World Rainforest Movement

Colombia: Community challenges multinational company Smurfit Carton de Colombia

Colombia is involved in the same process taking place in several Latin American countries regarding the establishment of fast-growing monoculture tree plantations.

Recently the wrongly-called “General Forest Law” was adopted, or as the environmentalists have christened it, the three-lie law: it is not a law, it is not general, nor is it about forests. In order to be a law it ought to serve the interests of Colombian society as a whole and not those of the major forestry companies. In turn, it would be a general law if it were to cover other forest-related issues such as community use or ecosystem restoration –just to name a few examples– and not just forest exploitation. Finally, it is not a forest law but a law of an economic nature that enables and facilitates the entry of large timber companies to exploit forests which, in the framework of this law, are seen as mere merchandise.

At the same time, a complex network of actors, ranging from international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, together with various “cooperation” agencies from different countries –Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, USA, just to name a few– have appeared on the scene to prepare the ground just as they have done in various other Latin American countries.

The General Forest Law comes hand in hand with many evils for Colombian forests and the Colombian people, among them opening doors for the establishment of fast-growing tree plantations.

Presently Colombia has approximately 200,000 hectares of pine and eucalyptus plantations. The main company operating in the country is the transnational corporation Smurfit Carton de Colombia. This company owns large tracts of tree plantations –40.000 hectares—and a factory producing cardboard and paper. It also has a track record of violation of human rights, deforestation and contamination (see articles published in previous bulletins no. 77, 43).

The company owns areas planted with pine and eucalyptus trees in the Cauca Valley. Presently it is planning to increase their extension in the Valley area and for this purpose intends to enter the Municipality of Guacari, more precisely in the Vereda of Santa Rosa de Tapias, Alto Pomares sector.

However, the company had not reckoned with finding an organized community, unwilling to allow the company to enter its lands.

The area in question is an extremely rich high zone, where sources of water spring and serve 17 communities comprising 1,500 peasant families who inhabit this area. These peasant families are smallholders, owning an average of 4-5 “plazas” (1 plaza = 6400 metres of land). The predominant crop on their farms is coffee, but it is also combined with a great diversity of other crops, such as vegetables, fruit-trees, bamboo (which they use to build their houses). They also combine animal husbandry, breeding animals such as pigs, cattle and poultry. They obtain almost all the necessary elements for subsistence from their land and work.

Water –which the springs in the uplands provide– is a central element enabling them to produce food on their farms. They know that the entry of Smurfit in the uplands and the establishment of fast-growing tree plantations imply the depletion of a resource that is presently shared among the peasants and essential to maintain their food sovereignty.

Smurfit intends to enter these highlands by associating itself with one of the large landowners still remaining in the area. This family owns 320 hectares of land. A first step by the company to enter the zone will be to occupy these 320 hectares and then advance purchasing lands until the peasants who resist selling their properties are surrounded and finally obliged to abandon the land.

When the peasants found out about the company’s plans they started to organize themselves, obtain information and lodge complaints with the various entities involved in an attempt to curb the company’s progress. At various meetings they had strong confrontations with the company representatives, who threatened the peasants and told them that Smurfit “will enter come what may.”

Smurfit invited the peasants to visit its “planted forests” and to show them the innumerable benefits they will bring. They visited the plantations in 4 wheel-drive vehicles, together with company technicians. They saw nobody in the 4,500 hectares visited, a situation strongly contrasting with the situation in the areas they presently inhabit. The silence of the plantations bewildered them. They saw no birds, not a single cricket, not a single house, the earth was no longer earth but stones… The company guided the tour and did not allow them to talk to the inhabitants of the area they visited. It was then that they decided to organize their own tour of the same zone with their own resources to see with their own eyes and not those of the company and to talk to the local communities on the impacts of the plantations. They corroborated what they already knew: Smurfit must be stopped!

Recently, neighbours from various Municipalities in the Cauca Valley affected by monoculture tree plantations, among which the neighbours of Guacari, have gathered to set up a Front for Resistance to the Plantations.

The challenges are great and the powers that they must face are very strong. However, to unite, to inform themselves and to weave networks is the only way to checkmate Smurfit!