Colombia: Ecocide for Fuel

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The expansion of agrofuel mono-cultures, mainly for biodiesel, is threatening the lives, livelihoods and lands of Afro-Colombian and peasant communities and indigenous people

by Almuth Ernsting,

Below is a new email alert against human rights abuses and deforestation in Colombia which are linked to palm oil, much of it now grown for biofuels.

This email alert is supported by the the Colombian Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights organisation which has been supporting communities in Curvarado and Jiguamindo. It calls on the Colombian government to

  • protect the human rights of indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant communities affected by large-scale monoculture plantations;
  • immediately restitute the ancestral land to Afro-Colombian communities and indigenous people affected by monoculture plantations, such as the Curvaradó Afro-Colombian communities affected by palm tree plantations and call on the Government to implement the 169 Convention of the International Labor Organisation and the Order of Provisional Measures of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in favour of the `humanitarian refuge’ zones of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó;
  • stop further deforestation and exploitation of large-scale palm tree plantations in the Curvaradó river basin and elsewhere in Colombia;
  • guarantee the reparation of human and environmental damages generated by the imposition of large-scale monocultures and human rights violations by State Forces;
  • recognise and respect local civilian initiatives aimed at protecting the environment, such as the recent creation of Biodiversity Zones;
  • review Colombia’s biofuel policy and the impacts of large-scale monocultures in general on communities, human rights and the environment, including the impacts of rainforest destruction on climate change, and impose an immediate moratorium on biofuel developments from large-scale monocultures, including from oil palms.

For a full background, see: Please forward this alert widely. Thanks.

Action Alert:
Protest Destruction of Colombian Rainforests and Murder to Feed Automobiles

It is gravely unethical and ecologically devastating to expand production of biofuels at the expense of ancient primary rainforests, biodiverse grasslands, local communities and their food sovereignty.The Colombian government is embarking on a massive expansion of oil palms, sugar cane and other monocultures for agrofuels and other markets at the expense of rainforests, biodiverse grasslands and local communities. Sugar cane monocultures are being expanded in the Cauca Valley, whilst hundreds of thousands of hectares are being turned into oil palm plantations in the Pacific region, the eastern plains and the Caribbean region.Palm oil expansion is linked to large-scale rainforest destruction and to serious violence and human rights abuses. NGOs have documented 113 killings in the river basin of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, in Chocó region at the hands of paramilitaries who are working with plantation companies to take over land which legally belongs to Afro-Colombian communities. The paramilitary groups operate with the support of the 17th Colombian Army Brigade.

Following a campaign of violence, forced displacements and massacres since 1996, Afro-Colombian and other peasant communities have recently returned to their land, but have found much of it planted with oil palms, even though the communities hold legal land titles. They have received repeated death threats from paramilitaries. So far, the government has done nothing to protect the communities and their land rights.

The expansion of agrofuel mono-cultures, mainly for biodiesel, is threatening the lives, livelihoods and lands of Afro-Colombian and peasant communities and indigenous people, not just in Chocó, but elsewhere, including in Tumaco, Magdalena Medio, Vichada, Meta and the Amazon regions. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, 200,000 people are displaced every year in Colombia, totalling some 4 million over the past 20 years – the second highest rate of displacement in the world – with land expropriation in excess of 6 million hectares. The root cause of many forced displacements relates to land issues including the drive to expand monocultures and other agro-business.

The Chocó forests which are being destroyed by palm oil expansion are some of the largest remaining coastal lowland rainforests in the world and are amongst the most biodiverse forests on Earth. They are home to 7,000 to 8,000 species, including 2,000 endemic plant species and 100 endemic bird species. Even before the current palm oil and agrofuel expansion, 66% had been destroyed.

Please write to the Colombian government and ask them to protect the rights of indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant communities affected by large-scale monoculture plantations, to stop further deforestation for oil palm plantations, impose a moratorium on further palm oil expansion and on the country’s biofuel programme, which is a major cause of monoculture expansion, and to protect the land rights, the food sovereignty and the environment on which local communities depend.

This email alert is supported by the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz) in Colombia, a human rights organisation which has been actively supporting local communities in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó.

1 Comment

  • Dear Climate and Capitalism staff, I submit to your consideration this article. Please, feel free to use it according to your convenience.
    Fernando Márquez

    Oil palm: not a silver bullet against global warming
    A recent report from Colombian oil palm growers points out their interest in certifying by means of a distinctive stamp, the environmental quality of crops and products, such as oil and biofuels that they export to the European Union. The announcement took place after the publishing of an article on The New York Times (January the 15th of 2008) announcing a possible ban on the import of these products due to the environmental damage they produce.
    Several studies have discredited what, according to biofuel producers, are the environmental earnings derived from their usage, as the supposed reduction of greenhouse gas emission due to the reduction on fossil fuel usage. The growing of cereals –as the article keeps on– for transforming them into biofuels can lead to a considerable environmental damage. Not only because of the chopping down of native vegetation to plant grains instead, but also for the usage of fossil fuels as diesel in tractors used to harvest them. Moreover, these crops demand nitrogen fertilizers which involve mainly natural gas and huge quantities of water for their production.
    Already, the deforestation and drying out of peatlands, -ecosystems formed by the accumulation of organic matter from plants with an increased moisture retaining capacity- in Southeastern Asia, mainly to grow palm, accounts for up to 8% of the global annual carbon dioxide emissions, said Adrián Bebb, member of the “Friends of the Earth” environmental group.
    In Indonesia, according to The New York Times’ report, more than 18 million hectares of forest, or 44 million acres, have already been cleared for palm oil developments. Environmental groups say these developments are endangering wildlife species as the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger, besides placing enormous pressure on indigenous communities whose survival depend on the sustainability of the forest.
    The Real Society, a British scientific academy, declared that requirements for using a certain biofuel percentage are not enough and that instead, specific goals should be traced for reducing fossil fuel emissions.
    According to the National Federation of Biofuels, the reason of the ban emerges from the old rivalry between soya growers, especially from the United States, and palm growers from developing countries, as the Asians, African and Latin Americans, who have begun influencing the global biofuels market.
    For “Fedecombustibles”, a Colombian biofuels federation, there is no reason to be alarm since Colombia is prepared for these kind of situations and even seems be a step ahead of the new provision that might be imposed by the European Union”. The Federation also acknowledges that such measure goes against practices used in Indonesia for enlarging cultivated area with oil palm, which extended from 2.5 to 6 million hectares in just ten years (1995-2004), a process resulting in forest destruction, high carbon dioxide emission and rural population’s displacement.”

    Although a great variety of stamps and certifications exist, they offer only a partial guarantee; none of them certifies that oil palm products imported and consumed in Europe fulfill the international standards guaranteeing the fundamental rights of those working or inhabiting production areas. None guarantees that land for palm oil cultivation has been acquired rightfully, so putting a stamp on their products will merely be a decoration that will not remedy the social and environmental burden derived from oil palm intensive cultivation, unless all, governments, growers, processors and buyers really work together towards this target.
    During the second semester of 2007, the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture ordered the restitution of a 18000 hectares farm to the peasant communities in the oriental plains of the country, communities that are being expelled from them by illegal armed groups. It is not hard to believe that these lands, already sowed with palm, will have to be sold at ridiculous prices to whoever is currently occupying them unless its owners, peasants, are able to pay large sums of money for the improvements done, “sale” that will “legalize” the holding of those lands.
    Added to the environmental questioning and communities displacement resulting from the intensive cultivation of oil palm, there is a much more serious issue: the impact on the right to food of a large number of people, which has arisen recent and strong pronouncements from specialists and organizations, among them Jean Ziegler, the United Nations special Rapporteur on the Right for enough and healthy Food.
    We cannot forget that 854 million humans suffer from serious malnutrition around the world, every 5 seconds a child aged less than 10 dies from hunger and every 4 minutes someone goes blind due vitamin A deficiency.
    The CBC, (Coordination Belge pour the Colombie) together with the HREV (Human Rights Everywhere) hired a study entitled “The flow of palm oil Colombia-Bélgica/Europa: A study from a human rights perspective” by Fidel Mingorance, which contains a detailed analysis on the implications of biofuels production in Colombia. Due to their relevance, some paragraphs have been transcribed literally from this document.
    This publication, directed to Belgian audience, unveil commercial practices related with biofuels’ production, not widely well-known but with a strong influence on populations and lands that are seek to improve by growing oil palm. This shows how responsibility does not only lay on the Colombian government and growers, but also on European buyers ignoring the death, destruction and displacement sequels emerging from oil palm developments and production in our country. This is the real reason behind prohibiting and demanding a quality stamp, a late act of contrition from those promoting and financing these developments in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
    Colombia exports mainly raw oil, which accounted for 71% of overall exports in 2005, since its refining is cheaper in Europe than in Colombia. Refining a ton in Colombia will cost US$60 while the cost in Europe will be a bit lower than 40 dollars.
    “In Colombia, government promoters of an agroindustrial model of large developments, marketing areas, and publicity of the big palm companies affirm that with the palm oil, everybody wins. Win the State finances, win the managers and wins the whole society, since, they explain, the cultivation brings great social benefits, the peace and the national development, besides benefitting the health of the final consumers and the climate of the planet.”
    In July of 2005 the former Prime first minister of Malaysia, Mahathir bin Mohamad, came to Colombia. In 1981, he found, according to the former Colombian Ambassador Sergio Naranjo, a nation whipped by the drug traffic and the guerrilla, with small rates of growth and a poverty index of 50%. And by the end of 2003, upon concluding his term, the poverty index was of 6%, with export rates of $127 thousand million dollars and growth rates 7% above rates over the past years.”
    Ambassador Naranjo highlighted the relevance of learning from Malaysia on how they ended up with the guerrilla through authority and discipline by applying a strategy that involved implementing 5 thousand plantation hectares with 500 families in guerrilla’s high pressure areas. These families had farmed the land, registered revenues and enjoyed from economic and social development, which has moved them to fight together with the institutions to defeat the guerrillas”. Almost 3 years later, neither the guerrilla has been eliminated, neither peasants have become rich and the peace remains an illusion.
    According to the ex-ambassador, Biodiesel production acquires strategic importance for Colombia due to the peace processes, culture substitution and social reinsertion processes to future.”
    For his part, President Álvaro Uribe said he considers “it is very important to establish a council, a group of the Colombian and Malaysian business communities, to further strengthen up these bonds”. And he added that Colombia and Malaysia agree in most of their priorities, amongst which reaching high development levels in the rural areas is included.
    Likewise, Uribe reminded that investment possibilities in our country agriculturally speaking are very important for both nations, as for example oil palm cultivation. “You, -Mahathir bin Mohamad – explained us, for example, that your country has a million sowed hectares with oil palm, and may not have more lands for extending these plantations. Colombia has near 300 thousand sowed hectares, but it is a country full of opportunities. If you see this country as a whole, you can perfectly see that there are huge possibilities of sowing six million hectares more with oil palm”, accentuated the President.
    We have 6 million hectares available for sowing, “without having to cut a single tree or a cultivated hectare”, said also the Minister of Agriculture Felipe Arias. If the 300.000 hectares nowadays cultivated have caused the amount of murders and displacements which urged the European demand and linking of an important number of palm managers to judicial processes, is not hard to conceive the ferocious competition that would unloosed for property of over 3.5 million more fertile hectares, where there is no need to invest much in adaptation, infrastructure, pipelines, drainage, fertilizers, etc., and for the 2.5 less profitable million hectares, besides the soil deterioration, water contamination and massive dislodgment of peasants that the extensive sowing dreamed by the President and his friends would cause.
    The Malaysian perspective, is not as flattering as they say. The devastating effects of oil palm’s intensive cultivation in this country are well-known today; the agricultural diversity and water quality have diminished as consequence of the extended use of fertilizers, pesticides and machinery. Oil palm’s intensive cultivation is responsible for 87% of deforestation taking place between 1985 and 2000 in that country, thus transforming the “green dream” in a true environmental nightmare.
    Carlos Murgas Guerrero, ex-minister of Agriculture and President Pastrana’s advisory, inspired by his official visit to Malaysia, was the one introduced the Malayan model strategic alliances nowadays applied in Colombia, model for whose results the European Union is now embarrassed.
    “This pattern can be generalized in a 5 phases sketch:
    1. Attack or paramilitary conquest.
    2. Illegal appropriation of lands. Steal or buy by means of armed intimidation.
    3. Palm field.
    4. Oil palm development complex = Plantations + Processing machinery.
    5a. Oil flow towards national and/or international markets.
    5b. Territorial domain.
    This is a resume of the different processes that are being developed in oil palm areas around the country, but is entirely applicable in particular to the new plantations that are developing during the present decade(1 out of 5).
    In previous processes, as those in Santander or Tumaco, the pattern had begun with already established palm complexes, where palm managers were the ones who conformed or invited and financed paramilitary groups as private security bodies to fight against guerrillas. Instead, in Casanare, palm plantations expanded at the same rhythm as paramilitary actions, both expansions being overlapped. The ones perfectly adjusting to the pattern are plantations in Chocó, where paramilitary were the ones inviting palm managers to settle down in those areas under their control”
    Regarding this, Carlos Daniel Merlano, one of the farmers linked to the process, declared in an interview granted to EL ESPECTADOR that: “By the end of 90’s, armed confrontations between the FARC and the illegal paramilitary group “Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia”, AUC, turned the area into a battle field which generated displacement. Precisely in that area, palm farmers arrived and brought community together. Their only concern has been transforming this region into a prosperous place through oil palm and its final product, the Biodiesel. The Constitutional Court repealed the law 1021 of 2006 on Forestry Incentives, arguing that timber areas and palm farm communities were not aware of its scopes.
    On the other hand, late yield crops as the oil palm, require a considerable initial investment for their preparation and maintenance for the first four or five years, time during which they are unproductive. “The peasants don’t usually have enough financial resources as to maintain themselves until the first harvest arrives. Nevertheless, the number of small peasants has increased during the last years as expenses for these first years are now being covered by state resources, which means that they become debtors and should enrolled, with no other alternative, to productive alliances with the big companies, which thus get a captive market.
    Within such big companies we can find, among many others, Unilever, Cargill, HJ Heinz, Nestlé, Colgate Palmolive, L’Oreal, Avon, Max Factor, etc, besides numerous companies with interests in the chocolates, foods, chemicals, fertilizers and agricultural supplies, fuels market, banks and financial services”. Practically the whole industry has been touched by the oil palm market.
    The law 1133 of 2007, article third, first paragraph, states verbatium as follows: “For all, it must be understood that direct financial support or incentives are selectively and temporarily delivered, within the exercise of a public policy, being under the national government’s power, to objectively select the area that will benefit from the direct financial support or incentive and the value thereof, as well as to determine within these, the requirements and conditions to be met by those aspiring to become beneficiaries”.
    The financial support or incentives mentioned by the law 1133 add up to 900 thousand million pesos within 2007 and 2008, adjusted as minimum by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for each term”, which means, around a billion pesos designated to the implementation of the Agriculture Sure Income program (AIS: for its acronym in Spanish), (around 500 million dollars) a quite attractive number for those interested in promoting the productivity and competitiveness, reducing inequality and getting the agricultural sector ready for facing the challenge of economic globalization” stated as this law’s purpose, but hardly within the reach of common peasants or the displaced afrocolombian population”.
    The good intentions manifested by the President, the Ministers and palm managers, has ended up in a chain of events that is now holding “against the wall” a considerable number of palm managers, 23 who are being accused by the General Attorney’s Office of usurping lands helped by the illegal armed groups operating in the area.
    “At the discretion of the investigating body, these actions have resulted in criminal behaviors such as conspiracy to commit a crime and forced displacement. With an aggravating factor: the Prosecution investigates how, in some cases, public and private documents were adulterated to acquire ownership of land. Similarly, investigators found that the promoters of the oil palm’s agrobusiness project in the Chocoan Urabá also ignored environmental regulations in effect, perturbating the ecological system of the rivers Curvaradó and Jiguamiando”
    “The controversial paramilitary demobilization process and the non-less controversial ‘Justice and Peace Law’ has added another important factor at this stage of the palm pattern. In some of the reinsertion projects, it is intended for demobilized people to work in palm plantations as economic integration that will take them out the war. Sometimes, it is proposed not only that victims and victimizers work together “for the sake of reconciliation”, but, in some cases, the victims have to work as employees at the farms that were once theirs but that were violently stolen by the same paramilitaries now reinserted. ”
    “The demobilization process involves an injection of public money for the development of new palm plantations in areas of strong paramilitary presence. Through productive projects as “Families Rangers” or programs mostly funded by the USAID23 agency linked to the demobilization or replacement of illicit crops, they are expanding oil palm plantations in Santander, Magdalena, Bolivar, La Guajira, Nevada, Cesar, Nariño, Atlantic, Norte de Santander, Cordoba, Antioquia and Choco.”
    Neither crops for biofuel production or these are bad by themselves, but for the conditions under which they developed, the legal-politic-paramilitary actions undertaken to appropriate land, the displacement of peasants, the competition between fuel and food sharpening to inconceivable hedges the lack of food for millions of people, the environment lies upon which profitable business are justify and impose that will end up enriching a few while extinguishing native forest and wild life from those “benefited countries”
    From our ability to fully understand all kinds of impacts from the biofuel’s boom we are living nowadays, depends that we can take full advantage of its benefitial while mitigating and controlling the negative impact that its production and combustion have. Oil palm: not a silver bullet against global warming
    1. Farmers rejects possible ban of UE
    2. Europe May Ban Imports of Some Biofuel Crops
    3. The dossier of the farmers
    4. the flow of the palm oil Colombia-Bélgica/Europa
    5. Former first Minister from Malaysia visits Colombia
    6. President Uribe proposes managerial commission of Colombia and Malaysia

    C. Fernando Márquez M.
    Colombian Society of Automobile Drivers