Early on June 6, communities along the once tranquil La PasiÃ³n River in northern Guatemala awoke to find tens of thousands of dead fish floating on the surface. This is the second time in two years that communities in northern Guatemala have seen massive fish die-offs in their rivers.
Affected communities in Sayaxche, Peten blame the palm oil industry for this mass pollution of their river.
“The palm industry has contaminated our river,” Rigoberto Lima, a teacher and representative from the communities of SayaxchÃ©, told AlterNet.
Researchers from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City supported these accusations after confirming the high levels of agro-chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizer, used in the production of African palm oil.
While Guatemalan officials and experts declared an environmental disaster, community members and non-governmental organizations use a different term: ecocide.
But the company, Reforestadora Palma de Peten S.A., a subsidiary of Olemec Palm Oil, and the mayor of the SayaxchÃ© have taken issue with the accusation of “ecocide,” declaring the environmental crisis to be an “accident.”
This denial represents a broader issue of governmental compliance with foreign industries and neoliberal markets at the expense of local communities and habitats. As Juan Castro from the Association of Mayan Lawyers argues, this case exposes the lack of oversight on the palm industry.
“This was not an accident,” Castro said in a press conference. “This represents an economic model that cannot be controlled. There also exists compliance by the government and its institutions have not put in place a control over the industry, and hold those responsible for the pollution.”
Since the 1970s, African palm oil has made its way into the global market. Today, it is promoted as a cheap vegetable oil and found in most liquid detergents, soaps, shampoos, lipstick, waxes, polishes, and industrial lubricant as well as biofuels. As demand rises for the product in Europe, U.S., China and Mexico, Guatemala has opened its lands to this monocrop. Since the end of the 36-year-long internal armed conflict, Guatemala has promoted the expansion of export agriculture to multinational companies. On its website 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.
According to Byron Garoz from the Guatemalan organization IXIM Center for Rural Studies, palm oil production has grown nearly 270 percent in Guatemala since 2006 to the cost of its inhabitants, land, water sources and food supplies.
“African palm is driving the displacement of communities that have provided food for the internal market, ” Garoz told AlterNet. “This expansion has also impacted the biodiversity of Guatemala. Here we are talking about monocultures. The companies are razing forests to sow palm.”
According to farmers, areas that are under cultivation of African palm are incapable of producing other crops because of the invasive root structure of the African palm. In effect, all land that now hosts palm oil plants will soon be deemed infertile long-term.
“Every time a campesino cuts down a tree to grow more maize, he is met with charges by the public ministries,” Ixic told journalists gathered for a press conference on the ecocide. “But each time the palm companies cut down more trees, there are no charges. No one says anything. We want to see an end to this impunity.”
As palm production has expanded into the region, small farmers have been forced from their land become more and more reliant on the rivers for their survival.
“We need the fish from our river,” said Juan Ixic, a member of the Committee for Community Development. “We are without land because of the expansion of the palm. There are people migrating to Mexico, and we are seeing the disintegration of families. We have become poorer.”