Guatemala’s Environmental Crimes Court Hears First Case

In July, Guatemala became the first country to establish a court dedicated to adjudicating crimes against nature, known as ecocide.

In its first case, the Environmental Crimes Court ruled against palm oil corporation Empresa Reforestadora de Palma de Petén SA (REPSA), charged with criminal ecocide. An appelate court upheld the decision.

Professor and activist Rigoberto Lima Choc was killed outside the courthouse after the initial ruling – he was the one who documented REPSA’s socio-environmental damage.

The river, which travels some 300 miles across the northern part of the country, breathes life into pristine rainforest – home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals and fish – and supporting the lives of tens of thousands of people who live along its banks.

Plaintiffs claim a thick layer of chemicals – mostly the pesticide Malathion – washed into La Pasión river that tens of thousands of people rely on, resulting in die-offs of millions of fish and other wildlife, and threatening their way of life.

Guatemala’s National Council for Protected Areas say 23 species of fish and 21 species of birds, reptiles and mammals have been impacted by toxins suffocating the entire surface of the river. The company’s negligent practices have been polluting the river for years.

A coalition of local groups known as the Commission for the Defence of life and Nature filed the initial lawsuit.

Guatemala ranks #9 for palm oil exports, according to Oxfam’s report, “The Power of Oil Palm: Land-Grabbing and Impacts Associated with the Expansion of Oil Palm Crops in Guatemala.”

Palm Oil Guatemala
Larry Luxner/The Tico Times

Needed Internationally

All this is possible because Guatemala passed a law recognizing ecocide.

This is needed on an international level, Eradicating Ecocide says, because there is no recourse for communities around the world to get justice and emergency assistance when they face destruction from climate change and corporate malfeasance.

They point to Ecuador, which has been struggling against Chevron in court for 20 years after contaminating the Amazon, and Palau, which is literally losing its country from typhoons and rising seas. “Because the international crime of ecocide is not yet recognised,” they say, there’s hardly a path forward.

“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,” says Eradicating Ecocide.

Momentum Builds

In advance of December’s Paris Climate Summit, the “World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Defense of Life” was held in Bolivia.

7000 people from over 40 countries were there calling for an international tribunal that has “a binding legal capacity to prevent, prosecute and punish states that pollute and cause climate change by action or omission, or commit crimes and climatic and environmental crimes that violate the rights of Mother Earth and humanity.”

Attorneys are also joining forces to make ecocide an international crime against peace. “The creation of a legal duty of care towards Mother Earth and her non-human inhabitants would represent a revolution in our legal system, which sees nature as property,” they say.

Read our article, Momentum Builds for Court Action on Climate Change.

Watch this video on the Guatemala case.

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