On September 18, environmental activist Rigoberto Lima Choc was murdered in Northern Guatemala. This happened just after a court upheld charges he filed denouncing massive pollution caused by a palm oil company called Reforestadora de Palma de Petén (REPSA).
Rigoberto was a 28-year old schoolteacher and indigenous activist. He was shot outside of a courthouse by two men on a motorbike the day after a court ordered the palm oil company to suspend operations while an investigation was held into a huge spill of palm oil waste. He had been among the first to report a massive fish die-off in the polluted river.
The spill killed hundreds of thousands of fish putting at risk the livelihoods of thousands of people in riverside communities and contaminating their drinking water supply. Experts say it is one of the largest environmental disasters in Guatemalan history. Rigoberto did a heroic action by reporting the spill in a country where many activists are killed each year.
When the company’s palm oil processing plant overflowed into the Pasión River, local communities were not warned, and were left on their own to take protective measures. This is just one example of the ecological destruction that large-scale palm oil production can cause, especially when governments neglect their duty to protect people and the environment.
Rigoberto documented the spill and then filed a complaint. This resulted in a court order to stop operations for six months. The following day, workers from the REPSA plantation were told that they would be laid off. The workers responded by taking to the streets in protest over the temporary closure of the company.
Three human rights workers: Hermelindo Asij, Lorenzo Pérez and Manuel Mendoza who are members of Comisión por la Defensa de la Vida y la Naturaleza were kidnapped by REPSA workers, but later released. REPSA workers have threatened human rights defenders and court workers for their part in shutting down production at the plant.
Residents downstream of the plant have suffered health problems including dermatitis, and lesions after washing clothes and bathing in the contaminated water.
REPSA is a subsidiary of Grupo Olmeca, Guatemala’s largest palm oil producer, which is owned by the powerful Molina family.
Instead of upholding the court order, the Guatemalan Government ignored appeals for assistance and allowed Rigoberto to be killed for his activism.
Help stop palm oil plantations from further destroying Guatemala’s environment. Activists like Rigoberto should not have to put their lives at risk when they stand up to big polluters. Demand justice for Rigoberto.