World Rainforest Movement

Colombia: Oil palm grows by the force of violence

Since the beginning of the decade, all the areas of expansion of oil palm plantations have coincided geographically with areas of paramilitary presence and expansion, to the extent that some of the new plantations being developed have been financed as farming projects for the same demobilised paramilitary from the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – United Self-Defence Force of Colombia) who had previously made incursions into these very areas.

This strategy of territorial control through the expansion of oil palm is reinforced by government policies supporting and providing incentives for the planting of oil palms, also clearly in a quest for economic, political and military control of large areas of Colombia currently outside state control.

These state policies are reinforced by the investment strategies of international bodies. An analysis of the investment plans of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) illustrates this: “For the IDB, medium and long-term crops have greater export potential, a greater capacity for surviving in an open economy, yield greater benefits in terms of the pacification process and generate sustained growth of the agricultural sector, thereby overcoming the problems of long-term financing of farming. (…) And in accordance with the Country Document (IDB), the programme focuses its activities on the zones and important projects from the perspective of pacification efforts. In general, the IDB regards investment in medium and long-term crops as strategies for governability or territorial control in the face of problems such as guerrilla conflict, political violence, common criminality and drug crops. Extensive farming provides a genuine alternative for the occupation of territory and for the creation of employment in conflict areas.”

Ultimately, all these policies share the idea that oil palm cultivation is a type of economic development useful in the pacification of the country. This confluence of illegal and criminal acts, government policies and international investment forms the Colombian oil palm model.

– This model can be described as having 5 phases:

– Attacks or conquest of territory by paramilitaries.

– Illegal appropriation of the land. Theft or purchase with armed intimidation.

– Sowing of oil palm.

– Palm Complex = Plantations + Extraction Plants.

5a. Flow of oil towards national and/or international markets.

5b. Territorial control.

This description is a summary of the different processes being developed in the oil palm-growing regions of the country, but in its entirety (phases 1 through to 5) it is particularly applicable to the new plantations developed since the beginning of the decade.

In previous processes such as in Santander or Tumaco, the model began with the oil palm complexes already established (4), the palm companies being the ones who formed or invited and financed paramilitary groups as private security corps, in response to the guerrillas. In contrast in Casanare, the palm plantations expanded at the same rate as paramilitary activity, both expansions overlapping each other. The case which perfectly fits the model is that of plantations in the Chocó where it was the paramilitaries themselves who invited the oil palm companies to establish themselves in areas under their control.

The Attorney’s office itself states that, “the appropriation, illegal seizure and theft of land by paramilitary groups (33%), guerrillas (17%), drugs traffickers, emerald traders, large landowners, some palm-producers and other actors has been described by analysts and the media as the ‘agrarian counter-reform’ and ‘paramilitary agrarian reform’”.

Of the estimated 2.6 to 6.8 million hectares, many are now planted with oil palm. This ‘agrarian counter-reform’ denounced by different analysts and the media has been denounced for a long time by the victims themselves, as in the case of the communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó affected by oil palm plantations.

The incursions, attacks or subsequent takeover of territory has taken a grim toll in Colombia’s rural areas. The murders or massacres, the forced disappearances, the threats, the kidnappings, the torture and other types of persecution are causing the forced displacement – collective and/or individual – of the inhabitants of the land which is to be seized.

The statistics on forced displacement in Colombia are alarming. According to different records it is estimated that between 1,874,917 and 3,832,525 people have been displaced by violence in Colombia. Of this high number, two out of three displaced people owned land at the time of displacement. (Excerpted and adapted from: “The flow of palm oil Colombia- Belgium/Europe. A study from a human rights perspective”).

Complaints continue: the Colombian organization Salva la Selva denounced that the community leaders opposing oil palm plantations and those supporting displaced communities possessing legal land tenure deeds to return to the locations they were displaced from, have been receiving death threats. Other people in the area have been attacked by members of paramilitary and military forces. In September 2007, two people received bullet wounds from men whom are believed to be members of a paramilitary group. The threats to the communities that have already returned to their lands also continue.

Since 2001, 113 murders and 13 forced displacements have taken place and many death threats and illegal land occupations have been reported. Last December the Attorney General of the Nation filed a claim against 23 representatives of oil palm companies, although this has not led to any real efforts to halt the expansion of oil palm or of cattle ranching on community lands.

Last May, members of the Caracoli community, collective territory of Curvaradó, Jair Barrera, Jonny Barrera and Devis Salas and the Human Rights defenders of the Justice and Peace Commission, Elizabeth Gomez and Luz Marina Arroyabe were illegally arrested by the police, with accusations aimed at incriminating them. They were later subject to cruelty, torture and threats. The police action was accompanied by beneficiaries of paramilitary groups and oil palm growers (see http://www.salvalaselva.org/protestaktion.php?id=255)

For its part, the National Council for Economic and Social Policy (CONPES) announced new policies increasing Government support to the expansion of agrofuels with the intention of turning Colombia into an agrofuel exporting power.

The violation of Human Rights in the Choco and other locations and the accelerated destruction of tropical forests and other vital and biologically diverse systems are the direct result of these government policies.

Article based on: “The flow of palm oil Colombia- Belgium/Europe. A study from a human rights perspective”, Fidel Mingorance, Conducted by HREV for the Coordination Belge pour la Colombia, http://www.cbc.collectifs.net/doc/informe_en_v3-1.pdf; “Colombia: agrocombustibles destruyen comunidades y biodiversidad”, Salva la Selva, http://www.salvalaselva.org/protestaktion.php?id=255