Losing water in Guatemala

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June 6, 2018

The watergrabbing impacts of

palm oil plantation in Guatemala

Palm oil fruits. ©Andrea Pepe

In the race for the land, the native species of the tropical forests of Guatemala are inexorably disappearing, crushed by the weight of 5 plant species that have a monopoly on the others, and taking part into the biodiversity reduction: sugar cane, African palm, banana, hule and coffee.

And what is happening for the water management? How can we quantify the watergrabbing phenomenon? Who are the actors of change and who instead is directing this dreadful circus of abuses, contamination and violation of human rights?

Where the Madre Vieja River flows into the Pacific Ocean, we find a vital ecosystem: the mangrove forest. A habitat that is not spared from the impacts of the unsustainable monoculture of the palm oil that has occupied for thirty years these territories, among the most fertile, of the South Coast of Guatemala. This fragile environment, affected by the industrial contamination of palm oil refineries, and which receives less fresh water because it is derived upstream for irrigation, has therefore been irreversibly devastated. The coastal communities, which depend on this ecosystem in terms of theri survival and family economy, have had to face a drastic reduction of protein intake in their diet due to the loss of many fish species due to the damage by monocultures to the whole food chain. The mangrove forest is the perfect habitat for the reproduction of many fish, crabs and shrimps. This is an internationally protected ecosystem by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which was also ratified by Guatemala in 1990. Mangroves are key ecosystems because they offer multiple environmental services: defense of the shorelines from tides and anomalous waves and moreover they retain a quantity of carbon dioxide, about four times higher than that normally absorbed by tropical vegetation. A Real sponges for atmospheric CO2.

Pumping water from the Madre Vieja river for irrigation. ©Andrea Pepe

The cultivation of the African palm is extremely needy of water: according to the data of the Water Foot Print 260,000,000 m3 of water are used every year in Guatemala for the various stages of  palm oil production (from sowing, irrigation, washing and refining processes). A debt that the Government and the agro-industrial companies have contracted towards the environment and the local populations, deprived of a fundamental resource. Moreover, like all monocultures, the presence of only one vegetative species prevents the coexistence of others: the roots of the plants of the African palm grow horizontally, about 50 centimeters from the surface, and form a kind of carpet underground; the ecological niches for the fauna disappear; the soil impoverishes year after year, followed by tons of fertilizers that are spreaded in the environment and overturn the fragile ecosystem balances.

Environmentalists and experts know it well. But often local farmers, crushed by debts and lack of other job opportunities, opt for the profitable palm business, without thinking about the risks for local biodiversity and their food security. They stop planting corn, beans, bananas and tomatoes, and they begin to convert their private plots into mini African palm plantations.

Politicians, governments and national institutions do not care about the protection and preservation of natural resources, nor do they worry about applying or promoting rules that regulate the proper use of water, forests and soil, and jointly fail to meet their obligations and responsibilities contracted at international treaties and agreements. Guatemala is a country where the controller does not exist. And if there is, at the same time the controlled is the controller. It is a country without limits, not even on paper. In fact, among the factors that fuel socio-environmental conflicts we can outline below:

  • the ineffectiveness of the national system regarding environmental legislation;
  • the absence of the concept of "sustainable development" in the economic legislation and in the legal system;
  • the lack of preventive and sanctioning tools;
  • the weaknesses of the Environmental Impact Assessment: few resources, low professionalism, few controls and a lot of bureaucracy;
  • the social question is disconnected from the environmental question, whereby policies against poverty do not take environmental policies into consideration; and
  • environmental institutions are crushed by industrial interests and therefore they have no influence on economic decisions.


Grupo Hame, founded by Molina Family, one of the powerful Guatemalan family, is the leading palm oil production company in Guatemala. Born in 1952 and initially dedicated to the production of cotton; then in 1973 it bought the agro-industrial refining company for vegetable oils and fats, OLMECA S.A, and in 1987 the cultivation of cotton was replaced by the African palm. In 1992 it also began to manage banana cultivations in the south-west of the country and from 2002 it expanded in Costa Rica with the production of banana and then in Mexico (2012) with the production of palm oil. Currently, Grupo Hame is also the owner of the RESPA palm oil production company (Reforestadora de Palmas del Petén S.A). Grupo Hame and RESPA have obtained some "sustainaible" certifications, including the RAS (Rainforest Alliance - Red Sustainable Agriculture) and they are waiting for the RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil). The consumption of palm oil in Guatemala is used in the food industry (Bimbo and Frito-Lay), in fast-food restaurants, in the cosmetics industry (Unilever, Colgate and Palmolive), and for agro-diesel. It is also exported to Mexico, Holland, Germany, Salvador and Venezuela.

Informations taken by Reportage “Tierra Esclava” (el.diario.es).


At the beginning of February 2018, following the capture of two Repsa entrepreneurs, the multinationals Nestlè and Cargill have promised to suspend their supply of palm oil from Repsa starting from September 2018. This decision is also due because of human rights violations, environmental destruction and corruption who see this company in the eye of national and international scandal.

Let's take a step back because Repsa is the company responsible for the ecocide of the La Pasión river, in the Peten region, when in 2015 it contaminated the river with the Malathion, a powerful herbicide used in the cultivation. The inhabitants of Sayaxché denounced the death of millions of fish and Rigoberto Lima, a local resident, followed the case trying to block these industrial activities. In September 2017, Repsa was accused of ecocide and R.Lima was brutally murdered.

On 16 th March 2018  three entrepreneurs of the company Repsa (Hugo Molina Botrán, Luis Paz Maseck, Carlos Arévalo) were arrested at La Aurora airport in Guatemala City, and 29 other people are involved in the new national scandal at the head of which 'is Geovani Marroquin Navas, already incarcerated for other trials. Geovani M.N. offered and paid bribes to officials of the SAT (Superintendent of Tax Administration) in exchange for tax benefits for a total of 19 million quetzales, about € 2,170,000.


Source is working on the project on various levels: on one hand it is following the environmental investigation that will help to quantify the monocultures environmental impacts and how these activities area affecting people of the South Coast. On the other hand, we will try to dismantle this obscure network of relationships and business that hides behind products we find on our table every day and whose very dirty supply chain is the basis of a war for water and land in Guatemala.

Laura Grassi (Source International ) is working on field. ©Andrea Pepe

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