In the hamlet of Imbirí la Loma in Colombia’s southwestern department of Nariño, Yaneth Sosa and her family once struggled to survive as oil palm farmers. But their lives became dire in 2007, when blight killed off most of the African palm trees in Nariño’s Tumaco municipality, where the country’s palm industry is concentrated. Blight, known locally as la pudrición de cogollo, has plagued much of Colombia’s palm production since 2006. Like most monocultures, palm plantations displace indigenous flora and fauna, destroying the ecosystem’s resistance to blight. When I visited Sosa in June 2008, she said she wanted to replace her more than seven acres of rotting palms with a variety of traditional food crops.
The government, however, will not lend money to Sosa and other small farmers unless they agree to plant a new, supposedly blight-resistant hybrid species of palm developed by the government and palm companies. For Sosa, this is the latest example of the Colombian government’s policy of fostering the exclusive cultivation of palm, which can be sold internationally as the raw material for agrofuel, at the expense of food crops.
“The government is focused only on biodiesel,” Sosa said. “That is to say, it is not concerned that we need to sow food, only that we sow crops for biodiesel.”
With the government’s encouragement, the Colombian palm industry has exploded in recent years. In 2006, Colombia exported 88,483 tons of crude palm oil, a 70% increase since 2001. More impressive is the growth in value of Colombian palm oil exports, from $25.7 million in 2002 to $78 million in 2006—a 300% increase.1 With more than 741,000 acres of planted oil palm, Colombia is today the largest palm producer in the Americas and the fifth-largest in the world.2 Moreover, African palm cultivation is the fastest-growing agricultural sector in Colombia.
Carolina López Nates, an oils trader for Acepalma, the company that represents the export interests of Colombia’s largest palm oil producers, explained the dramatic increase in earnings from palm oil exports: “In 2005, we were talking about $400 per ton, but now we sell for $1,200 per ton. This is primarily due to the growing demand for biofuels as well as the increased demand for food in China and India.” As a result, López Nate said, “we have no problem selling all the crude oil we can produce.”
According to Andrés Castro, director of sustainable development for the National Federation of Oil Palm Growers (Fedepalma), about a quarter of Colombia’s palm is now cultivated by small farmers like Sosa and her family, thanks to government’s loan incentives. The rest is grown on plantations owned by large domestic companies—Palmeiras, Palmas de Tumaco, Salamanca, Palmar Santa Elena, Urapalma, and Indupalma. Reflecting the Pacific coast region’s traditional ethnic composition, most of the small growers and plantation workers are Afro-Colombian. They live in 14 communities located along the Mira River, near the border with Ecuador, where they collectively own their land and govern themselves through community councils. Most farmers in the area began growing palm with government loans procured through the USAID-funded Tumaco Agribusiness Development Corporation (Cordeagropaz).
“[Cordeagropaz] told peasants that it will lend them money and that there will be no problem because the palm is profitable and they will quickly pay back the loans,” said Helidoro Hurtado, a legal representative from the community council of Alto Mira and Frontera. The deal was sweetened by a three-year grace period on repaying the loans—the three years it takes African palm trees to bear their first fruit. As a result, Hurtado said, many Afro-Colombian communities became dependent on exclusively cultivating palm as a cash crop.
Then the blight struck, leaving campesinos without a source of income.
“The peasant can’t pay the debt,” Hurtado said, “and there is no possibility of [the government] forgiving the debt or substituting other crops for the palm. Their solution is to give him another loan to grow palm, on top of the one he already has. That is what they are offering. So the peasant receives a new loan and gets deeper in debt.”
Historically speaking, this leveraging through loans represents a relatively peaceful strategy of undermining Afro-Colombians’ control over what they grow on their own farmland. Palm arrived in Nariño at gunpoint in the mid-1980s, when the Cali drug cartel, together with local politicians and the businessmen, sought to establish plantations as a way of laundering drug money, according to Hernán Cortés of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), an Afro-Colombian advocacy group.
In 2000, the U.S.-funded counter-narcotics initiative known as Plan Colombia was implemented in the neighboring department of Putumayo. In the ensuing years, the aerial fumigations there displaced coca cultivation to Nariño, where it boomed. At the same time, both right-wing paramilitaries and the regular Colombian army expanded their presence in Nariño’s rural regions, much of which had been controlled by leftist guerrillas for decades. Many Afro-Colombian communities soon found themselves caught in the middle of the conflict.
The violence came to a head in 2004 and 2005, with the massacre of several civilians, according to Armenio Cortés, a member of the community council for Alto Mira and Frontera. The fighting has now ended, as paramilitaries have seized and maintained control over formerly guerrilla-held territory.
“Fortunately, the paramilitaries are no longer present,” Armenio Cortés said. “There are some opportunists who call themselves Los Rastrojos. They are drug traffickers and are like the paramilitaries, although they deny that they are paramilitaries. But their business is to buy the coca and take it away. They are focused on this.”
Hernán Cortés of PCN added that the new paramilitary groups like Los Rastrojos consist of former fighters of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) who had supposedly demobilized under the Justice and Peace Law.
“Only the name is different,” he said. “They are the same people. The top commanders have gone; the new commanders are those who previously were second- and third-level commanders.” Cortés said the new paramilitaries collude with the army and the local political establishment, just as before, and as a result they continue to maintain a culture of fear in order to control the local economy. He also alleges that the palm companies pay the paramilitaries “so that they’ll silence all social protests that oppose the planting of palm.”
Between 35% and 45% of Tumaco municipality’s population earns a living from cultivating palm or producing palm oil, estimates Carlos Alberto López, an agricultural engineer. Despite the prevalence of small growers, the large palm companies—the two most prominent in Nariño being Palmas de Tumaco and Palmeiras—dominate the industry because they also own the mills that process the palm fruit into oil. As a result, the small growers are compelled to sell their fruit to the companies. As Yaneth Sosa put it: “We earn a living from palm fruit, but the businesses govern the price of the fruit, and they work with each other to pay the price that they want to pay to the small producer.”
Many small growers in Nariño belong to producer associations in order to gain access to credit and other incentives offered by the government. One such association is Palma Sur, which represents small growers in 70 hamlets in southern Nariño. According to López, who is a member of Palma Sur, the associations were created in 2000 by Cordeagropaz to help small growers obtain loans, technical support, and a higher price for their product. In order to be eligible for government lines of credit, small growers must belong to a producer association like Palma Sur, López said.
According to Fedepalma, which represents the interests of the country’s largest palm companies, Cordeagropaz and the producer associations were established when “the municipal authorities and the local oil palm growing organizations decided it was necessary to promote agribusiness development projects, particularly for oil palm production,” in order to address the rural crisis of traditional agriculture in Tumaco.3
But Hérnan Cortés tells a different side of the story: The government and the palm companies created the associations to undermine Afro-Colombian communities’ sovereignty over their lands, which they gained collective title to in 1993 with the passage of Law 70. While paramilitaries are still forcibly displacing Afro-Colombian communities from their lands in the department of Chocó in order to establish palm plantations, the small grower associations in Nariño represent an alternative approach intended to achieve the same objective.
Fedepalma maintains that the palm industry has improved life for small growers, but most Afro-Colombians living in Nariño’s palm-growing zone remain mired in poverty. Eighty percent of Afro-Colombians live in poverty, according to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. Many communities in the Alto Mira region are accessible only by boat and the overwhelming majority of homes lack access to potable water. Schools and medical clinics are located far away.
Life is also difficult for those Afro-Colombians who work on plantations owned by the palm companies. According to one worker in the Alto Mira region, the companies ensured that their employees did not unionize in the past by threatening and firing anyone who attempted to organize the workers. But by the late 1990s, the palm companies had discovered a more discreet method of reducing labor costs and discouraging union influence among workers.
In much the same way that the palm companies created the grower associations to undermine Afro-Colombian communities’ territorial sovereignty, they encouraged the establishment of worker cooperatives to, in effect, outsource plantation work. Instead of hiring workers directly, the palm companies required workers to form cooperatives, which it then paid for the laborers it needed in the same manner it would pay any contractor.
According to Fedepalma, the change in the labor structure was necessary because trade union action had “led to a succession of salary rises, along with bonus payments and changes in labor conditions.” This “affected productivity and discipline at work,” raising labor costs “to unsustainable levels” and bringing “some companies almost to the point of bankruptcy.” The solution was to eliminate “costly agreed to benefits,” followed by “finding more flexible ways of hiring staff”—i.e., establishing the cooperatives.4
One cooperative member, who requested that his name be withheld to protect his safety, said each cooperative is based on the type of work that members perform. For example, workers who collect the palm fruit from the trees belong to one cooperative, while cleaners belong to another. This worker, who worked on a plantation owned by Palmas de Tumaco, said he earned 47,000 Colombian pesos for 15 days of work, which amounts to less than $2 a day.
The shift to cooperatives achieved these objectives, as the palm companies enjoyed lower wage and health care costs, and no longer had to pay legally mandated severances to laid-off employees because the workers were now, in effect, self-employed as members of a cooperative.5 All social and health care responsibilities had been transferred from the companies to the cooperatives, or rather, to the workers themselves.
“These cooperatives are a strategy utilized by the large capitalists and, as always, it makes the poor poorer and the rich richer, and that’s the law of neoliberalism,” the cooperative worker said. “This is what’s happening in our country.”
In 2007, Colombian president Álvaro Uribe called for an expansion of oil palm cultivation in Tumaco and other parts of Nariño along the Pacific coast.6 Addressing Fedepalma’s national congress, he declared: “I strongly request [the secretary of agriculture] to lock up the business community of Tumaco together with our Afro-descendent compatriots and not let them leave the room, keep them there until they come to an agreement.”7 In addition to expanding oil palm cultivation in Tumaco, Uribe called for it to be introduced in the region of El Charco in northern Nariño and Guapi in southern Cauca.8
Part of the Colombian government’s rationale is to promote oil palm as a replacement for coca, an effort it has carried out the help of USAID. In fact, 20% of the USAID crop-substitution budget for Colombia is spent on oil palm projects.9 But in the small village of San José de Tapaje, several hours up the Tapaje River from El Charco, north of Tumaco, there is little public support for the government’s plan to introduce oil palm to the region. Clearings in the rainforest surrounding San José are filled with coca plants, which are currently the only cash crop in the area. Although the region has been repeatedly targeted by Plan Colombia’s aerial fumigations, local peasants say they will keep replanting coca until the government provides them with a viable economic alternative.
“There are too many problems associated with African palm,” said one peasant who asked to remain anonymous. “There are environmental problems and violence, and people are still poor.”
Instead, the campesinos of El Charco want the government to improve infrastructure and provide opportunities for them to cultivate food traditional crops in order to preserve their culture and the environment. Neither the cultivation of coca nor of oil palm will achieve these objectives because, as one Afro-Colombian peasant pointed out, the substitution of one for the other simply amounts to trading one monoculture with another—and both of them destroy the local ecosystem.
Others from the Pacific coast area argue that the development of the palm sector over the past several decades has undermined food sovereignty in the region. Because much of the land surrounding the city of Tumaco is used for cultivating palm, the coastal region must import most of its foodstuffs from the Andean highlands. Before the palm industry was established, the coast produced cacao, rice, bananas, and other crops.
“The policies are not intended to generate food autonomy,” said Hérnan Cortés. “The policies are intended to produce food that can be exported. They are not policies that consider the small producer. Additionally, it’s not just food production that is affected, but the biodiversity of all the ecosystems in this region. The Pacific coast is the second-richest region in biodiversity on the planet and the monoculture of palm affects the ecosystems considerably; it affects the biodiversity.”
Despite the failure of oil palm to bring “development” to Afro-Colombians, the Colombian and U.S. governments continue to promote it as an alternative crop in coca-growing regions. The proposed free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States will only exacerbate the problems faced by Afro-Colombian communities. U.S. imports of palm oil for producing agrofuel have increased dramatically in recent years. According to one estimate, the United States will import 1 million metric tons of it in 2009, compared to 750,000 metric tons in 2007.10 In the name of “clean energy,” increasing numbers of Afro-Colombians will likely see their territorial and food sovereignty further diminished in order to serve the energy needs of the Global North.
Thus, the Colombian oil palm industry offers an example of the intricate links that exist between North and South under neoliberal globalization, especially in the relationship between five issues: energy, food, poverty, global warming, and human rights. During the 20th century, wealthy nations in the global North not only exploited their own petroleum and coal reserves, but also sought to gain and secure access to fossil fuels in resource-rich nations of the Global South. The exploitation of fossil fuels often went together with violations of human rights and environmental degradation in communities situated in resource-rich regions.
Only the imminent threat of global warming has led governments in the North to re-evaluate their reliance on petroleum and coal. In many nations, including the United States, the proposed solution has been to pass laws requiring an increased use of agrofuels over the next few years in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Not surprisingly, the cultivation of food crops that can be used for agrofuels—sugarcane, corn, soybeans, and African oil palm—has increased dramatically in the Global South to accommodate the shifting energy demands of the North. While the form of energy might be changing from fossil fuels to agrofuels, the human rights abuses, environmental devastation, poverty, and inequality often associated with oil and mining are also being transferred to the agrofuel sector. Furthermore, the shift to growing crops for fuel has led to food shortages and undermined self-sufficiency in many regions of the world.
When asked what it would take to address the problems faced by Afro-Colombians, Hernán Cortés suggested that they need to escape the economic model that capitalist globalization has imposed on them. “There needs to be a political change in the country,” he said. “Not only a change of government, but a change in the politics of the country and in the economics of the country.”
Garry Leech is an independent journalist and editor of ColombiaJournal.org. He is the author of several books, most recently Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009) and, with Terry Gibbs, The Failure of Global Capitalism: From Cape Breton to Colombia and Beyond (Cape Breton University Press, 2009).
1. Fedepalma, La agroindustria de la palma de aceite en Colombia y en el mundo, 2002–2006 (Bogotá: Fedepalma, 2007).
2. Martha Luz Ospina Bozzi, The Faces of the Oil Palm: The Relevance of the Oil Palm Agro-Industry in Colombia (Bogotá: Fedepalma, 2007), 14, 27.
3. Ibid., 64.
4. Ibid., 44.
5. Fidel Mingorance, “The Flow of Palm Oil Colombia-Belgium/Europe: A Study From a Human Rights Perspective,” Human Rights Everywhere (November 2006): 46.
6. Tatiana Roa Avendaño, “Colombia’s Palm Oil Biodiesel Push,” Americas Program Report, Center for International Policy, February 2, 2007.
9. John Otis, “Tree Oil Plan Tries to Bear Fruit,” Houston Chronicle, February 6, 2005.
10. “U.S. Palm Oil Imports to Increase,” World Energy Alternatives, April 18, 2008.