, the species grown for palm oil, has spread across northern Guatemala and throughout Central America. The expansion has monopolized land and displaced farmers.

“Everything is now palm,” Juan Ixic, a teacher and representative from Sayaxché, told Truthout. “It has taken over nearly 80 percent of our lands. As a result, there is no land for campesinos to grow maize. All of our maize is now imported from Mexico or other parts of the country.”

“All these communities want is dignified and just work. But these firms only bring more exploitation.”

Guatemala’s climate is ideal for the production of palm oil, which can be used in everything from soaps and shampoos to industrial lubricants, and as a cheap vegetable oil in many food products, including Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and Nutella. Furthermore, producers have found that the African palms grown in Guatemala produce more oil than those of any other country – further driving investment in the industry. Since the 1990s, five companies, including REPSA, Tiki Industries, NEISA, Palmas del Ixcan and Unipalm, have opened operations in Sayaxché and northern Guatemala.

Following the signing of Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2006, the Guatemalan palm industry has increasingly gained the attention of transnational capital interested in the production of biofuels.

According to Byron Garoz from the Ixim Center for Rural Studies, African palm production in the country has expanded nearly 270 percent since 2006. Guatemala is the fourth largest exporter of African palm (still well behind neighboring Honduras and Colombia).

“The trade agreement has facilitated the arrival of more transnational companies operating in our country that are not paying taxes, and damaging our environment,” Saul Paau, a representative for the communities affected by the ecological disaster, told Truthout. “The plan of the United States is for transnational companies to invest in our country to respond to the needs of society, and from this they began to impose the concentration of land for monocultures.”

The US Department of Agriculture, and in particular its Foreign Agriculture Service, has played an important part in the promotion of African palm oil as a biofuel. And the Inter-American Development Bank has provided much of the funding.

Privately held companies are investing as well. For example, in 2007, Green Earth Fuels, a Houston-based biofuel company and a subsidiary of the Carlyle Group, acquired the Guatemalan palm producer Palmas del Ixcán, with the goal of expanding the palm company’s operations to include biofuel production. The next year, when Guatemala joined the US-Brazil Biofuel Initiative, a plan to develop biofuels across Latin America, Green Earth Fuels invested $14 million in Palmas del Ixcán for biofuel production. The investment was made with loans from Goldman Sachs.

The Politics of Displacement

The expansion of palm has benefited a minority of well-connected families, but not the indigenous communities of northern Guatemala.

The situation facing indigenous communities across Guatemala exposes the dark side of so-called “green energies.” As Paau points out, there are always social and environmental costs. In addition to environmental devastation, African palm oil production has exacerbated land inequality in Guatemala, and has especially affected the indigenous Q’eqchi Mayan communities across the region.

“The United States is the greatest global consumer of energy in the world, and they are also the ones that are most concerned with the creation of new alternative energies, but they don’t know the costs,” Paau told Truthout. “The production of biofuels requires the use of land, which in turn leads to further concentration of land. It damages the land, the air and the water. We are seeing the effects here in our territory.”

The firms involved have promoted the expansion of the palm industry as development, creating jobs for rural communities. But according to Lorenzo Perez Mendoza of the Consejo Nacional de Desplazados de Guatemala (National Council of Displaced Guatemalans), this “development” has come at the cost of the community’s land and food security. The palm industry has transformed land that was used for the production of food staples, such as maize, rice and beans, into rows of palm, worsening the country’s ongoing hunger crisis.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina “has said that his idea of development is further foreign investment in our country,” Perez Mendoza told Truthout. “But these firms come and tear the social fabric of communities. People come from other departments, and other countries, and cause problems for the established communities. All these communities want is dignified and just work. But these firms only bring more exploitation.”

The production of palm oil and other export agriculture crops such as snow peas and broccoli has monopolized land once used for the production of staples such as beans, maize and rice. According to research from the Coordinator of Non-Governmental Organizations and Cooperatives, since 2003, more than 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of land used for the production of staples has been lost to the export-agriculture industries.

Unequal Land Distribution

The expansion of the palm oil industry also builds on Guatemala’s long history of unequal land distribution, a root cause of the country’s 36-year-long internal armed conflict.

Following the 1996 peace accords, the Guatemalan state and an internationally sponsored land fund used loans from the World Bank to begin purchasing land for displaced campesinos. But by 1999, this process slowed down and then reversed.

“Guatemala is one of the countries with the most unequal distribution of land in Latin America,” Marisol Garcés, a social anthropologist who has worked in Petén for 11 years, told Truthout. “Currently, we are in a period of reconcentration of land in the hands of [the] few. There are more people now who don’t have access to land than at the end of the war. It is contradictory to the peace accords and to the concept of capitalist development – it is almost feudal.”

The palm companies have systematically separated campesinos from their land to encourage the land’s sale. When these tactics have failed, firms have utilized other strong-armed tactics.

In 2014, community organizer Manuel Xi was murdered near the center of Sayaxché. At the time, Xi had been involved in organizing in protest of Palmas del Ixcán land acquisitions. Xi had received threatening messages at his home and on his mobile phone warning him against organizing. But there has yet to be an investigation into his assassination.

“It was Palmas del Ixcán that killed Xi,” Choc told Truthout. “The company wanted to get rid of him. A year later there has still not been an investigation.”

“What does the law mean in Guatemala?” added Choc. “It applies to the poor campesino who is charged when he cuts down a tree in a protected area, but not the rich. It is the problem here in Guatemala – the impunity.”

Note: Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the speakers’ identities.

We have 1 day left to raise $25,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.