Guatemalans wait for justice, two years on from toxic spill

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

Two years after a toxic spill linked to a palm oil plantation destroyed the food source for communities living around Guatemala’s Pasión River, a new report highlights a continued absence of justice, accountability or compensation for those affected.

The spill, which occurred in Sayaxché, Peten province in June 2015, killed thousands of fish and destroyed the plant life in the river, impacting the food security of thousands of local families, according to the report.

The alleged cause of the disaster was a massive leak of toxic effluent from the palm oil firm Reforestadora de Palma del Petén SA (REPSA). A Guatemalan court ordered that REPSA suspend its operations pending investigation. Following the verdict, a local schoolteacher and plaintiff in the case was shot dead, and three other activists illegally detained by REPSA workers protesting the judge’s decision.

The new report by Oxfam examines the extent to which the case had been investigated and those affected compensated. It highlights the efforts made by REPSA to obstruct justice, pursuing a series of legal appeals which have stalled the official investigation called for in the original court judgement.

The report adds that REPSA have not taken any action to ensure that affected communities who have lost their livelihoods have access to any kind compensation or remedy. This is despite the fact the spill decimated local fish stocks, harming the primary economic activity for those not involved in palm oil. It also severely diminished the volume of fish caught for daily consumption, resulting in problems of food supply, particularly for the poorest communities.

The report also cites descriptions from local stakeholders of the intimidation that local activists have faced. They report being stopped from travelling to press conferences, receiving threatening phone calls, and enduring false accusations spread through leaflets, posters and banners around the local area. It also points to several apparent attempts by REPSA to “replace the most confrontational leaders in the municipality of Sayaxché with people linked to the palm oil companies,” undermining local democracy and development processes in the region.

In response to Oxfam’s report, campaigners called on firms such as Cargill, Wilmar and Nestlé – the biggest buyers of palm oil from REPSA – to stop doing business with them until they compensate those who lost their livelihoods and engage with the process to bring about justice.

Photo on homepage courtesy of La comision para la defensa de la vida y la naturaleza