November 30, 2015 — A coalition of international NGOs delivered an open letter today to Guatemala’s Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, and Interior Minister Eunice Mendizábal, calling on the Guatemalan government to conduct an immediate investigation into the murder of environmental activist Rigoberto Lima Choc. The petition—a joint action by Friends of the Earth, ActionAid USA and GHRC—was signed by 49,314 individuals from several different countries.
The petition was presented alongside the Network of Communities Affected by Palm Oil and accompanying organizations that have publicly denounced the attack and the negative impact of palm oil production on communities in Guatemala.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that environmental defenders like Rigoberto put their lives at risk when they stand up to big polluters,” said Jeff Conant, Senior International Forests Campaigner with Friends of the Earth-US. “Today we send a strong message to government authorities that they must protect human rights defenders and stop palm oil operations from further taking over community lands, devastating forests and rivers, and taking human lives.”
Rigoberto Lima Choc was shot while outside of a local courthouse in Sayaxché, Petén, on September 18, just one day after a Guatemalan judge ordered the palm oil company Reforestadora Palma de Petén S.A. (REPSA) to suspend its operations for six months.
Many outlets have reported the likely connection between Lima’s assassination and his leadership in community demands to investigate REPSA’s alleged role in the contamination of La Pasión River in northern Guatemala. Lima, a school teacher and indigenous activist, had been one of the first to report the mass die-off of fish in the river this spring; on September 17, the company was ordered to suspend its operations while an investigation into the source of the contamination is carried out.
In addition to Lima’s murder, three human rights activists—Lorenzo Pérez, Hermelindo Asij and Manuel Pérez—were held by REPSA employees for almost 12 hours, threatened with being burned alive, and finally released the following day.
The letter reiterates community demands for an immediate investigation into the violent events surrounding the REPSA case, as well as the adoption of measures to guarantee the safety of human rights defenders in the region. Furthermore, it calls for a continued investigation into the contamination of the Pasión River and for efforts to be made to ensure that the event is not repeated.
The ecological disaster in Sayaxché has been referred to as an “ecocide” by residents and experts alike. Reports estimate that tens of thousands of fish in the Pasión River have died, including at least 23 different species, affecting the economic livelihood of least 12,000 people from 17 communities.
The contamination appears to be directly linked to overflow from REPSA´s processing plant in April, and the company first timidly admitted responsibility before later denying involvement. At no point was the community warned of the spill, but it quickly became apparent that the water was poisoned.
“The expansion of palm oil plantations onto community lands and forests is not just happening in Guatemala, but is already underway in many countries around the world,” said Doug Hertzler from ActionAid USA. “Palm oil plantations in Guatemala are rapidly expanding to meet increasing global demand for vegetable oils—due in part to US, European, and other national mandates for the production of biofuels—leading to the ongoing environmental contamination and displacement of local communities.”
Leaders from Sayaxché highlighted the La Pasión River ecocide case at a recent hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, DC, emphasizing the precarious and vulnerable situation of communities surrounded by African Palm production.
“These nearly 50,000 signatures represent the international community’s serious concern about the levels of violence faced by community leaders who stand up for their health,” said Kelsey Alford-Jones, Executive Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission. “We call on the Guatemalan government to conduct a full and impartial investigation into Lima’s death and the contamination of the river, and to protect activists who are defending their environment.”
Friends of the Earth-United States, Jeff Conant, firstname.lastname@example.org, U.S. +1 510 900 0016
ActionAid USA, Douglas Hertzler, Doug.Hertzler@actionaid.org, U.S. + 1-202-421-1023
Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, Kelsey Alford-Jones, email@example.com, U.S. +1 202-529-6599