Oil palm cultivation is expanding aggressively across protected areas such as La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve. In this region of Mexico’s Pacific coast, at least 17,300 illegally-cultivated acres (7,000 hectares) of the exotic plant have been identified, which the government and businesses are trying to legalize through reductions to the size of the reserve and a sustainability certification.

La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve (REBIEN, Reserva de la Biosfera La Encrucijada), one of Mexico’s greatest environmental treasures, is home to an important system of wetlands, including mangroves up to 115 feet (35 meters) tall. These are threatened, though, by an enormous extension of monocrop oil palm plantations, a contrast to the diversity of the reserve’s flora.

The REBIEN lies in the coastal region of Chiapas, in Mexico’s southeast. It was created by presidential decree on June 6, 1995 and is regulated by a Management Plan that was published in 2000. This states that in mangrove areas, activities “that alter the ecological equilibrium” are prohibited, except in cases of “preservation of scientific research, monitoring, education, and training, under strict regulation and supervision.”

Location of La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve (REBIEN) in the southeast Mexican state of Chiapas.

However, over the last few decades, the ecological equilibrium in La Encrucijada has been altered. “There are more than 7,000 ha [17,300 acres] of palm planted inside the REBIEN,” said Juan Carlos Castro Hernández, current director of the REBIEN, who forms part of National Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP).

Avispa Midia requested a report and georeferencing information from the CONANP regarding oil palm plantations within La Encrucijada. The agency sent back two data sets that report the presence of producers and palm dispersed throughout the reserve.

One of the documents, titled Appendix: Southern Border, Isthmus, and Southern Pacific Region of the CONANP, with no date of publication, reports that there are at least 518 palm producers within the REBIEN.

The document’s figures are conservative, since they don’t contain a complete list of palm plantations within the reserve—satellite images can identify palm groves that aren’t included in the database.

La Encrucijada is over 355,000 acres (144,000 ha) in size.

It has two core zones, in which human activity is prohibited: El Palmarcito and La Encrucijada.

Two companies that own palm plantations are in the process of obtaining their sustainability certification.

According to the documents requested from the CONANP, there are at least 518 palm producers within the reserve.

The CONANP has monitored the spread of this exotic plant through other factors such as water flows and animal movement.

The CONANP has also monitored plantings by the Oleopalma company.

Matilde Rincón, Mexico landscape manager at Earthworm Foundation, confirmed that they have identified 500 producers who cultivate a total of 19,030 acres (7,700 ha) of palm within La Encrucijada. Earthworm Foundation works with businesses and small producers in Chiapas to promote the sustainability of this crop. “Sixty percent of them struggle to meet government land-use standards,” she said, detailed in an article by Earthworm.

The proliferation of large palm plantations have been on the CONANP’s radar since 2014. According to the agency, these groves have grown by more than 81,540 acres (33,000 ha) in the REBIEN’s area of influence—the area surrounding the reserve, which is not regulated, but is supposed to benefit from conservation efforts and is strongly ecologically linked with the park. Now the exotic plant had invaded mangrove ecosystems in the core zones.

Oil palm is so invasive that even the plantations outside of the reserve should be regulated, “because there’s even palm on the banks of the canals and the seeds can migrate, whether that be by water currents, or hypothetically, from animals,” said Castro, the director of the REBIEN.

CONANP also provided a database entitled Record of African palm locations in the REBIEN 2014, 2015 and 2016. Agroindustrias de Mapastepec S.A. de C.V. (Agroimsa), one of the companies that grow and process oil palm in the region, appears on the list. It forms part of another company, Industrias Olepalma S.A de C.V.

These same plantations appear again in another mapping database created by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which lists an area belonging to Industrias Oleopalma through its subsidiary Palmicultores San Nicolás, S.P.R. de R.L.

This area of plantations extends from the buffer zone in the municipality of Villa Comaltitlán to the interior of one of the two restricted areas, in the section belonging to the municipality of Huixtla: La Encrucijada Core Zone. According to the Management Plan, this area falls under “the best-conserved areas of most value from an environmental point of view, in which human activities practically cannot be carried out.”

There is one more company on RSPO’s list: Oleosur S.A.P.I. de C.V. Through its subsidiary Plantaciones del Soconusco S.A.P.I de C.V, it also has palm plantations within the REBIEN’s buffer zone, in the municipality of Villa Comaltitlán, one of the regions with the most monocrop cultivation along the coast of Chiapas. Avispa Midia requested an interview with Industrias Oleopalma, who said they would send a reply by email, which had not arrived by the date of this report’s publication. Avispa Midia also requested an interview with Oleosur, who said they would pass the information on to an executive who could respond, which did not happen.

Researcher Claudia Ramos Guillén, who has studied the effects of oil palm in the Americas and Asia, siad that the sale of palm grown inside the REBIEN deserves “multiple infractions.”

The expansion of monocrop oil palm groves worldwide has serious environmental effects. Audio: Avispa Midia.

The REBIEN’s own creation decree describes one of the legal violations. It states that any exploitation, extraction, or utilization of natural resources within the reserve can only be granted in accordance with the General Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection Act (LGEEPA). This law prohibits the introduction of exotic invasive species into protected natural areas, the alteration of ecosystems, and activities that threaten the natural structure of species populations and their ecosystems in buffer zones.

An Oleopalma oil processing plant located in the REBIEN’s area of influence. Video: Santiago Navarro F.

Green Certification

On a tour of the Reserve, Avispa Midia found that in the middle of hundreds of palm plantings, on the banks of the San Nicolás river, lies an Oleopalma processing plant. It’s the first plant the company built within the REBIEN’s area of influence, in 2000.

According to the Mexican Palmgrowers Federation (Femexpalma), processing plants must be installed as close to the plantations as possible, since the oil must be extracted within three days. There are 18 palm processing mills in Mexico, 12 of them in Chiapas. Seven of these are in La Encrucijada’s area of influence, including Oleopalma’s plant.

This company is relevant to the product’s current market because in March 2020 it became the first Mexican company to be certified sustainable by the RSPO, which states that its goal is to reduce the negative impacts of oil palm cultivation on the environment and communities.

In 2020, Oleopalma became the first Mexican company to obtain RSPO certification, for its processing plant in Palenque and its plantations located in northern Chiapas. Photo: Oleopalma.

In 2020, Oleopalma became the first Mexican company to obtain RSPO certification, for its processing plant in Palenque and its plantations located in northern Chiapas. Photo: Oleopalma.

RSPO certification began in Switzerland in 2004 under the leadership of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF, officially known as the World Wildlife Fund in Canada and the United States) along with financiers like the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, and multinational companies that buy palm oil, such as Cargill, Nestlé, Unilever, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and others.

However, the RSPO has been criticized around the world for failing to deliver on its promises. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) published a report called "Burning Questions: Credibility of sustainable palm oil still illusive,” which revealed generalized fraudulent assessments by the RSPO. It also documented that abusive labor practices, forest clearing, territorial conflicts, and even human trafficking had been permitted on plantations belonging to RSPO members. In 2019, the EIA stated that the RSPO still hadn’t taken significant measures to address these problems.

Greenpeace International’s report Destruction: Certified, published in 2020, focuses in on how 30 years after product certification was implemented in supply chains, it is functioning as greenwashing for businesses. Matilde Rincón says that, at a global level, the RSPO doesn’t allow the purchase of oil that comes from protected natural areas; however, she affirms that Mexico is the exception because the cultivation and sale of palm from La Encrucijada is permitted.

Matilde Rincón, Mexican landscape manager at Earthworm Foundation, discusses the RSPO certification in a global and local context. Audio: Avispa Midia (dubbed).

An Earthworm Foundation publicity video states: “Here in La Encrucijada in Chiapas, Nestlé’s provider, Oleofinos, has a strong presence in the region. They buy the majority of the oil that comes from La Encrucijada, that they later sell to Nestlé.”

Oleopalma and Oleofinos are both part of a 15-company conglomerate called Grupo Oleomex, founded in 1978 by the engineer José Luis Pérez Martínez. This group is the main vendor of palm oil to Cargill, PepsiCo, and Nestlé.

According to Earthworm Foundation’s website, Nestlé has been a member the foundation since 2010, working together to take on “long-term commitments to respect the people and nature in its supply chains.”

Avispa Midia requested an interview with Nestlé, which replied that its spokespeople have a very full schedule. Nestlé stated by way of a public relations document that “In Mexico, 100% of our raw materials come from responsible sources.”

A clip from the video “Protecting the Crossroads. Preserving ecosystems and communities in La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve.” Created by Earthworm Foundation.

The company also stated that its ingredient supplies in Mexico come from regions with zero deforestation, such as the “project with Oleofinos and Earthworm Foundation on palm oil production in ‘La Encrucijada.’”

Castro said that although the reserve’s Management Plan does not state that palm cultivation is permitted, it doesn’t prohibit it either. He argued that such a prohibition would hurt small farmers who were already growing palm. “It may have been perceived that planting was permitted on the reserve, I don’t know,” he added.

The Management Plan was created in 2000 and describes the importance of ecosystems in the REBIEN in maintaining ecological cycles essential to coastal water quality. It also states that agroindustrial development for palm oil extraction has contributed to an increase in pollution of rivers, lakes, and estuaries.

A palm oil processing plant belonging to Zitihualt, located in Villa Comaltitlán. In 2017, the Environmental Attorney’s Office of the State of Chiapas (PAECH) penalized this company for operating without an environmental impact authorization. Video: Santiago Navarro F.

Problems with the Green Stamp

The director of the REBIEN stated that the RSPO doesn’t eliminate the risk of a palm oil “black market,” since it only achieves partial control over the supply to processors and that doesn’t necessarily stop illegal sales.

Although Matilde Rincón thinks this certification could be an opportunity to convince producers to implement “good practices” that help them certify and sell their product, she also sees the danger in what she calls “fruit laundering.” She explained that this could happen if a producer with palm in one of the core zones who can’t market it sells their product to another producer who is in compliance with the RSPO rules. According to Rincón, it would require “parcel by parcel” verification to stop this from happening, which hasn’t happened yet and “still needs to be done.”

According to Oleopalma’s 2020 annual report on RSPO progress, the company gets 90% of the fruit it processes from small, independent producers, which makes it difficult to supervise production origins. That’s why Oleopalma and Oleofinos, with backing from PepsiCo, backed a Mexico initiative of the RSPO’s Smallholders Support Fund in 2018. Its goal was to train 157 small producers who would serve as a model of sustainable development for the oil palm industry in Mexico, hoping to impact 52,000 acres of crops.

  • Coastal Women in Rebellion and the organization Water and Life during a tour of oil palm plantations in Pijijiapan. The women have denounced environmental effects caused by monocrops. Photo: Aldo Santiago.

  • Chiapas has more than 126,000 acres of oil palm. In the coastal region, communities are complaining about the effects on their lands. Photo: Aldo Santiago.

  • According to the director of La Encrucijada, the palm has a high invasive potential when planted next to canals, which facilitates its migration to mangrove areas. Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

  • The Zitihualt oil processing plant, located in Villa Comaltitlán, operated for five years without environmental impact authorization. According to Paech, these facilities also lacked permits for waste management and pollutant emissions. Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

Oleopalma also announced that it has special mechanisms for treating contaminants, including chemicals used in growing palm. Additionally, “ashes can be used as an organic fertilizer or for compost, reducing waste and the use of agrochemicals,” said the company in its 2020 sustainability report.

However, Gabriela Madariaga, a researcher from the Autonomous University of Chiapas, discovered through studies in municipalities in La Encrucijada’s area of influence in 2018 that 80% of producers were using chemical fertilizers without any sort of protections, and only 20% used organic products. The most commonly used chemicals were Triple 17 and Paraquat, an herbicide that can generate mutations and is highly toxic to humans if ingested. The European Union banned its use in 2017.

Deficiencies in sanitary infrastructure were still present in 2021 according to a report by IBD Certificações, including in plantations owned by Industrias Oleopalma. IBD Certificações visited some of Oleopalma’s properties in the Mapastepec municipality in March 2021, where they found that workers did not have the necessary protective equipment “for application of agrochemicals.” Nonetheless, the certifying body considered this a minor infraction and granted RSPO certification for four of the company’s plantations located in the REBIEN’s area of influence.

Waste from processing plants also impacts La Encrucijada. “There are the environmental effects from agrochemicals, but then there is also contamination from processing plant emissions and waste, which make it all the way to the mangroves,” said Guillén.

The Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) is responsible for enforcing claims of contamination based on oil palm cultivation. However, the office has been promoting its own certification through the National Environmental Audit Program (PNAA). The effort is a result of an agreement signed between the PROFEPA and the Association of Edible Oil and Lard Manufacturers (ANIAME), one of the main groups promoting the RSPO standard in Mexico.

Throught the PNAA, the PROFEPA is looking for palm companies to conform “voluntarily to get one of the environmental certifications that the Federal Attorney’s Office issues,” said Ignacio Millán, the then deputy attorney of natural resources, during a 2016 tour of oil palm plantations in Acapetahua, on the Chiapan coast.

Through “information access,” an official channel for government transparency in Mexico, Avispa Midia requested the PROFEPA’s records of inspections based on accusations of effects from palm agriculture in the coastal region and La Encrucijada. As of the publication of this report, the PROFEPA has not provided any documents.

A demonstration in Benemérito de las Américas, Chiapas, against contamination from the oil palm industry. One of the plants that operates in the region belongs to Oleopalma. February 2021. Photo: Jeny Pascacio.

The implementing regulations for the Environmental Law in Chiapas state that the PAECH is responsible for verifying, inspecting, and monitoring for compliance.

Alejandra Domínguez, head of the legal department of the PAECH, explained in an interview that the agency has indeed followed up on complaints about the activities of palm businesses, especially the processing plants, where there have been inspection visits. However, she didn’t specify which ones have been overseen and appeared surprised when asked about the presence of Oleopalma plantations inside the REBIEN. “I’m taking note of this point to check up on it, because all of the [visits] so far have not been inside the reserve. It’s a serious point,” she responded.

Oil palm groves are located next to canals inside the reserve. The plants’ seeds then travel by water, arriving in mangrove areas where they invade the ecosystem. Video: Santiago Navarro F.

The Government’s Solution: Shrink the REBIEN

One of the reports provided by the CONANP, created for the Endangered Species Conservation Program (PROCER), mentioned that the expansion of palm cultivation is due to changes in land use, above all in “areas of high conservation value” in the reserve’s interior.

Pronatura Sur, the organization that authored this document, stated that to ready the area for palm planting, drainage structures were opened to regulate the excess water and maintain adequate conditions for developing the plantations.

According to the Management Plan, economic uses of the forest and land use changes within the REBIEN are prohibited without authorization from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT). Avispa Midia made an information access request for records of the authorizations issued within the last decade. The agency responded that “no authorizations issued by this body were found regarding changes in land use in forest areas located in La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve in the state of Chiapas.”

  • Palm fruit is transported to strategically located storage facilities like the one in Matamoros ejido in the municipality of Acapetahua, close to the REBIEN’s buffer zone. Photo: Aldo Santiago

  • The Oleopalma processing plant located in REBIEN's zone of influence obtains supplies from the two municipalities with the highest production at the national level. Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

  • A boy travels the road from his community, in the Nicolás Bravo ejido, to the Oleopalma processing plant in the municipality of Mapastepec. Photo: Aldo Santiago.

  • Between 2007 and 2012, the government of Chiapas distributed 4 million plants without supervising where they would be grown. At that time, plantations expanded in the coastal region. Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

The CONANP and the SEMARNAT attribute the problem of the spread of palm to poor control by producers, so they have looked for strategies to legalize it. In October 2015, they presented the Preliminary Supportive Study for the Modification of the Declaration of 1995 of the REBIEN, which sought to remove areas where there are crops, livestock, and fisheries from the reserve.

Both agencies wanted to reduce the size of the reserve in order to regulate oil palm, arguing that “the goal is to adapt zoning, in particular incorporating areas with well-conserved ecosystems into the core zones, and removing areas where agricultural, ranching, and fishing activities are conducted,” as the document Avispa Midia had access to states.

They sought to remove an area of 8,345 acres (3,377 ha), of which 1,841 (745 ha) belong to El Palmarcito Core Zone and 6,504 acres (2,632 ha) to La Encrucijada Core Zone. This proposal never moved forward.

According to the LGEEPA’s regulations regarding Protected Natural Areas, the next step to continue with the proposal for modification of the reserve is publication of a preliminary study for public consult, before proposing modification to the federal executive branch. This did not happen.

Castro said that the families that grow and depend on palm are very visible because they’re already involved in several positions within the production chain, not only as growers, but also transport or processing plant workers. “There’s already an economy with a certain strength around African palm in the region,” he said. Furthermore, he said that he can’t enforce, because “it would create a much wider conflict, socially and economically.”

In 2016, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) issued General Recommendation 26/2016, for addressing impacts on protected natural areas and human rights. It highlighted the degradation of the REBIEN, explaining that for several years, the reserve has faced “the use of these lands for the establishment of oil palm plantations.”

That same year, instead of going after the plantations, CONANP hired the nonprofit organization Naturaleza y Redes A.C. to run a project called Strengthening African palm control strategy in the REBIEN, which only focused on the problem of seed spread. Information gathered through this project helped to eradicate and control individual oil palm trees covering 28.4 acres (11.5 ha) inside the reserve.

Poulette Hernández, co-founder of the Digna Ochoa Human Rights Center, clarified that this is no easy task. She explained that people are mistaken in thinking that palm is like any other tree that can be disposed of by being cut down and burned. Castro agrees that eradicating this crop is not simple. He explained that palm trees can’t be cut down with a machete, and even doing it with a chainsaw is very complicated. What’s more, all of the brush must be removed from the site, since it can contaminate the mangroves.

The CONANP has a publicly available record of the January 2020 eviction of what the agency considered to be two incursions of people who, they say, threatened the buffer zone and core zone of the reserve. Castro stated that they recovered 2,251 acres (911 ha) that had been impacted by filling, removal of vegetation, and the introduction of exotic species like oil palm.

Oil palm plantations inside La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve. Photo: Aldo Santiago.

The Businesses’ Solution

At an April 2019 presentation in Switzerland, Clara Rowe, then in charge of Earthworm Foundation’s Mexico and Central America operations, discussed part of her work in La Encrucijada. She showed the results of a mapping project that had identified 19,770 acres (8,000 ha) of oil palm inside the reserve.

This information was the result of an investment by Earthworm, Nestlé, and Grupo Bimbo in “innovative satellite technology to generate a detailed understanding of current land use in La Encrucijada,” said Earthworm Foundation in a statement on their website.

Nestlé reaffirmed this in its 2020 report entitled Palm Oil Responsible Sourcing at Nestlé. In the report, the company stated that the goal of this technology was “land use planning” within the reserve.

Grupo Bimbo also stated that it works alongside the palm sector in “meetings with the CONANP and La Encrucijada to discuss updating the Decree and Management Plan,” according to its 2021 Global Palm Oil Policy.

A clip from Clara Rowe’s presentation to the Geneva Environment Network. April 2019.

“The big vision for me is that we can help finance a Management Plan update process through the government and that that would help to legalize some of the palm,” said Rowe. After a question posed by a participant as to whether this would translate to less conservation area, Rowe replied: “You do have less formal conservation area, but the reality is that the palm is there now.”

Juan Sabines, the governor of Chiapas at the time, and Manuel Velasco, then governor-elect, unveil the Zitihault palm oil processing plant in Villa Comaltitlán. July 2012.

Those Responsible for the Expansion

This invasive species didn’t magically arrive in the reserve. Oil palm needs a humid tropical climate with an optimal rainfall of 70 inches (180 cm) per year. This makes the Chiapan jungle and coast—the location of the REBIEN—ideal locations for its expansion. Here, annual precipitation is between 79 and 95 inches (200-240 cm), which makes La Encrucijada’s area of influence Mexico’s most productive region for oil palm farming.

The CNDH’s General Recommendation 26/2016 states that the advance of this crop in the REBIEN is not an accident: “it has to do with a change in production promoted by the state government for several regions of Chiapas, which has led to its expansion to lands in this conservation area [La Encrucijada].”

Castro was quick to emphasize that the expansion of oil palm began long before his tenure as director of the REBIEN. He stated that it hasn’t been penalized due to the size of the reserve “and maybe because of political pressure,” although, he reiterated, he doesn’t know about the early phases, since he didn’t witness the process.

What is known is that between 2007 and 2012, the state government promoted the crop through the Productive Conversion Program and distributed four million plants for free without overseeing where they would be planted. It received 165 million dollars for this from the International Finance Corporation. In 2011, this entity granted another loan to continue expansion of the agricultural zone for two more years.

The federal government also drove palm expansion through Agricultural Trust Funds (FIRA). By way of the Production Stimulus Incentive program, linked with Femexpalma, it proposed equipping producers with infrastructure and technology to increase productive capacity for oil palm.

This financing was earmarked primarily for small producers. However, wealthy businesspeople who have palm inside of La Encrucijada also benefited. For example, ranchers Francisco Reyero Fernández and Ariosto Pérez Luján received support through the 2014 and 2015 South and Southeast Productive Development Component of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA).

Governor Velasco, at center in pink shirt, accompanied by the businessman Francisco Reyero to his left, during the opening ceremony for the Sustainable Palm Oils plant in the Benemérito de Las Americas region, Chiapas. March 2018.

Governor Velasco, at center in pink shirt, accompanied by the businessman Francisco Reyero to his left, during the opening ceremony for the Sustainable Palm Oils plant in the Benemérito de Las Americas region, Chiapas. March 2018.

According to information [from Anexo] provided by the CONANP, Reyero owns the largest expanse of oil palm within the REBIEN, at 219.4 acres (88.8 ha), a little over 19 times the size of Mexico City’s central square.

RSPO certification is promoted through sustainability training programs financed by businesses. Photo: Nestlé.

Support from Sembrando Vida

Palm cultivation on the Chiapas coast has gotten new momentum with the government program Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life). The directory committee of La Encrucijada said that there are oil palm producers who have “slipped through” and are growing palm within the protected natural area, even though “they know they have to stop.”

Rincón said that there are producers who are combining their palm groves with cacao as part of this government program, which purports to address rural poverty along with the country’s environmental decline. “The people in Sembrando Vida pushed an agricultural model in which cacao is grown within the palm groves, so there is a diversified crop,” said Rincón, who added that producers share a commitment to eliminate palm “at some point” if it’s in a zone where it’s prohibited within the reserve.

In Palm Oil Responsible Sourcing at Nestlé, published in 2020, Nestlé said that it worked on palm farm management plans in La Encrucijada that year with 52 farmers who supply four different processing plants. “The project […] partnered with government subsidy program, Sembrando Vida, to measure the economic impacts of their oil palm – cocoa intercropping experiment,” states the report.

In 2019, during an analysis by the Mexican Senate of the First Annual Report of President Lopez Obrador’s government, María Luisa Albores González, currently head of the SEMARNAT and at that time the Secretary of Welfare, said that the state of Chiapas has benefited the most from the Sembrando Vida programa, with 494,200 acres (200,000 ha). She also pointed out that the program is coordinating with the SEMARNAT in buffer zones around protected natural areas. “This is the case with Tatana Reserve, El Triunfo Reserve, La Encrucijada Reserve, Los Zapotes, and the Montes Azules reserve,” said Albores.

Avispa Midia asked the Ministry of Welfare for the register of producers within La Encrucijada benefiting from Sembrando Vida. The agency responded stating that they could not find any information related to the request.

Palm expansion in Mexico also has the support of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER). The agency’s secretary Víctor Villalobos Arámbula expressed his backing of the palm industry in 2019. “The SADER is an ally to oil palm producers. Together we will turn around the unfounded and negative opinions about palm cultivation, with arguments based in science and research, which will result in a growth in oil production,” he stated in a meeting with representatives of palm associations.

The head of the SADER committed to promoting palm oil production in Mexico’s southeast during a meeting with industry representatives. May 2019.

The head of the SADER committed to promoting palm oil production in Mexico’s southeast during a meeting with industry representatives. May 2019.

Additionally, through the SADER and the National Institute of Forest, Agricultural, and Livestock Research (INIFAP), the current administration of Mexico has joined forces with PepsiCo by way of the “Agrovita” project. During a meeting between Villalobos Arámbula and directors of PepsiCo Alimentos México headed by company president Roberto Martínez, it was announced that the program would represent a one million dollar investment.

Agrovita’s main objective is to provide technical assistance and improved, pest-resistant plant material to 1,000 banana, cacao, and oil palm producers in Chiapas and Tabasco. That means renewed momentum for the expansion of palm plantations, mainly in zones with the appropriate climatic conditions like the coastal, jungle, and northern regions of Chiapas.

Mangroves in the buffer zone near El Palmarcito Lagoon. Photo: Aldo Santiago.

Breaking an International Agreement

Nestlé reports underscore the importance of La Encrucijada’s wetlands: they sequester some 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in addition to providing habitat for a great diversity of species, including several threatened with extinction. For these two reasons, the reserve was declared a Ramsar site—a designation for internationally important wetlands—on March 20, 1996.

The Convention on Wetlands, also known as the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental environmental agreement established in 1971 by UNESCO. It serves as a framework for actions on the national and international levels to conserve and make rational use of wetlands and their resources.

Neither the Ramsar declaration nor the reserve’s creation decree have stopped the damage to wetlands and mangroves in the region. Oil palm is one of the multiple factors that over the last decade have contributed to the loss of almost 7,413 acres (3,000 ha) of mangroves alone along the coast of Chiapas, as the National Commission for the Understanding and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) has observed.

The CONABIO warns that it is “imperative” to stop the advance of oil palm plantations established in the last 12 years “over the swamps and mangroves in the municipalities of Huixtla, Villa Comaltitlán, Acapetahua, and Mapastepec, pushed forward by the SAGARPA and the state government,” according to a 2020 report entitled Inventory and monitoring of the current state of mangrove forests in Chiapas and Oaxaca. To the contrary, the board of La Encrucijada says that the Ramsar Convention is not at risk since mangroves within the REBIEN have not been lost.

Miguel Rivas, Doctor of Ecology and member of the organization Oceana México, said that by remaining within the Ramsar Convention, the REBIEN receives resources for its conservation from international funds. If it doesn’t comply with the convention’s rules, it’s violating national and international legislation and would stop receiving funding.

Agustín Bravo, a lawyer, specialist in environmental law, and consultant for Oceana México, believes that the lack of protection for this Ramsar site could lead to its removal from the list. Then, he explained, the Mexican state’s non-compliance would be visible on an international level. Individuals could even sue the state given that the Federal Supreme Court considers compliance with international treaties such as the Ramsar Convention to be obligatory.

Bravo stated that protecting the wetlands and mangroves is a federal responsibility, to guarantee the right to a healthy environment. These burdens fall directly on the SEMARNAT and the CONANP. He emphasized that the wetland ecosystems in fact have double legal protection, since the General Wildlife Law and the General National Goods Law also apply, which, he lamented, are often forgotten because they are so seldom used.

The story of the REBIEN is not unique in Mexico. Oil palm cultivation in Mexico, a study authored by Dr. Anne Cristina de la Vega-Leinert (member of Mexico vía Berlin and the University of Greifswald) and Daniel Sandoval, among others, and edited by the Center of Studies for Change in the Mexican Countryside (CECCAM), confirms that after years of palm production in the country, protected areas in Chiapas have been impacted: principally, La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve and Palenque National Park.

The biggest problem, said Guillén, is that these policies are not going to stop, because millions of dollars are in play and “palm comes from an expansionist policy at the international level, primarily affecting ecosystems like that of La Encrucijada. So, the governments end up adjusting to the demands of the international market.”

“La Encrucijada’s Dilemma: The Greenwashing of Oil Palm”, is an investigation by:

With support from:

“This work was completed by Santiago Navarro F. and Aldo Santiago for Avispa Midia and Connectas, in partnership with Aristegui Noticias and Pie de Página, within Connectas’s ARCO initiative and with support from the International Center for Journalists in the framework of the initiative for Investigative Journalism in the Americas.”