Paramilitaries and Palm Plantations: A Murderous Combination in Colombia

By Kari Lydersen
Infoshop News (news.infoshop.org)
December 26, 2005

As "Jorge,” a Colombian human rights lawyer, and “Ernesto,” a Colombian
campesino from the Choco department near the Panamanian border, made
their way through Ernesto’s small town on Oct. 15, they knew they were
in trouble. As they passed the town’s Parque Principal, they saw about
50 police and known paramilitary members gathered there. They had little
doubt the group had assembled to meet them, since their contingent of
Colombian activists and international human rights observers had been
stopped and interrogated by police earlier in the day as they returned
from the US Embassy in Bogota.

Jorge and Ernesto, who asked th at their real names not be used for
security reasons, recently visited Chicago to talk about the ongoing use
of paramilitary and government forces to intimidate and displace
campesinos and indigenous people.

The group had visited the US embassy seeking a visa for Afro-Colombian
activist and farmer Orlando Valencia to speak at a peace conference in
Chicago. Valencia and Ernesto are active in a struggle to reclaim land
that Afro-Colombian peasants were forced to sell by paramilitaries in
the mid-1990s. Most of the land was turned into an African palm
plantation run by the company Urapalma and its subsidiaries. In the
following years, both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and
Colombian government agencies supported the campesinos’ right to reclaim
their land, but so far only small parcels have been returned to them and
soldiers and guards still prevent the campesinos from accessing their land.

Valencia’s visa was denied for the second time during their visit to the
embassy. So the group got on the road for the day-long trip back to
their remote community. Police in the Belen de Bajira community stopped
them around noon, showing extreme interest in Valencia and refusing
Jorge’s demand that he have access to a lawyer while being interrogated.
A known paramilitary member named Diomedes was at the station during the
interrogation; even though right-wing paramilitaries are officially
being disbanded in Colombia, their presence is still ubiquitous and they
enjoy a cozy relationship with police and military forces.

“I said I’m his lawyer, if you’re going to interrogate him I have to be
there,” said Jorge, who works for the Comision Intereclesial de Justicia
y Paz, a human rights law organization. “But in the police station
there’s no law, no constitution, no rights.”

The group of about 12 Colombians and international observers made their
way to Ernesto’s house. As they were about to enter they were accosted
by paramilitaries on motorcycles, who demanded they turn Valencia over
to them or he would be shot on the spot.

“After the kidnapping we tried to make phone calls from the park but
police wouldn’t let us,” said Jorge.

They took refuge in a priest’s house about 20 meters away. During the
whole incident Jorge said the local police commander was present, in
civilian clothes. Later he returned in uniform and the area was
cordoned off.

“He was saying who was kidnapped, what’s going on here?” said Jorge,
noting that the commander knew full well what had happened and had
probably participated in the planning. “Then he left laughing with his
agents.”

Jorge said the paramilitary member who kidnapped Valencia, “El Cholo,”
lives in the town and is well known.

“He spent the whole day in the park. He is responsible for more
assassinations than anyone else in this region – he’s a known assassin –
but he lives in the town.”

Less than two weeks later, Valencia’s body was found. No one was
surprised; kidnapping by paramilitaries is usually a death sentence.
Jorge said that during the interrogation police had accused Valencia of
being a sympathizer with the leftist FARC (Fuerzas Armadas
Revolucionarios de Colombia) guerrillas. But he was actually part of a
neutral peace community in the town of Jiguamiando. Likewise Ernesto and
others in the area don’t want to ally with either side in the country’s
ongoing bloody civil war. Two of Ernesto’s sons have been assassinated,
one by paramilitaries and one by the FARC.

Though the government of president Alvaro Uribe has officially been
demobilizing paramilitary groups over the past few years, in reality
they ar e still active and enjoy impunity for frequent kidnappings and
assassinations. Jorge explains that many paramilitary members are
official or de facto employees of Urapalma, a major Colombian company,
and the other outfits planting African palm for palm oil export on the
campesinos’ land.

“In Dec 1996 they started a big military and paramilitary operation
there,” said Jorge. “Since 1997, 111 have been killed, four by the FARC
and the rest by military and paramilitaries.”

Campesinos like Ernesto were forced to sell their land at below-market
prices under thr eats from paramilitary members. Then, according to
Jorge, Urapalma declared title to 30,000 hectares and planted 8,000
hectares with African palms. To facilitate the palm plantation, they
deforested much of the land and drained its rivers and wetlands with a
system of canals.

“The palm farms are a major way for paramilitaries to launder money from
narco-trafficking,” said Jorge. “In the whole country, four million
hectares of land have been acquired in this way and used for
mono-industries like cacao and palm that are ecologically destructive
and used for narco money laundering.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights affirmed the
Afro-Colombians’ right to return to their land, citing international
land protections for indigenous people, and the Colombian government
ruled that the land sales had been illegally conducted. In 2002 and 2003
campesinos started returning to their land, but it had been largely
deforested, planted with African palm and drained by the canals.
Military guards also control entrance to the palm plantation, and don’t
allow campesinos in even though they have been awarded title to the land
by the government.

Currently, over 2,125 people have been displaced from the area; and
about 600 have returned t o live in several “humanitarian zones” inside
the plantation. Ernesto lives in a small house near the plantation. He
has been given access to a small portion of his original land, and is
still fighting to get the rest of his land back and to be able to farm
bananas, yucca and other small crops without fear.

Ernesto said that when Urapalma representatives originally tried to buy
his land about five years ago, “I said I won’t sell.”

So they obtained his land through force.

“They asked which was my farm,” Ernesto said. “I showed them. Eight or
10 days later paramilitaries came. I wasn’t there; I had left on Friday.
When I returned on Monday there were threats painted on the house. They
had robbed everything, there was nothing left.”

He wrote down the threats painted on the house and showed them to a
local army commander. He said that for a whole month paramilitaries kept
his house under watch and prevented him from leaving the premises. When
he managed to get back to his land, he found they had cleared his land
of forest, which had coexisted with his crops, and planted palm.

“They cut down all the trees on my finca (small farm),” he said.

He complained to the local captain of the military’s 17th brigade, Paul
Xelino LaTorre Gamboa. The captain called a Urapalma supervisor, Javier
Jose Daza Pret, and brokered a deal to give Ernesto a little bit of land
back. The military captain signed the deal as a witness. They also
promised Ernesto money, which never materialized. Jorge said the
involvement of the military official in the land deal is an example of
the tight ties between companies like Urapalma, paramilitary groups and
the military.

“A government official shouldn’t participate in private negotiations
like this,” he said. “It’s like a North American general selling part of
a national park, something that isn’t his.”

Urapalma’s projects are being financed both by the Colombian government
through its FINAGRO agricultural subsidies program and by US AID money
meant for development and alternatives to coca production. US AID’s
annual report describes subsidies through the Colombia Agribusiness
Partnership Program (CAPP) for fiscal year 2004, wherein Urapalma is
planting 1, 720 hectares, slated to “benefit” 200 families. The report
says US AID donated $700,000 through the CAPP program that year and
lists continued financing of Urapalma under “new probable signed
agreements” for the coming year.

Critics say this is emblematic of the way the US-financed drug war is
being carried out in Colombia, essentially providing aid to large
companies and paramilitary groups under the guise of eradicating coca
and stimulating rural development.

“It’s very ironic that North American money is going to finance
terrorist groups in Colombia,” Jorge said. “North Americans are
financing violations of human rights and the building of paramilitary
groups that are supposed to be disarming. The US government is
cooperating with the cultivation of palm as an ‘alternative’ to illicit
production (coca); but in Colombia, African palm is a way for
paramilitary groups to launder money, to normalize their business. The
Colombian government is allowing this and the US is supporting it at a
great social and ecological cost.”

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Kari Lydersen is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the
Washington Post, In These Times, LiP Magazine, Clamor, and The New Standard.

Additional articles by Kari Lydersen at Infoshop News:

* Katrina's Environmental Devastation Adds to a Legacy of Environmental
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 http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=20051017081945776

* Don't Eat That Fish! More Mercury Will be the Legacy of New
Coal-Burning Plants
 http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=20050922095709940

* Profile on Conscientious Objector Camilo Mejia
 http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=20050819093845571

* TeleSur Takes to the Airwaves
 http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=20050805124307140

* Vets, Students Standing Up Against Recruiters
 http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=20050524080704241

* “Behind Closed Doors:” Bringing Sex Workers’ Struggles into the Open
 http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=2005050907465576

* Immigrant Activist Deported from Canada
 http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=20050425080159912

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