The toxic legacy of palm oil in Guatemala

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This entry posted by Aditi Sen, Senior Policy Advisor Oxfam America, and Susana Gauster, Coordinadora de Influencia Oxfam en Guatemala, on 5 April 2017.

Ensuring sustainability in Guatemala's palm oil sector requires meaningful social and ecological reform.


In June 2015 the Pasión River, which is the lifeblood of Sayaxché in Peten – a region in the northern part of Guatemala - was contaminated by a deadly spill. The spill not only destroyed the river’s aquatic life, but also the livelihoods of thousands of local families who depend on the river for sustenance. It’s been almost two years since that ecological disaster and residents of Sayaxché are still waiting for justice.

The alleged cause of the disaster was a massive spill of toxic effluent from Reforestadora de Palma del Petén SA (REPSA) – the largest palm oil company in the area. The spill was so destructive that a Guatemalan court ruled the spill an “ecocide” and ordered that REPSA suspend operations pending investigation. However the official investigation into the spill has been paralyzed by repeated legal appeals from the company , and this has  fermented conflict in the region and amplified threats to environmental and human rights defenders.

Zero tolerance

Cargill and Wilmar are among the biggest buyers of palm oil from REPSA. In the wake of the spill, and following allegations of adverse human rights and environmental impacts as well as continued pressure from Guatemalan and international civil society groups, the two companies demanded that REPSA adopt measures to prevent violence and intimidation, and to ensure environmentally and socially sustainable palm oil production. In response, in 2016, REPSA published a policy and a plan for responsible palm oil production committing to zero tolerance for violence as well as to no deforestation or exploitation.

Oxfam recognizes that the initial actions that global buyers Cargill and Wilmar have taken to get REPSA to put in place policies for responsible and sustainable palm oil production are significant and a step in the right direction. While REPSA has made certain sustainability improvements such as investments in water and sanitation systems for workers, the company still has a long way to go to ensure that its sustainability policy translates into changes in practice that would contribute to meaningful reform on the ground.

Human rights concerns

Following concerns raised by local civil society groups, Oxfam commissioned an independent consultant to gather feedback from key community stakeholders in Sayaxché in order to assess REPSA’s progress in implementing its sustainability plan. While there are a range of perspectives in the community, the report indicates that REPSA’s claims of improvements in its sustainability policies and practices diverge significantly from accounts provided by community stakeholders interviewed. The report not only highlights ongoing concerns about the human rights and environmental impacts of the toxic spill, but also highlights concerns about the company’s approach to stakeholder engagement — which stakeholders interviewed felt had marginalized and silenced critics, further fueling distrust and conflict in the region. 

There have also been new allegations of intimidation by human rights defenders involved in supporting the community demands for justice.

Strengthening sustainability

In its response to the report, REPSA has acknowledged the need to deepen stakeholder dialogue and has committed to engaging in broader industry efforts to assess and address the environmental and social impacts of the spill. We welcome this commitment and hope the company can continue to demonstrate that it is serious about its commitment towards ensuring sustainable and responsible palm oil production.

Based on its analysis of the report, Oxfam identified several steps that REPSA should take to ensure that its sustainability policies contribute to real change on the ground. To begin with, REPSA should:

  1. Publicly acknowledge the toxic spill in June 2015 that resulted in devastating consequences for the communities in Sayaxché who depend on the La Pasion River, and commit to supporting a transparent legal investigation of the spill.
  2. Develop and carry out a process to provide remedy to those who have been adversely affected by the spill, including communities whose health and livelihoods have suffered, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Engagement with affected communities and local organizations about the process and form of remedy is essential for the legitimacy of the process.
  3. Be transparent on how it is implementing its sustainable palm policy – this should include publicly reporting on how it is implementing its “zero tolerance” policy on violence and intimidation and complete disclosure of its environmental impact assessments. REPSA should make this information widely available and accessible to local stakeholders.

For their part, buyers must continue to demand that REPSA make genuine progress, not just in rhetoric, but also in practice.

Protecting people and planet

While meaningful stakeholder engagement needs to start with acknowledgement of past harms paired with concerted commitments to repair those harms, it should also address the root causes of the social, ecological and human rights violations associated with palm oil production in the region. The contamination of La Pasión River is not an isolated incident but stems from a long history of problems associated with the rapid expansion of palm oil operations in Petén, which is the region accounting for one-third of the country’s palm oil production. As one of the biggest palm oil companies in the region, REPSA has the opportunity to be a catalyst in wider sector reform by proactively supporting broad stakeholder dialogue in the region.

The real test of corporate commitments to eliminate deforestation and exploitation from palm oil supply chains is whether this results in positive impact on local communities and ensures the protection of vital ecosystems.

Can REPSA and other companies operating in Sayaxché meet that test?

What you can do

As a consumer, demand that the palm oil that is in your chocolates and cookies comes from companies that implement responsible and sustainable practices that protect people and the planet.

This entry posted by Aditi Sen, Senior Policy Advisor Oxfam America and Susana Gauster, Coordinadora de Influencia Oxfam en Guatemala, on 5 April 2017.