Colombia's palm oil boom blighted by bloody past and violent present
Colombia's palm oil expansion appears increasingly to be exacerbating a social cost, with critics saying much of the development has taken place on lands originally seized during the country's long armed conflict.
- In the last month alone three local activists have reported death threats and harassment by suspected paramilitaries in the area near the city of Mapiripán in the Meta region, including two members of the indigenous Sikuani tribe, for their opposition to plans to expand the large palm oil plantation operated by the Italian and Spanish-owned company Poligrow.
- Poligrow denies any link with armed groups and refutes its critics. Representatives say that because the company has invested the better part of $45 million in the project, it is bringing much-needed jobs and development to the Meta region.
- The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry watchdog, decided in October to formally investigate Poligrow's operations following a complaint from EIA and the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz. It is the first time the body has upheld a complaint regarding a member's operations in Colombia. The company has been a member of the body since 2009 but its palm oil is yet to be certified.
With Indonesia and Malaysia providing around 85 percent of the global palm oil supply, it can be easy to forget who the next major players are. But Colombia, backed by intensive plantation development, is now the world's fourth largest producer.
Proponents of the country's palm oil boom boast it has thus far avoided the forest destruction and environmental damage synonymous with operations elsewhere, particularly in South East Asia.
However, the expansion in production appears increasingly to be exacerbating a social cost. Critics say much of the development has taken place on lands originally seized during the country's long armed conflict and that it is inextricably linked with Colombia's violent and bloody recent past.
In the last month alone three local activists have reported death threats and harassment by suspected paramilitaries in the area near the city of Mapiripán in the Meta region, including two members of the indigenous Sikuani tribe, for their opposition to plans to expand the large palm oil plantation operated by the Italian and Spanish-owned company Poligrow.Meta Province lies in the middle of Colombia. While most of the region's palm oil activity has been focussed in its north (orange circles indicate areas with the most plantations), Poligrow's accumulations of land near Mapiripán has critics concerned that the southern part of the province is becoming host to an increasing palm oil activity.
One Sikuani leader says his grandparents had lived in the area "since the beginning of the world." But the region is now the center of a land struggle.
"We're going to kill Gloria and collect her children in a bag," armed men reportedly said while looking for Sikuani community member Gloria Rodriguez on December 1. On November 28, members of a suspected paramilitary group harassed Reinaldo Reinas, according to information published by local NGO Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz.
They say they are guilty of no more than defending their rights to their land and environment. Poligrow currently has 17,000 hectares of oil palms planted in the area in Colombia's central plains known as the Altillanura. It has been a key player in driving production in the country and wants to double the size of its plantation and build a new large processing plant.
However these expansion plans have been mired in controversy as those opposed to the company's operations say it is developing land from which people were forcibly displaced and is using paramilitaries to threaten anyone speaking out.Las Toninas, an oxbow lake near Mapiripán formed from the Guaviare River, is considered sacred by local people and is home to pink Amazon river dolphins (Inia geoffrensis). Conservationists are worried about a proposed palm oil extraction facility that is to be built near the lake. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency.
Recently, Colombia's government and FARC rebels took another step towards ending the country's decades-long civil conflict by reaching an agreement on reparations and justice for victims.
However with more than 220,000 people killed and a further six million displaced since 1964, the violence has left a far more deep-seated effect and enduring legacy on land issues in the country.
A report released at the beginning of November by the Dutch NGO Somo, co-authored with Colombian group Indepaz, estimates that more than eight million hectares of land have been abandoned or removed from small-scale farmers or from afro-descendant and indigenous communities, such as the Sikuani in Meta.
"Large-scale economic projects such as the production of palm oil, that legalise forced displacement and have consolidated an unequal, discriminatory, exclusive and undemocratic rural economic model contribute to the fragility," the report states.
Both Altillanura and Mapiripán have been high conflict-level areas. Altillanura is particularly sensitive due to its long history of FARC presence, and associations with drug trafficking, paramilitaries and criminal gang activity. Type Mapiripan into a search engine and the first auto-prompt that appears is usually "massacre," referring to the killing of an estimated 30 civilians in July 1997 by the outlawed right-wing paramilitary group United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUD).
For those who are speaking out, the risks are more than clear. United Nations figures published last month show 729 human rights defenders have been murdered in Colombia since 1994 – an average of 33 a year. Data for the first part of 2015 shows murder rates well above that average, with a 105 percent increase over the same period in 2014. The vast majority of crimes go unprosecuted.
William Aljure very much fears becoming another statistic on that list, but continues to speak about the treatment of him and other community members at the hands of forces he says are controlled by Poligrow.
A farmer and environmental land activist, he says he has been consistently threatened, most recently in November this year. He was forcibly removed from his land, an area that is known as Finca Santa Ana, but has refused to remain silent spreading the messages of Poligrow's injustices to the U.S. and beyond.
In August 2015, a paramilitary leader from the group Bloque Meta, Edgar Pérez, better known as "Tomate," stated it would be necessary to kill Aljure because he was "tarnishing the image of the palm oil business," as quoted in an Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report.
Since the 2003 paramilitary demobilization in Colombia, groups are referred to by a number of different names – but the methods remain the same.
"Poligrow is in possession of 70,000 hectares on Santa Ana. The succession of lands to the Aljures has not been completed," Aljure told Mongabay. "I want them to turn over to us what the judge ruled was ours in the 1990s.
"My question is: Why is the company not legally pursuing a case against me and instead sending paramilitaries? Poligrow has not been conciliatory, not at any point. Publicly the business has said it has nothing to do with Santa Ana and there are no legal problems, but on Santa Ana we see Poligrow administrators … and I have seen paramilitaries [in the area]."One of Poligrow's established Madondo plantations near Mapiripán. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency.
Poligrow denies any link with armed groups and refutes its critics. Representatives say that because the company has invested the better part of $45 million in the project, it is bringing much-needed jobs and development to the Meta region.
The company did not respond to Mongabay queries, but in an interview with the Washington Post in 2014 the director, Carlos Vigna said he had purposefully tried to select a site without too questionable a past when the project was established in 2008.
He acknowledged the Meta region posed risks but described it as a chance to break from the past and declared Mapiripan "the new agricultural frontier of Colombia."
Poligrow says it has instituted numerous initiatives associated with their operations including hiring and training local workers, providing childcare and helping to restore native forests.
Vigna has also pointed out that no Colombian companies were prepared to take a chance on investing in the area when his company did so in 2009, and that land values and jobs in Mapiripán have skyrocketed since then.
In recent months the company has embarked on a public relations offensive under the slogan "Yo soy Poligrow" ("I am Poligrow") where it released videos and collected signatures from residents saying they did not want the company to leave – it has even dubbed the town Mapiripaz ("paz" is Spanish for "peace").Poligrow's main office in Mapiripán. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency.
But observers say that right now it is impossible to gauge whether such public sentiments of support are genuine.
"It's very difficult for us to monitor what's really happening in Mapiripán, because at the moment it's too dangerous to go there," Karilijn Kuipers, a co-author of the Somo and Indepaz report told Mongabay. "But what we hear is that many local people and leaders have become afraid to speak out against Poligrow, also the people who expressed their concerns about the company before."
She says however there are signs the pressure is increasing on the company.
"We have received two letters from lawyers of the Italian investor Tito Tettamanti and his company Sterling Strategic Value Limited, saying that Tettamanti and Sterling are no longer related to Poligrow and therefore asking us to take his name out of our report."
William Aljure says: "We know there is paramilitary activity in Mapiripán. We all know who they are, the police know. When the paramilitaries' cars enter Mapiripán the police and military do not check those cars."
A report published by the state comptroller in 2014 cited "irregularities" in Poligrow's land acquisition and in the past officials have said that it is too dangerous to go into rural areas near the site.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry watchdog, also decided in October to formally investigate Poligrow's operations following a complaint from EIA and the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz. It is the first time the body has upheld a complaint regarding a member's operations in Colombia. The company has been a member of the body since 2009 but its palm oil is yet to be certified.
In deciding to investigate allegations made in a video released by the two groups in August, the authority said that several of its criteria appeared to have been breached including proving that the land was uncontested by local groups claiming customary territorial rights, that rare or endangered species present have been identified and that the operations do not affect the availability of surface and ground water.
In the latter regard, the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, which works closely with the indigenous Sikuani community, has claimed the Poligrow project damages moriche tree groves (known locally as morichales) that conserve and distribute water in the area. They say replacing moriche groves with oil palm monocultures will exacerbate this problem.Morichal trees are native around Mapiripán and play an important role in conserving and distributing water. Critics of palm oil expansion in the region say that plantation development will displace these trees, threatening water reserves. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency.
But whether all the evidence and criticism will sway Poligrow is unclear.
For William Aljure, the primary concern at the moment is his own safety. He and his family are in a state of permanent displacement, given it is too dangerous for them to return to their home. He currently has a level of protection provided by the Colombian government that earlier this year he requested be elevated following threats made against his person.
The committee responsible for security, the National Protection Unit, determined his case was "extraordinary" but did not agree to elevate his security. NGOs say this leaves him vulnerable to assassination.
"Indigenous communities in Meta have long claimed their territory," Aljure says. "In response they have been threatened. Currently, paramilitaries are threatening them because they are claiming land and within that land are plots that Poligrow is operating on.
"My situation is typical. Violence in Colombia has always been about land. The government does not kick us off the land, instead they send famous multinational companies."
Those driving Colombia's palm oil boom, including the national growers association, Fedepalma, claim there is more than enough suitable land in the Altillanura and the country as a whole to expand sustainable production and bring economic growth and jobs in its wake.
But the example of Poligrow in Mapiripán shows that Colombia's violent and complicated past may not be so easy to leave behind.
Disclaimer: The author worked briefly as a public relations contractor for Greenpeace while writing this story. However, Greenpeace had no function in its development.Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis on January 5, 2016.