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Environmental and human rights groups appeal to Guatemalan government to protect land defenders

Posted Dec. 14, 2016 / Posted by: Kate Colwell

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A coalition of environmental and human rights groups sent a letter today to officials in Guatemala expressing deep concern over acts of intimidation and threats of violence against environment and human rights defenders, and in particular against members of a Guatemalan community group called the Commission for the Defense of Life and Nature of Sayaxché, who are involved in a struggle to defend their lands against environmental contamination caused by the local palm oil industry.

The letter, which asks the Guatemalan government to show its progress into the investigations of a recent spate of murder, intimidation and ecocide, was sent to Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Esperanza Aldana Hernández and Interior Minister Francisco Manuel Rivas Lara, by eight organizations, including Friends of the Earth U.S., ActionAid USA, and the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA. The public appeal to the Guatemalan government coincides with a platform launched by Amnesty International last week in recognition of International Human Rights Defenders Day.

“Today we are calling on government officials to take urgent action to address threats against the Commission for the Defense of Life and Nature and other civil society groups that are peacefully demanding justice and ecosystem repair in the wake of last year’s palm oil ecocide in the Pasion River and the violence that followed,” said Jeff Conant, senior international forests campaigner with Friends of the Earth U.S. “Both government and private sector actors need to bring an end to the impunity that plagues the country and to clean up the dirty agribusinesses that are a major driver of the violence.”

The Commission for the Defense of Life and Nature (CDVN) was formed following two spills of pesticide-laden palm oil effluent into Guatemala’s Pasion River in the municipality of Sayaxché in April and June, 2015. The group, consisting of tens of thousands of Q’eqchi’ Mayan farmers and fishers who depend on the river for their livelihoods, filed a legal case against REPSA (Reforestadora de Palma de Peten, SA) which resulted in an unprecedented ruling of “ecocide” on September 17, 2015. The day after the ruling by Judge Karla Hernandez, thousands of REPSA employees angrily took to the streets, blocked roads, kidnapped three activists, occupied the courthouse in Sayaxché in an attempt to intimidate the Judge into overturning her ruling, and concluded with the killing of CDVN spokesman Rigoberto Lima Choc.   

To this date there has been no progress in the investigation into the murder of Rigoberto Lima Choc, and CDVN has since reported numerous cases of intimidation, including death threats and assassination attempts. Amnesty International reports that Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders.

“We are extremely concerned about the threats towards members of Commission for the Defense of Life and Nature of Sayaxché, especially given that the ecocide in the Pasion River and the killing of Rigoberto Lima Choc remain uninvestigated, in a year in which Guatemala has seen literally a dozen killings of human rights defenders,” said Dania Rodriguez of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA.

The letter to Guatemalan officials notes that members of the CDVN are known environmental human rights defenders and are thus subject to specific protections by the State under both Guatemalan law and international norms such as the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the American Convention on Human Rights. The letter also notes the November 12 killing of Jeremy Abraham Barrios Lima, Assistant to the General Director of the Center for Environmental and Social Legal Action of Guatemala (CALAS) in Guatemala City. CALAS handles legal cases for many land defenders, including CDVN.

REPSA’s palm oil is sold to the international market through global traders including Cargill, Wilmar, and IOI. In June 2016, both Cargill and Wilmar issued statements requiring REPSA to improve its human rights and environmental practices, and REPSA itself committed to a “Policy on Non Violence and Intimidation.” Cargill pledged to terminate contracts with REPSA if the issues had not been addressed within six months – a deadline that came due last week – but no public action has been taken to this effect.

The letter sent today urges the Guatemalan government to ensure the security of land defenders in the event that the palm oil multinationals do not follow through on their commitments to remove human rights abuses and exploitation from their supply chains.

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Friends of the Earth U.S., Jeff Conant, jconant@foe.org, U.S. +1 510 900 0016
ActionAid USA, Chris Coxon, U.S. +1 202-370-9913
Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, Annie Bird, U.S. +1 202-529-6599

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