World Rainforest Movement

Colombia: Biodiesel from oil palm

The Western world, and in particular the countries of the North, gave in to addiction to fossil fuels. This path has led to something that today nobody can doubt: climate change. Many solutions have been put forth to face it, but most of them let humanity’s race towards suicide continue as vigorously as before.

Biofuel mega-projects are some of the proposals to solve the problem. However, have those who submitted them as an alternative measured the consequences their creation could have on important ecosystems, peoples and culture? In the first place, this article delimits the steps taken to open up the field to these projects, focussing in particular on the implications of planting African palms, from which one of the biofuels to be produced is derived.

Biofuel has its own story. Briefly, during the 1973 energy crisis, Brazil reconverted part of its sugar industry to produce ethanol and became the leading exporter. Today, Colombia wants to follow this example and become a producing power, particularly of bio-ethanol and biodiesel.

In 2001, Law 693 was issued, linked to Law 939 of 2004, opening up the way for biofuel production. Law 693 stipulates that Colombian gasoline must contain 10 percent ethanol by 2009 and in a period of between 15 and 20 years, it should gradually reach a proportion of 25 percent. Whereas law 939 of 2004, fosters the production and marketing of biodiesel for diesel motors, at a percentage of 5%.

Since the end of 2005, the production from the sugar cane industry in Cauca, Providencia, Manuelita and Mayagüez (all located in the Department of the Cauca Valley, in the West of the country), in addition to the industry in Risaralda, has been close on one million litres daily of bio-ethanol, aimed at satisfying the demand of the west of the country and the Bogotá Savannah. The talk is now of assembling 27 other plants scattered over 17 departments of the country, to extend the blend of 10% with gasoline throughout the whole Colombian territory. According to the forecasts of the National Fuel Federation, by 2010 internal consumption could double simply by rising the percentage of blend to 15%. By then, Colombia will have the capacity to export a figure close on 2,300,000 litres per day of ethanol.

A similar legislation to that referred to above is being prepared for biodiesel, derived from African palm trees. This plant already has a derivate used for food, which is the one most commonly known today: palm oil, with a production of 600 thousand tons. But in fact, it is biodiesel that is of interest to us in this article.

Before going into figures, it is important to say that the major beneficiaries from bio-ethanol legislation – and now from legislation being prepared for biodiesel – are precisely the sugar cane agro-industrialists from the Cauca Valley whose industries were mentioned on discussing ethanol, and in the case of biodiesel, it is the palm agro-industrialists who will benefit.

The consumption of diesel oil in the country for automotive transport is growing at a faster rate than that of gasoline, exceeding the national oil company Ecopetrol’s refining capacity, so the country imports 5% of the domestic consumption of diesel oil. Thus an opportunity has arisen for African palm agro-industrialists who have year by year, increased the area under cultivation.

In Colombia the expansion of these plantations has shown a sustained growth. In the mid-sixties 18 thousand hectares were under production. By 2003, there were over 188 thousand hectares and presently, approximately 300 thousand have been planted. Furthermore, seven plants are being assembled in different palm regions of the country, at an approximate cost of 100 million dollars. According to the Colombian palm trade union, Fedepalma, since 2001 Colombia is the main producer of palm oil in America and fourth largest producer on a world level, after Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria. Out of the total oil production, 35% is exported.

However, several economic studies consider international palm oil markets to be insecure, insofar as world production increases day by day and prices continue to be low. Nevertheless, agro-industrial palm projects have been a priority for the present Government and are promoted, particularly in regions such as the Colombian Pacific, the plains in the east and the Caribbean region, as the characteristics of these regions make them ideal for the development of these plantations. The target is to reach one million hectares in a few years time.

Experts on this type of agro-industrial development have denounced that these crops are used to launder money from drug trafficking and as a mechanism used by para-military groups to force displacement of the population as their aim is to take over important and rich regions. Their strategy has been to displace the people and once the land is abandoned palm-growing companies occupy them. Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó, two municipalities in the Pacific region are outstanding examples of this strategy. The Urapalma Company illegally occupied these Afro-Colombian territories.

These Chocó communities received the deeds for their lands in November 2000 after years of reiterated violations of their human rights, nine years after the National Constitution had recognized the territorial rights of Afro-descendent and Indigenous communities. The deeds were received at a time when the communities were displaced. On their return they found their territories occupied with oil palm plantations. A long drawn out legal process started with claims by the communities to recover their territories. This process was tainted with major irregularities to favour the oil palm companies.

Something similar is taking place in the Tumaco region (located in the South of Colombia, on the border with neighbouring Ecuador). The communities have also gone through forced displacement and have been threatened and it is thus that the companies or even the State itself propose that the members of community councils, as an alternative to enable them to stay in their territory, become “rural sector entrepreneurs.” In other words, they are being forced to involve themselves in partnerships or productive chains with palm oil companies. In this way, territories that used to be rainforests have now become monoculture palm plantations, depriving the Afro-descendent communities of their culture and their territory and destroying regions that are among the most diverse on the Planet.

Last June, President Uribe declared at the Fedepalma Congress in Villavicencio the following:

“[…] I would beg […] [the Minister of Agriculture] to fit into quarantine Tumaco entrepreneurs and the Afro-descendent compatriots and not let them leave the office, locking them in until they reach an agreement. It has to be this way…Lock them in and propose as a case [sic], that the State contributes, that they reach agreements on the use of these lands and the government contributes risk capital resources. And propose a date and tell them: gentlemen, we are in conclave and we will not leave this place until we reach an agreement […] Because here we must recognize what is good and what is bad, in this Meta and in Casanare and in what is starting to yield in the Guaviare, some extraordinary growth of the palm, not in Tumaco, no. And Tumaco, which has the road, go a little further north, that area of Guapi, El Charco with excellent conditions and without a single palm tree, full of coca that we must eradicate […]”.

These declarations filled the Afro-descendent communities with wrath and they responded vigorously to the President of the Republic.

“If this oil palm, Mr. President is your mega pilot project, it is not one on our ethnic territories. Worse still, if it were it would lead to most serious environmental, social and cultural damage. We affirm this on the basis of what we have seen of this monoculture plantation since the end of the sixties to the present, that is to say, over thirty-five years now, suffering from the impacts of over twenty thousand hectares of forced sowing of this ‘Plantation within camera’ which still continues to expand in a violent way in our collective territories.” (Letter to the President of the Republic from the ethnic territorial authorities and legal representatives of the Community Councils of Afro-descendent communities from the Kurrulao ethnic territory (Colombian South Pacific).

With these proposals for biodiesel production, the palm companies and the promoters of these companies now have new reasons to continue growing. But plantation stories are painful. They are stained with the blood and tears of the Afro-descendent and peasant communities of the Pacific, of Magdalena Medio, and the Colombian Caribbean. It is the silent story of forests disappearing to become plantations. It is the story of ancestral cultures becoming oil palm proletariats. These voices are clamouring to stop the destruction proposed by those defending biodiesel.

By: Tatiana Roa Avendaño, Censat Agua Viva, e-mail: hipochicho@hotmail.com; www.censat.org. Sources: People’s defence office. Defence Resolution N° 39 of 2005; El Espectador. “Ley de tierras podría prestarse al lavado de activos”, October 21 2006; Gestión del Instituto Colombiano de Desarrollo Rural – Incoder”, August 2006; Salinas, Yamile, los vericuetos de la palma aceitera, Abdala, 10 November 2006; Procuraduría General de la Nación. “Análisis de la ejecución de la Reforma Agraria y la la Gestión del Instituto Colombiano de Desarrollo Rural – Incoder”, August 2006. Web sites visited: Revista Semillas, www.semillas.org.co; Fedepalma. www.fedepalma.org

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