Cargill, Nestlé resumed palm oil sourcing in Guatemala despite legacy of violence and intimidation, advocates find

Washington DC – Cargill and Nestlé have resumed business with Guatemalan palm oil supplier REPSA (Reforestadora de Palma S.A.), whose links to corruption, bribery, violence, and intimidation forced the multinational companies to suspend business ties with the company in 2018.

Earlier this year, the companies quietly disclosed on their respective websites [Cargill, Nestlé] that they had resumed business with REPSA. In response, dozens of environmental and human rights advocacy groups have published an open letter to Cargill and Nestlé, along with other agribusiness and consumer goods companies, to highlight the years of unresolved grievances and harms to workers and community-based human rights defenders caused by the company’s operations.

“These companies’ decisions to resume business with REPSA demonstrates the gross inadequacies of their policies and procedures,” said Daniel Carrillo, Forest Campaign Director at Rainforest Action Network. “Consumer-facing companies must uphold international human rights and adopt policies of zero tolerance for violence and intimidation of Human Rights Defenders and workers.”

REPSA drew international attention in 2015 for its alleged role in a massive fish kill along the Pasión River in Guatemala’s Sayaxché Department. The pollution incident, which the US EPA found to be caused by overflow from REPSA´s processing plant, affected an estimated 12,000 people. A local court charged REPSA with committing “ecocide,” but the ruling was never enforced after one of the lead plaintiffs, Q’eqchi Mayan human rights defender Rigoberto Lima Choc, was shot and killed. Following the subsequent arrest of several REPSA executives for corruption and bribery in 2018, Cargill, Wilmar International, Nestlé , Unilever, and PepsiCo conceded to demands by impacted communities to stop purchasing palm oil from REPSA.

“The problems in the palm oil industry in Guatemala involve systematic abuse of human rights,” said Doug Hertzler, Senior Policy Analyst at ActionAid USA. “In the aftermath of the ecocide and violations by REPSA, the associated companies need to lead the way in recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights and ensuring accountability for the damage.”

In November 2020, several United Nations bodies cautioned the Guatemalan government that actions by REPSA and several other firms, “could be constitutive of indicators of human trafficking and forced labor and other severe forms of labor exploitation.”

“The best way to protect forests and land is to defend the rights of Indigenous land defenders,” said Jeff Conant, Senior International Forests Program Manager at Friends of the Earth U.S. “When leading consumer brands can’t make minimal effort to adhere to human rights norms, it virtually guarantees that the abuses will continue.”

“Recent decisions made by Cargill and Nestlé to resume sourcing from REPSA or the Olmeca group must be overturned and local rights holder and community concerns addressed,” said Tom Griffiths at Forest Peoples Programme. “This sort of dangerous decision opens the floodgate for copycat behavior by other brands where continued sourcing risks downstream companies being complicit with historical and ongoing human rights violations.”

While the open letter to industry was spurred by Cargill and Nestlés’ disclosure of their ties to REPSA, the signatories also demand disclosure by other multinational brands including Unilever, PepsiCo, Ferrero, Mars, Mondelēz, Colgate Palmolive, Wilmar, Oleofinos, and AAK which have in past sourced from REPSA and other Guatemalan palm producers.