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Saturday, 27 August 2016 21:54

The Problems with Palm Oil: Human Rights Abuses in Guatemala and Honduras

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Mary Ryan-Hotchkiss – Portland Chapter

Palm oil, an important export for Central and South American countries, is produced by large corporations. To increase production, the corporations buy land that has been privatized from indigenous communities. Increased production also requires massive amounts of water, for which dams and reservoirs must be built. These water projects destroy rivers and rob subsistence farms of irrigation water. Palm oil production practices have also contaminated water sources. 

The conflicting interests of corporations, governments, indigenous people, and the very environment are being discussed in various forums, with Maryknollers at Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns (MOGC) and in Guatemala providing valuable insight into this issue. 

In 2014, Chloe Schwabe, with contributions by Guatemalan Maryknoll Affiliates Rosa Beatriz Castañeda and Cecilia Garces, wrote in MOGC NewsNotes (http://maryknollogc.org/article/guatemala-communities-attempt-block-dam) that these  projects follow the same historic patterns of community displacement, human rights abuses, and ecological devastation as large-scale dirty energy projects.  MOGC has accompanied some people from Guatemala who work with the communities on lobby visits at the World Bank (IFC).

Indigenous activists speak out. In April, Chloe Schwabe of MOGC organized a briefing by three indigenous leaders from Honduras and Guatemala in Washington, DC: Tomas Gomez, coordinator of COPINH, Honduran Confederation of Indigenous People; Prof. Saul Paau Maaz, Guatemalan Mayan
and Spiritual Guide; and Martin Fernandez of the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras. The Guatemalans talked about palm oil plantations’ connection to water projects in their communities, and the Hondurans told of state repression and assassinations of indigenous leaders who protest large dam projects that threaten indigenous territories.  

Resistance to dam projects in Honduras and to palm oil production for biofuels in Guatemala is likely the reason for death threats and subsequent murders of environmental activists, including Berta Caceres in Honduras (2016), and Rigoberto Lima Choc in Guatemala (2015). In 2013, another Guatemalan leader was killed and his son injured during a peaceful demonstration. The activists have asked for an independent investigation into these deaths. 

Prof. Maaz told of a massive spill and contamination of La Pasión River in the northern region of Peten, Guatemala.  An oxidation pond of the palm oil plantation containing high levels of malathion pesticide flowed into the river, killing fish and making the people’s water source unusable. The activists said that the company initially accepted responsibility but has since withdrawn their admission. (See http://www.humanosphere.org/environment/2016/01/palm-oil-production-tied-to-revolutionary-ruling-of-ecocide-in-guatemala/. A YouTube search for “REPSA” shows many related videos, mostly in Spanish, on the catastrophe.)  The activists are concerned that corporations act with impunity, wielding threats, causing pollution and even deaths.

“What we can do?” When asked that, the activists suggested that we encourage the Church to condemn the re-colonization of their ancestral lands.  Tomas Gomez noted that Pope Francis has stated his support for indigenous rights, but the Church’s hierarchy in Honduras supported the development programs and have even prohibited the local people from listening to the radio station of COPINH.  He also asked that we stand in solidarity with the indigenous Central Americans and advocate against US policies that allow the people’s impoverishment.  

Besides being associated with the Central American land issues, palm oil has contributed to deforestation in other countries, and, being highly saturated, may even endanger our own health. As individuals, we could consider not buying products containing palm oil regardless of their source. 


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