To stand in the heart of an oil palm plantation in Colombia is to begin to understand the meaning of an industry-proclaimed “environmentalism” that doesn’t take social justice or true sustainability into account. At least that’s how I felt when I visited the Chocó region in the summer of 2007 and traveled into sweeping expanses planted with this “biofuel” crop. For miles around, everything looks green. But for miles around, land that once was lush rainforest and small farms is now rendered arid by the monocrop and stinking of pesticides; and few things, not birds nor animals – nor indeed, small farmers – can live for long.
One such “green desert” of oil palm displaced Eustaquio Polo Rivera, a Chocó farmer who became an organizer after the theft of his community’s land. Polo came to New England last April and spoke at the Food for Maine’s Future conference in Unity. His talk detailed his displacement and his community’s struggle for justice and food security. (See the June-August 2008 MOF&G .)
Polo’s story is not unique. International Peace Service (IPS), a Human Rights monitoring group based in Bogotá, has reported that 285,000 hectares of African oil palm trees now grow in Colombia (the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and Egypt). The IPS has also reported that President Álvaro Uribe, whose government has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere according to Human Rights Watch, plans to increase that number to one million hectares in the next four years. Palm oil is also a leading agricultural commodity worldwide, and the World Rainforest Movement has documented palm oil plantations – and the devastation they have caused – in Colombia as well as in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Ecuador, the Ivory Coast, the Congo, Papua New Guinea, Cameroon, Benin, Uganda and Nigeria.
Why is oil palm so appealing? The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that after a 2006 FDA regulation required companies to list the amount of trans-fat (understood to cause heart disease) on labels of food products, many processors switched to other oils that don’t contain trans-fat. Palm oil is one such alternative, and major producers such as Keebler, Oreo, Mrs. Fields and Pepperidge Farm use it in their cookies. Palm oil is found increasingly in crackers and cereals, and has long been used in cosmetics. Apart from its uses in food and makeup, and importantly in the context of a growing rhetoric about “greening” our economy, oil palm also produces a biofuel that has been hailed as a cleaner alternative to petroleum.
But these “green” palm plantations are built on stolen land, land that communities like those in Chocó and farmers like Polo once cultivated for sustenance crops. According to an April 2007 investigation by the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture, says IPS, “at least 25,000 hectares suitable for the cultivation of oil palms … were acquired by private interests through illegitimate land titles.” The investigation admits, too, that this illegal land acquisition has coincided with the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of small farmers at the hands of paramilitary formations working with U.S. funding funneled through the Colombian government.
Since Polo returned to Colombia last spring, the Colombian government has gestured toward its intent for justice for the displaced communities of the Chocó. But this gesture is for the most part empty.
In the fall, the international oil palm industry organized Latin America’s first “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.” In a cruel twist, industry leaders chose Colombia, perhaps the country that has shed the most blood for oil palm, as their location, and October 16, World Food Sovereignty Day, as their date. The meeting, as Colombian activist Raquel Nuñez has argued, amounted to an attempt on the part of oil palm companies to combat the negative publicity that has blossomed in recent years around the industry’s “green washing” of its bloody tactics.
Indeed, the meeting came on the heels of one more example of such tactics.
On October 14, paramilitaries shot and killed Chocó community leader Walberto Hoyos Rivas in broad daylight and in front of witnesses. Like Polo, Hoyos had openly denounced the palm companies’ theft of his community’s land and had spoken out for his right to live and farm in peace.
A little more than a month after the “Roundtable” and Hoyos’ death, a group of organizers who had sustained contact with Polo since his U.S. visit last year reported that they could no longer reach him; his cell phone, it seems, had been disconnected. In mid-March we were finally able to reach him, and learned that on November 24, he and the legal representative for the communities, Maria Ligia Chevarra, were forced from their homes by paramilitaries threatening them with death if they stayed. Months later, still fearing for their lives, Polo and Ligia and their families remain unable to return home.
On February 15 of this year, the Uribe government undertook partial steps to return the usurped territories in the Chocó. But it has returned only a fraction (just over 1,200 out of 21,000 hectares in the Chocó) of the stolen land. Additionally, community activists in the Chocó report that the paramilitary formations still move freely in the area, and the Colombian government has taken no steps to reverse the impunity implicitly granted to Hoyos’ murderers or the murderers of countless other small farmers, trade unionists and human rights organizers in Colombia.
Despite the Colombian government’s public relations gesture in returning a tiny part of what it stole, Polo’s struggle and the need for international solidarity in the struggle of all ordinary Colombians remain urgent. As North Americans, we can stand in solidarity with the fight against the proposed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which would only exacerbate deregulation and corporate control at the expense of human lives in Colombia. As consumers, we can try to use Fair Trade, organic fats and oils that come from suppliers whom we know.
For more on oil palm in Colombia, see “The Flow of Palm Oil, Colombia-Belgium/Europe, A study from a human rights perspective,” by Fidel Mingorance, Belgian Coordinating Group for Colombia, at
See what OXFAM has to say about the proposed FTA (press release on the US/Colombia Free Trade Agreement).
To get involved locally, see the Maine Fair Trade Campaign at: www.mainefairtrade.org.
About the author: Margaree Little was a MOFGA apprentice at Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner in 2007.