A ruling against a palm oil producer in Guatemala signals a shift in environmental and human rights law

Guatemalan activists are celebrating a rare legal victory against a palm oil producer accused of spilling toxic chemicals into the La Pasion river, killing millions of fish, in what locals have termed an act of ‘ecocide’.

The case, being heard in a new environmental court, has seen palm oil giant Reforestadora Palma de Petén S.A. (REPSA) ordered to halt production for six months while a full investigation into the spill is carried out. At the same time, prosecutors are investigating the killing of Rigoberto Lima Choc, a 28-year-old teacher who publicly condemned the disaster. He was murdered just one day after the ruling.

The ruling is a huge step forward for Guatemala, which for decades has struggled with official and corporate impunity in the face of environmental and human rights abuses, claimed Kelsey Alford-Jones, executive director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission.

A new generation of aggressive and determined prosecutors, using courts designed to try high-risk cases, are making headway in bringing successful cases against officials accused of genocide, corruption and other serious crimes. Those successes are now filtering down into lower-profile Guatemalan courts, such as the one hearing the REPSA case, where judges and prosecutors are finally starting to hold companies and officials accountable, Alford-Jones said.

“This is an incredible moment for the Guatemalan justice system,” she added.

The REPSA case is more than just a sign of Guatemala’s revived judicial system, it’s also an example for communities and environmental activists around the world, UK environmental lawyer Polly Higgins told Positive News: “It’s kind of a throwingdown of the gauntlet – it’s not just tough talk, but tough action.”

From India to Ecuador, campaigners are using the term ecocide as a rallying cry, with significant victories in recent years. What’s needed next, Higgins says, is a broader push to enshrine the concept in international law, making it easier for communities to demand criminal prosecutions of companies and state actors that cause or are complicit in widespread environmental harm.

While the Guatemalan case relied on the country’s existing industrial-pollution laws, rather than a specific ecocide statute, it is a step in the right direction, as it highlights the need for criminal prosecutions to hold companies and corporate bosses responsible for large-scale ecological damage, Higgins said. “What I’m seeing is a very definite trajectory that’ll lead ultimately to ending this era of ecocide.”

Photo: The La Pasion River in Guatemala, damaged by palm oil production, is part of a major watershed covering 1,930 sq miles and connects to the Usumacinta river. Credit: Guillén Pérez