On 18 September 2015, one day after the Reforestadora Palma de Petén S.A. (REPSA) palm oil factory was ordered closed for its contamination of the Pasíon River, an indigenous activist, Rigoberto Lima Choc, 28, was murdered outside a courthouse in the town of Sayaxché in northern Guatemala. Lima, also a municipal councillor and a teacher, had played a leading role in documenting the environmental damage, described by local communities as an act of ‘ecocide’.
On the same day, three human rights defenders – Lorenzo Pérez, Hermelindo Asij and Manuel Pérez Ordóñez – were kidnapped on the Cobán-Sayxché highway and threatened with being burned alive. According to Frontline Defenders, REPSA workers were responsible for the abduction and their actions may have been coordinated by a company official. In Sayaxché, 600 REPSA employees also ‘took over’ the Centro de Administración de Justicia de San Benito Petén and held 100 workers and lawyers hostage. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights attempted to intervene without success. At 12.30 pm, Rigoberto was shot dead by two assailants on a motorbike. At 5.30 pm, all hostages, including the human rights defenders, were released.
The African palm oil industry in Guatemala has grown exponentially in recent years and the country is now one of the world’s top ten producers. Plantations cover approximately 130,000 hectares and a litany of environmental and human rights abuses are being reported in connection with the industry. Fish die-off in the Pasíon River is reported to number at least tens of thousands across 23 species and REPSA’s operations have now suspended for six months. According to the UN, between 2.5 tons and 3.75 tons of toxic waste are produced per ton of processed palm oil, but pesticide run-off is also likely to have been a factor in the river’s contamination, according to a toxicological report by the University of San Carlos. Local communities rely upon the river for food, water, irrigation, and bathing, and have been seriously impacted by the ecological disaster.
The Guatemala Human Rights Commission has now launched a petition calling for a full and impartial investigation into the murder of Rigoberto Lima Choc, the adoption of measures that guarantee the safety of human rights defenders in the region, and a continued investigation into the ecocide on the Pasión River. Add your name here.