EspañolOn April 28, 2015, heavy rains partially overflowed the oxidation ponds of the palm oil company Reforestadora de Palma de Petén S.A. (Repsa) at the La Pasión River in Sayaxché, Petén, Guatemala. Two days later, dead fish began to emerge along the river, showing signs of asphyxiation.
Earlier last month, Environment and Natural Resources Minister Óscar Medinilla Sáncez called the situation an “ecocide.” Local residents reported seeing thousands of fish and turtles floating dead in the river.
Repsa is a subsidiary of the Hame group, which in turn forms part of Olmeca, Guatemala’s largest largest palm oil producer and exporter.
The company initially accepted responsibility for the environmental disaster, saying through its corporate environmental manager, Alejandro Chacón, that it did not have the capacity to respond to the heavy rains which caused the overflow of the lagoons.
However, Repsa has since baktracked, after the University of San Carlos of Guatemala (USAC) and the Attorney General’s Office reported the presence of the pesticide malathion in the water.
On June 12, Repsa released a statement claiming they did not use malathion on their crops and therefore cannot be responsible. “It’s not a selective insecticide, and it breaks the ecological balance of the palm,” notes the release. Days later, Minister Medinilla explained the company operates two production plants, one of which has not conducted environmental impact studies.
The affected communities have called on the authorities to act. Aside from the thousands of fish killed, the Disaster Reduction Coordinator (Conred) reports that the contamination has directly affected over 12,000 people, and around 2,000 are at high risk due to pollution.
On June 11, the Guatemalan government declared an environmental red alert in the town of Sayaxché. More than 150 kilometers of the La Pasión River has been contaminated, and local residents say they depend on these waters to survive.
Uncertainty among the Public
Raúl Maas, an engineer at the Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environment of the Rafael Landivar University of Guatemala, told the PanAm Post that the biggest problem for the affected communities is uncertainty.
“To this day, they don’t know what happened, when they will be able to resume their fishing activities, and or what will happen after all the fish are dead.”
Maas says that for the last 15 years “these communities have filed complaints in cases like this happening with smaller rivers in the Southern Coast and the Northern Transversal Strip.” He says it was not until this latest catastrophe, however, that authorities have done something about it.
“The first of these episodes took place on April 28, but they didn’t act as they were supposed to.”
The engineer adds that he does not believe malathion caused the death of the fish in the river, despite reports from USAC.
“The findings of the preliminary investigation must be released: they need to determine what caused the death of the fish and what substances were found in the river. Then we can begin to analyze how to revitalize the natural environment, and prevent these things from happening again. Furthermore, the victims should receive reparations.”
Maas notes that Guatemalan authorities did not take action on this case until June, even though the contamination was first reported at the end of April, and says their investigations up to now have been insufficient.
“If the authorities would have acted from the beginning, when on April 28 the pond was overflowed, Repsa’s plants would have been addressed right away. But since this didn’t happen, the company continued working. This is a lesson for the government; it must listen to the demands of its people,” he concludes.