Throughout Latin America, palm oil violations abound — with little accountability


  • Palm oil producers throughout 4 nations in Latin America are in a position to violate environmental safeguards with relative impunity, in accordance with a latest investigation.
  • A workforce of Mongabay Latam journalists, Agencia Ocote (Guatemala), Contracorriente (Honduras) and La Barra Espaciadora (Ecuador) made 70 requests for info to Colombian, Ecuadorian, Honduran and Guatemalan authorities about environmental sanction processes launched towards oil palm producers between 2010 and 2020.
  • Regardless of the problem of acquiring official info, the investigation revealed that the enlargement of oil palm as a worthwhile trade that gives substantial employment within the area typically wins out over complaints in regards to the trade’s environmental issues by communities and NGOs

Palm oil producers throughout a number of Latin American nations have been the topic of complaints about their environmental practices, an evaluation of official information has discovered, however these complaints hardly ever end in significant change within the trade.

5 Latin American nations are among the many 10 largest palm oil producers on the earth: Colombia ranks fourth, Guatemala sixth, Honduras seventh, Brazil ninth and Ecuador tenth. Collectively, they accounted for nearly $55 billion in palm oil gross sales in 2020.

These nations share one thing else in widespread: Their expansive oil palm plantations are a major explanation for social and environmental grievances. A examine printed within the Journal of Rural Research in January 2021 particulars the “conflicts between oil palm smallholders (typically migrant settlers) and forest-dependent (indigenous and Afro-descendant) communities opposing this trade.”

Deforestation is one other critical situation to various extents in every nation. A examine printed within the journal Science in 2018 recognized monocultures, together with oil palm, as one of many major drivers of forest loss worldwide.

How a lot of this deforestation is authorized? How successfully do these nations oversee the trade and sanction it when vital? And the way can residents and Indigenous communities know the environmental file of an organization of their nation?

A workforce of Mongabay Latam journalists, in partnership with media retailers from 4 of the world’s largest palm oil-producing nations — Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador — investigated the environmental impacts of the trade. Agencia Ocote (Guatemala), Contracorriente (Honduras) and La Barra Espaciadora (Ecuador) filed requests for all the environmental sanctioning processes that the authorities in these nations have opened towards palm oil firms, producers and processors between 2010 and 2020.

First among the many findings was the extent of secrecy with which the information are held and the ensuing problem in accessing the knowledge. In situations the place it was attainable to acquire a response, info was typically incomplete or disaggregated. After verifying the knowledge, we recognized 231 instances, together with environmental violations, complaints, and investigations in progress towards firms and people within the 4 nations. Colombia had essentially the most instances, in accordance with the evaluation, with 176. Basically, most recurring sanctions have been linked to noncompliance with environmental rules and logging.

Worrying figures for the oil palm trade

Throughout the six-month investigation, we filed 70 requests for info to official entities, and obtained 51 responses. Many of those responses might be summarized as, “The knowledge isn’t systematized,” or just stated that no instances of environmental offenses had been registered in 11 years.

As soon as the knowledge was collected, we used it to create a database, from which we recognized 231 instances, together with sanctions, complaints, and investigations presently in progress. After Colombia, Guatemala had the second-highest variety of instances, with 48. Ecuador had six instances, and Honduras had one.

The evaluation additionally revealed that 147 producers, together with firms and people, have been answerable for the 231 instances recognized. Of those, 122 have been from Colombia, 20 from Guatemala, 4 from Ecuador and one from Honduras.

The commonest infractions have been violations of environmental rules (90 instances), logging (48 instances), and water diversion or water grabbing (42 instances).

The shortage of transparency and entry to info additionally performed a key position on this investigation. For instance, though it was attainable to find out that some kind of environmental affect arose in 197 instances, the precise particulars couldn’t be ascertained, even when the knowledge was requested from authorities. Moreover, in 141 instances, it wasn’t attainable to find out the standing of a sanctioning course of (class: undetermined standing), whereas in 37 instances, officers didn’t report whether or not an investigation had been initiated.

In 57 instances, it was solely attainable to substantiate whether or not a producer was sanctioned, required to pay some type of environmental compensation, enhance its manufacturing course of, or was exonerated.

Equally, in 96 of the case information obtained, the precise yr wherein the occasions occurred wasn’t reported, and in 12 instances, the identify of the corporate or particular person being investigated wasn’t talked about.

The shortage of such information, regardless of having been requested, demonstrates a possible hole within the capability of authorities to regulate and monitor the oil palm trade’s environmental practices.

Along with the official info obtained, we made 20 extra requests to social and environmental organizations engaged on oil palm-related points. We additionally obtained complaints filed by communities, a few of which have been submitted to environmental authorities between 2010 and 2020. One of the vital important instances in Honduras involving a outstanding palm oil firm was based mostly on a criticism filed with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the main certifier of environmental and social sustainability requirements for the trade.

“Basically, environmental authorities in Latin America have comparatively weak environmental administration, monitoring and oversight techniques or don’t obtain enough and vital assets to function,” stated Pablo Pacheco, a senior forestry scientist with WWF’s International Science Workforce and a analysis affiliate on the Heart for Worldwide Forestry Analysis (CIFOR).

Pacheco was a co-author of the January 2021 examine on the affect of oil palm on rural livelihoods and tropical forest landscapes in 9 Latin American nations. He stated there’s an pressing want to enhance the area’s land-use monitoring techniques in order that producers who don’t adjust to environmental rules might be recognized, investigated, and in the end penalized.

“That is the minimal,” Pacheco stated, “though it will be supreme to additionally monitor the forms of practices which are being developed for crops, and [to have] scientific monitoring that’s extra clever … so that there’s much less dependence on creating new cultivation areas.”

Colombia and Guatemala: Agribusiness enlargement

The oil palm trade has established itself as a outstanding power in Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Guatemala, but it surely has performed so in a different way in every nation. Based on the January 2021 examine, Colombia and Guatemala are following “large-scale agribusiness-based enlargement trajectories.” The examine notes that in Colombia, 72% of the oil palm space is managed by large-scale entrepreneurs. In Guatemala, that determine is 95%; smallholders ther management solely 3%.

Palma africana. Fotografía: Plaza Pública.
African oil palm. Picture courtesy of Plaza Pública.

“The pre-eminence of large-scale agribusiness-based trajectories in Guatemala, Colombia, and Brazil is the consequence, to a big extent, of pre-existing unequal agrarian buildings, land tenure regimes posing few obstacles to land focus, and, in some instances, oil palm insurance policies biased in direction of large-scale producers,” the authors write.

Colombia is Latin America’s main oil palm producer, churning out virtually double the output of Guatemala, the second-largest producer within the area, in accordance with latest figures. A key case there concerned Oro Rojo, a palm oil producer created in 2013 to extend manufacturing within the Magdalena Medio area. Only one yr after Oro Rojo beginning operations, the municipality of Sabana de Torres the place the corporate is positioned grew to become the second-largest producer of crude palm oil in Colombia. Its output elevated from 41,000 metric tons in 2013 to greater than 72,000 metric tons in 2014.

Of the three permits granted by the CAS, one of many environmental authorities within the division the place Oro Rojo relies, two are underneath investigation, and one has resulted in a tremendous. The corporate is being investigated for contaminating streams that stream into the Paredes swamp, an vital wetland complicated within the Magdalena River Basin. Air pollution by numerous industries, together with palm oil, is affecting the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), in accordance with biologist Katherine Arévalo-González, co-author of a examine on water high quality in components of the swamp frequented by manatees. The species is assessed as weak on the IUCN Crimson Checklist.

James Murillo, one other co-author of that examine and government director of Cabildo Verde, an environmental group that has helped communities within the space to file complaints with the CAS, wrote in a report that human communities have additionally been impacted by the contamination of the streams that feed the swamp. “Discharges notably occurred when it rained, however folks nonetheless seen due to the darkish and foul-smelling water,” Murillo writes.

Regardless of these complaints, the corporate continues to function. Flor María Rángel, former director of the CAS, publicly acknowledged in 2016 that the actions of Oro Rojo and different palm oil firms advantage suspensions, however that this wouldn’t occur as a result of “socially, it is rather tough to droop them as a result of there are roughly 20,000 folks working [for such companies], and the group survives on this work.”

El manatí antillano (Trichechus Manatus) es una especie en peligro crítico, según la Lista Roja de la UCIN. Foto: Vincent Kneefel / WWF
The West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) is assessed as weak by the IUCN. Picture by Vincent Kneefel/WWF.

With 48 instances, Guatemala has the second-largest variety of information within the database, eight of that are complaints about firms belonging to Agroindustrias HAME S.A., one of many nation’s strongest palm oil conglomerates. It trades underneath the Regia model and provides palm oil to Nestlé, amongst others.

HAME has been accused of committing “ecocide,” diverting rivers, draining a lagoon, slicing down hectares of forest, and working with out having performed environmental affect assessments. Regardless of these accusations, its firms have obtained few sanctions, with a tremendous issued in simply one of many eight instances recognized.

Julio González is an activist with the Madre Selva collective, a company that investigates and supplies authorized help to communities on environmental points in Guatemala. “The sanctions are laughable,” González stated. “The environmental injury is irreparable. Ecosystems can’t recuperate.”

Raúl Maas, director of the Institute of Agriculture, Pure Sources and Atmosphere at Rafael Landívar College in Guatemala, stated that the sanctions are sometimes minimal. Some firms want to pay a tremendous for not finishing up an environmental affect evaluation somewhat than stopping work to finish one, because it means they’ll proceed to function no matter whether or not they have complied with the requirement, Maas stated.

Along with the formally registered instances, civil society organizations responded to our requests for info, sharing 13 particular complaints towards palm oil firms in Colombia and one in Guatemala.

African palm fruit. Picture by Carlos Alonzo/Agencia Ocote.

Ecuador and Honduras: No info or sanctions

In Ecuador, the distribution of the palm oil trade is combined: A small group of farmers management round one-third of the world underneath cultivation, and there are additionally 152 industrial plantations averaging 746 hectares (1,843 acres) every.

We recognized six instances in Ecuador in our database of complaints for environmental noncompliance between 2010 and 2020. Two of those instances contain the corporate Power & Palma, which has had tensions with Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities within the province of Esmeraldas for a number of years. The corporate has sued some residents of the Barranquilla group for blocking the entry highway to its plantations. In early September 2021, an Ecuadoran decide ordered a number of group leaders, who reside in excessive poverty, to pay the corporate virtually $200,000.

“We reject the decide’s choice as a result of it violates our rights,” stated Néstor Caicedo, president of the Barranquilla group. “The group is outraged, however we’re staying calm. We hope that the upper authorities, who’re in Esmeraldas or Quito, have a look at the abuse being dedicated towards us.”

A number of residents of Esmeraldas communities have complained about environmental issues within the space for the reason that arrival of the corporate. “We used to drink water from there, and nothing occurred,” stated José Mina, president of the San Juan de Chillaví commune. “Now the youngsters bathe and get bumps [on their skin], and their our bodies itch. The fish arrive right here useless.”

Criminalization is likely one of the major types of assault towards defenders of Indigenous, land and environmental rights. A report from the group Entrance Line Defenders reveals 27% of the 193 such assaults reported globally in 2020 associated to detentions or arrests, and 17% have been authorized actions towards these defenders. A 2020 report by the watchdog NGO International Witness reveals that 17 of the 227 murders of environmental leaders that it recorded worldwide in 2020 have been linked to agribusiness, which is among the many major threats to environmental defenders.

En la comuna San Juan de Chillaví, las personas usan el agua turbia del río para todo. Los niños, lejanos a cualquier preocupación, ven en ese río su principal diversión. Foto: Alexis Serrano.
Within the San Juan de Chillaví commune, folks use the murky river water for every thing. Unaware of the hazard, kids play within the river. Picture by Alexis Serrano.

The variety of scandals involving Power & Palma have elevated through the years. The corporate has since 2018 not answered Mongabay Latam’s requests for remark.

Accessing details about the palm oil trade in Ecuador stays a problem. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, the province governments of Los Ríos, Sucumbíos, Orellana and Guayas, and the places of work of the ombudsperson in these provinces responded that that they had no info on environmental sanctioning processes towards palm oil producers. The prefecture of Esmeraldas, the place 67% of Ecuador’s oil palm crops are grown, stated that it retains statistics, however didn’t share them with Mongabay Latam.

Neighborhood leaders say they’ll’t perceive why no investigations are launched in response to their complaints. Pío Bravo, environmental director for the province of Sucumbíos, stated in an interview for this investigation that no sanctions have been imposed for small plantations. The province’s solely producer was discovered to have misused pesticides and discharged polluted water into estuaries and wetlands as a result of firms weren’t held to account for these violations, even if the authorities had recognized these points. Bravo stated essentially the most alarming half is that solely 30% of the 960 palm oil firms within the province are attempting to formalize themselves, and the three palm fruit assortment facilities usually are not managed by provincial authorities.

Kenia, 38, collects the oil palm fruit that her colleagues lower. The plantation the place Kenia and her colleagues work started to be cultivated following a land reclamation course of in 2012. Picture by Martín Cálix/Contracorriente.

“Sadly, we aren’t in a position to sanction issues that aren’t regularized,” Bravo stated. “We’re making an motion plan, however this isn’t fast.”

Makes an attempt to get comparable info in Honduras met the identical obstacles as in Ecuador. In Honduras, the place the enlargement of oil palm crops is pushed largely by small-scale farmers who management 61% of the cultivated space, we might solely establish one case of an environmental violation submitted to a nationwide oversight entity. The criticism, filed towards the corporate Aceites y Derivados S.A. (Aceydesa), alleged misconduct regarding the modification of property deeds to take away areas recognized by the federal government as environmental safety areas, information falsification, bribery of employees and state entities, manipulation of scale techniques for weighing palm fruit, and working with out environmental licenses. It was additionally investigated by the RSPO, however the case doesn’t seem in any state information.

We contacted the RSPO in regards to the criticism, however no info was obtainable as a result of the case was ongoing. For its half, the corporate stated it will present all explanations to the RSPO. Regardless of the seriousness of the allegations, Honduran environmental authorities haven’t launched an investigation into Aceydesa. The case is difficult by the truth that one of many firm’s founding companions has been a nationwide celebration consultant for the division of Colón since 1990. The consultant was talked about in a trial within the Southern District Court docket of New York for allegedly receiving bribes to guard drug traffickers transport cocaine into america. He’s presently on a listing of officers sanctioned by america underneath the Magnitsky Act, which was handed in 2012 to penalize overseas officers concerned in human rights violations and crimes towards humanity, and the latest Engel Checklist, which sanctions officers from Central America implicated in high-level corruption.

Erwin de 27 años, trabaja en una plantación de palma aceitera de la cooperativa campesina Juntos Luchemos, esta cooperativa realiza cortes de palma cada quince días. Trujillo, Colón, 10 de agosto de 2021. Foto: Martín Cálix / Contracorriente.
Erwin, 27, works in an oil palm plantation managed by Juntos Luchemos, a rural cooperative. Picture by Martín Cálix/Contracorriente.

For Pablo Pacheco of WWF and CIFOR, the shortcomings within the Latin American nations’ environmental controls are linked to “the financial imaginative and prescient of pushing agricultural frontiers and selling the enlargement of agriculture and livestock as a substitute of containing it and bettering efforts to strengthen these techniques,” he stated. “It’s a considerably delusional imaginative and prescient wherein rural growth is assumed to rely on the enlargement of agriculture at any price.”

Pacheco stated there’s some hope in ongoing discussions akin to these going down throughout the European Union to impose higher restrictions on commodities linked to deforestation, and thus cut back what they name “deforestation imports.” He stated he additionally needs to see home and worldwide markets put stress on violators by solely shopping for from producers with good environmental practices. “It isn’t simply states that ought to penalized, however the markets too,” Pacheco stated.

This cross-border investigation was coordinated by Mongabay Latam in partnership with Agencia Ocote (Guatemala), La Barra Espaciadora (Ecuador) and Contracorriente (Honduras). It was first printed right here on Mongabay’s Latam website on Nov. 9, 2021.

Lead editors: Alexa Vélez, María Isabel Torres and Antonio Paz.
Coordinator: Antonio Paz.
Analysis and database evaluation: Gabriela Quevedo, Carmen Quintela, Alejandra Gutiérrez, José David López, Jennifer Ávila, María Clara Calle, Lizz Gabriela Mejía, Alexis Serrano and Diego Cazar.
Reporters: Carmen Quintela, Jennifer Ávila, Lizz Gabriela Mejía, María Clara Calle, Antonio Paz, Alexis Serrano and José David López.
Information visualization and design: Rocío Arias and Daniel Gómez.
Viewers outreach: Dalia Medina and Alejandra Olguín.



Castellanos-Navarrete, A., De Castro, F., & Pacheco, P. (2021). The affect of oil palm on rural livelihoods and tropical forest landscapes in Latin America. Journal of Rural Research81, 294-304. doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2020.10.047

Curtis, P. G., Slay, C. M., Harris, N. L., Tyukavina, A., & Hansen, M. C. (2018). Classifying drivers of worldwide forest loss. Science361(6407), 1108-1111. doi:10.1126/science.aau3445



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