Biofuel Boom Means Bust for Colombian Campesinos

Annalise Romoser

Over 50 years ago, Enrique Petro left his humble home to seek out a new life farming in the northwestern region of Urabá, Colombia. A poor farmer, Petro slowly managed to eke out a living in the thick and inhospitable jungle. He was able to provide food for his large family and live in relative peace while the much of the country remained gripped by war. “It was a healthy and peaceful time for us, and our children were well taken care of,” recalls Petro. But in February 1997, Petro’s life changed radically.

He was violently driven from his home of 50 years by a Colombian military and paramilitary incursion named Operation Genesis. The government defended the incursion as an attempt to drive insurgent guerrillas from the region. The real victims, however, were small farmers and Afro-Colombian communities. The military burned their homes and bombed their lands, while paramilitaries brutally massacred innocent civilians.

After experiencing such horror, these families were ordered to leave their lands and join the ranks of Colombia’s massive population of internally displaced people—now estimated at nearly four million. Petro along with thousands of others from the surrounding area gathered in the nearby port town of Turbo. The government placed them in the town’s sports coliseum, where they lived in subhuman conditions for years.

While Petro and others from his community sought refuge in Turbo, his lands—a few hundred acres—were illegally taken over by African Palm companies. His crops were plowed, the neighboring jungle was destroyed and giant canals were dug to channel excess water. Lands that once sustained the food crops of thousands of families—and a delicate jungle ecosystem—are now lined with giant oil palms. The palm’s fruits are harvested to produce palm oil, which is refined into, among other things, biofuel for national and international markets.

Petro’s story is one of countless similar stories from six different palm-growing regions in the country. In the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó river basins of Urabá alone, 64 different communities have suffered 100 violent crimes and 15 massive displacements since palm companies first entered the territory in 1996. A recent report by Human Rights Everywhere, notes that forced disappearance, murder, massacres, extortion, and violation of international humanitarian law are just some of the numerous human rights abuses being perpetrated in connection with Colombia’s booming palm industry.1

The palm plantations are under the constant protection of the Colombian Army’s 15th and 17th brigades. When asked about community concerns over the military presence, one Coronal of 17th brigade told me, “Yes, we have troops throughout the palm sector. It is an important economic resource for the region and will provide jobs. We have permanent communication with the palm industry; we offer them protection and security. We meet with them from time to time and speak with them on a regular basis.”

Despite damning reports about military and paramilitary connections to illegal palm plantations, the Colombian government, with support from Washington, continues to promote the expansion of palm crops. Colombia is currently the world’s fifth largest producer of palm oil. An industry study suggests that in addition to the 275,000 hectares under cultivation in 2005, 3.5 million more hectares of land are suitable for palm production and another 2.5 million could be planted if appropriately adapted. (One hectare is about 2.5 acres.) This means less than 5% of the land appropriate for palm plantations in Colombia is currently under cultivation.2

The Colombian government and the main palm-growers’ federation have announced that they will soon increase production by one million hectares and, ultimately, raise this to six million hectares. Explaining the government’s decision to push palm production, an official from Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture said, “Colombia cannot compete with U.S. crops, and facing the possibility of numerous free trade agreements, we decided to look for another export product. Palm was the answer. Palm is the future. The demand is expected to be very large.”

Palm expansion is receiving financial support from the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and, most recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The 2008 Foreign Appropriations Bill coming out of the U.S. Congress is likely to include between $201 and $240 million earmarked for USAID’s alternative development programs in Colombia. African Palm is one of the five main crops the agency promotes in the country. USAID has pledged support for an immediate palm expansion of 66,000 hectares, and this number is likely to skyrocket when the agency receives the coming Foreign Appropriations funds.

Campesino and Afro-Colombian communities throughout the country have taken a public stance against palm production. Most fundamentally, they are opposed to the ongoing violation of territorial and human rights at all levels of palm production in the country. But they also cite concerns regarding risks to food security, environmental damage, and the inability—as small-scale farmers—to participate on equal footing with large companies in the palm industry.3

Many displaced communities have begun returning to reclaim their stolen lands and block the palm expansion. Amid possible reprisals from paramilitary and military forces, Petro returned home in 2000. He soon began cutting down the illegal palm trees growing on a portion of his land. He reestablished the community by inviting old neighbors to join him and live by his side. The community is now known as the “Caño Claro Humanitarian Zone,” which distinguishes it as a civilian population opposed to the use of violence, to the exploitation of natural resources, and to the current model of African Palm expansion.

After an arduous legal battle, and with support from national and international organizations, Petro is on the brink of having his land officially returned by the Colombian government. Nonetheless, Petro’s is one case of measured success amid thousands of people who have had their human and territorial rights violated by the expansion of Colombia’s African palm industry. Nonetheless, national and international resources are already in place to push palm production levels to an all-time high, without providing adequate assurances that stolen land will be returned, and that human and territorial rights will be respected in the process.

Annalise Romoser is a Senior Associate at the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Office on Colombia, a non-profit organization that seeks to educate policymakers, the media and the public about the impact of U.S. policy on Colombia.
1. “The Flow of Palm Oil Colombia-Belgium/Europe: A Study from a Human rights Perspective,” Human Rights Everywhere, April 2007.
2. Ibid.
3. “Six Reasons Why Afro-Colombian Grassroots Leaders Oppose the Cultivation of African Palm,” Asociación de Afrocolombianos Desplazados (AFRODES), Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), October 2006.

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