African Palm Oil is an agricultural product of the African Palm Tree and is found in almost any product imaginable, from cooking oil to makeup. The rising demand for vegetable oils has skyrocketed the African palm trade into a massive worldwide industry. Today, African palm plantations produce 36% of the world’s oil.
Overview: African Palm in Guatemala
While not the largest producer of palm oil in the world, Guatemala is the 6th largest producer in the world. Since the 1990s, when palm oil first entered the scene in Guatemala, the amount cultivated has quadrupled in size. While most companies claim the land they use to cultivate African palm was previously used for cattle grazing, at least 1/3 of land currently used for palm oil cultivation was used for corn in the last two decades. This has contributed to a continued decline in staple food production in the country and a decline in food accessibility. This is especially problematic in rural departments because the African Palm sector has rapidly expanded and driven people from the their lands. With lands being concentrated under agribusiness, Guatemalans have less access to sustenance farming and food production. According to the World Food Programme, nearly half of all Guatemalans cannot afford to fulfill their basic food needs. This is only aggravated by the continued practices of palm oil companies in the region. The industry commonly employs violent and illegal methods to seize indigenous-owned land and evict entire communities to grow more palm to export. In 2011 in the Polochic valley nearly 800 families across 12 communities were driven from their homes by military and police forces to make way for sugar and African palm plantations. Homes were burnt, crops destroyed, several people were seriously wounded and one was killed. Worse still is that the United States continues to support Guatemalan state security forces with funds, equipment, and training, which in turn is used to repress, maim, and kill indigenous Guatemalans simply defending their rights to land, sustenance, and a clean and healthy environment. This further enriches palm oil companies, while forcing indigenous families off their land and leaving them in uncertainty with the loss of their homes.
Caption: Video of evicitions carried out against residents of the Polochic Valley (viewable on YouTube; Source: Vladimir Valenzuela Méndez)
Besides the land-grabbing aspirations of many palm oil companies in Guatemala, the cultivation of African palm has had extremely detrimental impacts on the environment. In the first place, African Palm is a very water-intensive crop. To fulfill this need plantations have taken to diverting rivers, draining river water mechanically, and digging deep water tap wells. This is a major issue for communities that rely on these rivers for water, especially when most of these communities lack piped water. The expansion of the palm oil industry in Guatemala has directly impacted levels of deforestation of indigenous land. While palm oil companies claim to be a boon to local rainforests, more often than not, forested lands are cleared in order to plant more palm oil. Moreover, as families are pushed from their lands near palm plantations, they are often forced to clear new land for their subsistence, resulting in more forests being lost. This directly contradicts many of the claims that African Palm is healthy for the environment and contributes to the reduction of CO2 emissions. Deforestation and the subsequent release of CO2 negates any CO2 reduction benefits of African Palm. Forested areas that were once rich CO2 sinks are destroyed and the CO2 stored in these regions is released into the atmosphere.
Palm oil production has also been linked to ecological disasters, such as in the municipality of Sayaxché on the La Pasión River. In Sayaxché, downstream from a palm oil plantation operated by Reforestadora de Palmas de Petén, S.A. (REPSA), community members began finding hundreds of dead fish along the river. An investigation into the death of these fish revealed the river had been contaminated with the pesticide Malathion that had been found on the nearby REPSA palm oil plantation. REPSA denied the use of Malathion on their plantation, despite the proof that contradicted the company’s claim.
Caption: News report on the poisoning of La Pasión River (Source: Publinews Guatemala)
The Companies that Control the Trade
As of 2018, there are 19 million hectares dedicated to African Palm cultivation. While Guatemala accounts for 177,000 of these hectares, the amount cultivated has nearly tripled in the last decade. Since 35% of arable land in Guatemala is viable for Palm Oil production, the continued rapid increase in cultivation could result in further food insecurity among rural indigenous populations. The African Palm Oil trade in Guatemala is mostly controlled by a cadre of 6 business groups, “which dominate the entire value chain from the plantation through the crude oil extraction to marketing of the raw product or its byproducts”. These business groups are Grupo Hame Olmeca, NaturAceite, Agroamérica, Palmas de Ixcán, Grupo Köng, and Grupo Weissenberg. The largest of these business groups is Hame Olmeca, cultivating more than 40,000 hectares (the amount cultivated in 2008). The trade makes up 1.2% of Gross Domestic Product or approximately 1.6 billion USD.
While much of the industry is funded from Guatemalan capital. It’s worth noting that at least one of the largest Palm Oil operations was built with funding from American banks in cooperation with the American company Green Earth Fuels. While they would later withdraw their stake in Palmas de Ixcan, they invested upwards of $14 million into the project. They were prompted to withdraw support for the project in 2011, after much of the current plantation infrastructure had been established, reportedly due to a financial windfall. Though it may have also been the result of the US “excluding biofuel produced from palm oil from the category of renewable fuels”. This left just the Guatemalan partners invested in Palmas de Ixcán. They have not been forthcoming on their current financial situation.
This is a common theme among Palm Oil companies in Guatemala. Further funding for continued expansion of the industry is also linked to the large amount of palm oil that is exported to Mexico and the United States from Guatemala. Almost all major grocery retailers in the United States carry palm oil-laden products. Despite many retailers committing to “sustainable” palm oil, the level of sustainability in the global palm oil industry is generally lacking. Despite organizations like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) giving certifications on “sustainable” palm oil production, the board that creates the recommendations for sustainability is controlled by palm oil growers/producers, retailers, and banks. Only 4 of the 16 seats on the Board of Governors go to environmental and social development NGOs. Guatemala is home to The Palm Grower Association of Guatemala (GREPALMA for its name in Spanish), which was created to promote ‘sustainable’ palm oil production and development and is an affiliate member of the RSPO. However, this is largely ignored by palm growers in the country. GREPALMA also vocally supported the decision to expel The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala in 2018. Despite activists asking RSPO to end GREPALMA’s affiliate status, RSPO sidestepped the request, and GREPALMA continues to hold affiliate member status today.
The largest African Palm producing region is the department of Petén, specifically, in and around the municipality of Sayaxché mentioned earlier in the article. Three of the six business groups listed above have plantations near Sayaxché along La Pasión River. As of 2010, Sayaxché was home to 66,827 largely indigenous Guatemalans. Much of the region is populated by internal migrants. Guatemalans who were displaced to Sayaxché to escape the violence of the Civil War, are now reporting displacement at the hands of African Palm Oil companies. African palm plantations employed upwards of 14% of the population in 2010. This number has certainly increased as more land is cleared, bought, and grabbed to plant more palm. The population in the municipality is especially vulnerable to land grabs and labor violations on the part of palm oil companies in the area. It is estimated that upwards of 42 communities have disappeared in the Sayaxché region alone due to extensive land grabbing of palm oil companies. These practices drive families away from their communities and further contribute to the inaccessibility to lands families have lived on for generations. Frequently, these companies employ intermediaries to intimidate families off their lands, other times pressuring community leaders to convince families to sell their lands. As a result, palm oil plantations have grown by some 590% since the year 2000. Another tool used by African Palm plantations is the criminalization of leaders, this includes Abelino Chub Caal, who was held by the Guatemalan government on false charges of aggravated trespass, arson, and illicit association for 2 years without trial. When banana plantation owners in El Estor wanted to expand into African palm they wanted to illegally use indigenous Q’eqchi lands. Abelino and the Guillermo Toriello Foundation attempted to help mediate between the communities and agribusinesses, but instead of participating in mediation the same agribusinesses accused him of criminal activity and thus his two-year illegal detention began.
The continual rapid growth of palm oil in Sayaxché is indicative of an ongoing push to convert more land towards the cultivation of palm oil across the country, further contributing to land deprivation, food insecurity, and ecocide across Guatemala. The families that own the trade do this with the full support of the government, and often there is no recourse for violations of people’s land and labor rights. Some communities, like those in Raxruhá municipality, Alta Verapaz have organized to resist the expansion of palm oil plantations in their homes. But this example is just one in a sea of communities destroyed by palm oil.
You can help us take action against the detrimental impacts of African Palm Oil on our partners in Guatemala. The United States continues to support the Guatemalan government and state security forces with funding, equipment, and training. Help by calling Congress and demanding a cessation of security aid to the Guatemalan government. A 2023 foreign operations budget was proposed in June 2022 and includes significant support for Guatemala’s repressive security forces; members of congress need pressure from you to oppose this “military aid.” Please also consider donating via GuatemalaSolidarityProject.org or venmo @solidarityguate 100% of funds go to our partners in Guatemala. Donations help activities like the funding and support of political prisoners, water access projects, and emergency aid for victims of violence.
|Group||Companies||Location of plantations||Alliances||Hectares|
|Esquintla, Coatepeque (Quetzaltenango), Ocós (San Marcos), and Sayaxché (Petén)||Aceites Olmeca||40,000 (2008)|
Maegli Mueller Family
|NaturAceites||El Estor (Izabal), Panzós, Chisec, Fray Bartolomé Las Casas, and Chahal (Alta Verapaz)||Grupo Numar (Costa Rica)
Unilever (El Salvador)
|INDESA 6,921 (2009)
PADESA 8,000 (2010)
Bolaños Valle Family
|Finca Berlín and Morales (Izabal)||Operating in Panama through Agropalma de Inversiones, Agro Aceite Panamá, Agro Productora de Aceite, Agrícola Maya, and Agro Industrial de Aceite||9,000 (2010)|
|Palmas del Ixcán
Families Torrebiarte and Arriola Fuxet (with direct and indirect links until 2011)
|Palmas del Ixcán||Sayaxché (Petén), Ixcán (Quiché), Rubelsanto and Playitas, in Chisec municipality (Alta Verapaz), and Lachuá, Cobán (Alta Verapaz)||N/A||4,600 owned and 2,100 under contracts|
|Sayaxché (Petén)||Grupo Köng and Alimentos Ideal||5,000 (under development)|
|Weissenberg||Tikindustrias||Aldea Arenas and Sayaxché (Petén)||Ingenio El Pilar||5,000 (under development)|