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First Ecocide Case Sets Precedent in Guatemala

The first Ecocide case to be prosecuted in Guatemala's new Environmental Crimes Court has just had its interim ruling upheld by their Court of Appeal.

The major African palm oil corporation Empresa Reforestadora de Palma de Petén SA (REPSA), has been charged with criminal ecocide that has resulted in significant die-offs of fish and other wildlife in and around the La Pasión River. As a consequence, the lives of tens of thousands of Guatemalans living in the region have beed severely diminished. Guatemalan U.N. coordinator Valerie Julliand, who gave evidence at the first hearing, cited U.N. statistics regarding how every ton of palm oil produces around 2.5 to 3.74 tons of industrial waste.

Guatemala's first environmental judge, Karla Hernández of the Petén Environmental Crimes Court (pictured above), ordered the company to suspend operations for 6 months at the Sayaxché palm plantation in Petén pending the charges being investigated.

Guatemala’s National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) allege 23 fish species have been adversely impacted along with 21 species of birds, reptiles and mammals. Estimates of dead fish run to millions, with polluted the water and land adversely impacting the way of life of many thousands of people.

According to Rosalito Barrios of the University of San Carlos de Guatemala, the die-off was likely caused by a 70 centimetre thick layer of chemical run-off washed into the river after heavy rains. The run-off is believed to have consisted mainly of the pesticide Malathion.

“We can call the case a crime against humanity, because not only were various species of the river dying, but the river is also part of our historical culture, or our territory,” said Saul Paau, a Maya Q’eqchi leader speaking to the Guatemala Indymedia Center about the cultural as well as ecological ecocide. “We get our food from it, and the contamination and the fish deaths today have violated the food security of all of us.”

Creating a Response Network to Ecocide

Community response to Ecocide

Guatemala’s first High Risk Court dedicated to prosecuting crimes against the environment opened in July 2015 with the support of civil society leaders, 23 justices of the peace, two Supreme Court justices, the Public Ministry’s environmental lawyer and Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana. “The Public Ministry is aware of the impunity and corruption that has affected the environment. We are looking to provide mutual support to combat these crimes,” Aldana said at the court’s inauguration of their specialized prosecution arm.

Guatemala’s judicial system has created unique judicial responses that will not only support the structure of the park ranger, CONAP (The National Council of Protected Areas), DIPRONA (Police Division for the Protection of Nature), and the eco-trafficked goods – but will also help the court to effectively combat complex criminality, promoting sustainable citizen security and policing. Citizens are supported by the police, the law and the courts to file complaints at first instance. In this case, a collective of local groups and cooperatives known as the Commission for the Defence of life and Nature filed the initial lawsuit.

The environmental court and prosecutor’s office in Petén represent a significant step toward providing specialized justice in Guatemala. Now a third High Risk court has just been declared open to expedite more high risk cases which include organized crime, kidnappings, narco-trafficking, gangs, trafficking in persons as well as eco-crime. With new laws in place, the judiciary now have the capacity to prosecute high level corruption.

Passing national law to recognise ecocide as a crime has been key to enabling communities who are adverssely affected to file complaints in court. USAID/Guatemala Mission Director William Brands supports the move and says: “The most recent example of this is a model of specialized environmental justice that, through the same partnership between civil society and the institutions, gives the future of the Mayan Biosphere great hope.”

Taking the Leap: International Law

But what if the company causing ecocide is a transnational company? And what if the ecocide is climate related? As you can imagine, elsewhere - where ecocide law is missing - communities are left without recourse to courts that can grant justice and vital emergency assistance.

Last year when I met with climate negotiators from Small Islands States, I learned that Palau had already suffered 10 more frequent typhoons, more intense, more severe (You can hear and see our conversation here) - so much so that one atoll was destroyed. Palau's tragedy is not unique. Yet, there is no international legal  State duty to give climate vulnerable States any help at times of climate emergency.

In Ecuador, Pablo Fajardo Mendoza has fought to bring a case to the international criminal court to open a criminal investigation of Chevron's CEO John Watson and his directors for refusing to comply with the court order to clean-up toxic contamination in the Amazon, which continues to put thousands of lives at risk (you can read the full complaint here); yet, because the international crime of ecocide is not yet recognised, his pleadings are restricted.

Both instances speak of lack of accountability at the very top. Both instances require international criminal law  - one that addresses both transnational and transboundary corporate and climate ecocide; and a court that dedicates judges and lawyers to be at the disposal of individuals and communities most adversely impacted by ecocide. Guatemala, a country riddled with a history of civil conflict and where daily violence is the norm, has just taken a hugely bold step. Now lets do the same at an international level - it's a leap we can take.


Heart - to - heart

I'd like to say this: yesterday I met a remarkable woman who told me her story of how as a young girl she had grown up on a boat, sailing to some of the most beautiful islands of the world. She told me how she recently returned to one of the South Pacific islands and how, incredibly, she met with islanders she had met there 35 years earlier and whose lives are now are daily facing the terrible threat of climate ecocide. For them it's not just the risk of loss of a few homes, it's the loss of a way of life and their atolls, their islands, all that they hold dear to their hearts. This is a fate that holds true for many Small Islands Developing States - and other Climate Vulnerable States too; this is a climate emergency.

In my darkest moments I wonder whether all I advocate for is futile, but what I heard strengthened my resolve all the more to continue advocating for ecocide law. And I as I write this I remember the faith so many of you have in me, and I am greatly heartened. 

You are part of the community that supports me as I continue on this quest - and for sure, it's not over yet. I ask you - if what I do makes your heart sing, please do gift whatever feels best for you. Gifting in this way is a leap into the unknown; an altruistic act, born of deep care and trust. To receive funds in this way means a lot to me.

And - know this, change is happening. Guatemala's Ecocide law is very much part of that.