Colombia – Palm Oil and the consequences of development

Colombia – Palm Oil and the consequences of development

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April 20, 2007

Here’s a story about the Palm Oil Industry in Colombia, as recalled by Ian Lander who attended a meeting with a member of Organizacion Nacional Indigena De Colombia (ONIC) which represents those living in the Choco and Amazonas regions of Colombia…

From – Colombia has endured civil violence and murder for over 25 years. The paramilitaries claim to force guerrillas out of rainforests when it is clear the land is owned by the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, who have title to the land.

We were told of one case where paramilitaries displaced 25,000 people and stole from them, 30,000 hectares of land. This land was cleared and African palm plantations were sown as the paramilitary said it was not collective property. The international community challenged this and ordered the companies to return the land to the rightful owners. This was ignored. In the last 20 years, more than 3 million people have been displaced. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian people are killed by the government, paramilitaries and guerrillas.

The African palm plantations force the displaced communities to become associates of the palm oil companies. The workers are paid in vouchers which can only be exchanged for goods in the company shop, where items can be double the price of normal outlets. The price of sugar has gone up because of land use changes. If workers speak out they are assassinated. The corporations involved in the biofuel industry say they have nothing to do with human rights.

[Currently] the government is planning to develop 12 million hectares, mostly in Choco and Amazonas. The government is planning to destroy 12 million hectares of rainforest as it is not deemed to have any productive value. We were told that when this happened, the forests would no longer be the lungs of the earth. This is despite Colombia having international obligations in terms of forest protection. This destruction represents another way for the rich families of Colombia (who possess most of the wealth of the nation) to get more land….

We were told that every plant (this might have been tree) that grows to 50cm or higher belongs to the state. Therefore companies don’t need a licence to chop the trees down. The state can hand over forests to logging companies or plantation owners who can use the land as collateral for loans to carry out their business plan for the forest.

The government says that this state of affairs only applies to empty unpopulated forests. We were told that this was a lie as all forests are populated by Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The government pretends that deforestation and African palms are unconnected. 6 million hectares of rainforest have already been destroyed for African palm plantations, rubber plantations, or used to rear cattle. The majority of the land is for African palm and the majority of palm oil will be used for biodiesel. Paramilitaries have taken the land by force from the local communities.

In Colombia if you had lived on some land for twenty years, it was your land. When President Aribi was elected, he changed this law to ten years. So when the indigenous and Afro-Colombian people were displaced from their land in Choco in 1996, in 2006 the paramilitary owned it. The government is proposing to lower this period to five years. We were told that this was legalisation of robbery and that the paramilitaries are financed by palm oil and cocoa. That is why the indigenous people have an integrated understanding and vision of this problem.

We heard a description of how the indigenous people recognise the sickness that mother earth is suffering and we all need to recognise how we can ensure its survival. Developed countries who value the forests should pay to protect them. Reference was made to work Survival International have done with an indigenous tribe in the North of the country. This tribe says that their people’s laws are based on systems of permanence, an idea of forever, based upon the water, the land and the living beings that inhabit it. This is the perspective from which they use the natural resources; whereas the younger brother’s laws are based on systems of constant change.

So our call to you is to see this as part of an international whole. It’s not a problem for one country, but of the global community because the impact of climate change, affects not just the people in Colombia, but all over the world. It is clear that without solidarity there will not be a change in Colombia. We need a globalised solidarity, that’s the only way left to us. (source)

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