Palm Oil

Summer 2008

 Eustaquio Polo Rivera
Eustaquio Polo Rivera (shown here with interpreter Rocio Orantes) is vice president of the board of the Major Council, an organization of 21 communities that owns 42,700 hectares in the Curvaradó river basin in Chocó, Colombia.  He is an active leader in his community’s efforts to recuperate collectively titled lands that have been occupied since 1997 by multinational oil palm companies connected to Colombia’s paramilitary.

Palm oil is big business. Oil pressed from palm fruits is used for biofuel, foods, lubricants and other products. “The total output of palm oil equals that of all other nondrying oils combined,” according to The Columbia Encyclopedia (

Palm oil is, allegedly, big, bad business in parts of Colombia. Multinational companies that grow, process and sell the oil there are forcing peasant farmers off their lands through deceit, intimidation and even murder, according to Eustaquio Polo Rivera, a keynote speaker at the April 5, 2008, Food for Maine’s Future Local Foods Conference in Unity.

Molly Little, a former MOFGA apprentice and representative of Witness for Peace in Colombia, works with the Colombia Solidarity Network of Brown University and brought Polo to the Conference, with help from the American Friends Service Committee and the Center for Latin American Studies at Brown. Little explained that a 40-year-long civil war has been waged in Colombia between paramilitary groups that work closely with the Colombian government, and left-wing guerrillas who oppose the concentration of Colombian wealth among a few elite. The war has resulted in 4.2 million displaced people, the second largest displaced population internally in any country in the world (after Sudan). According to Amnesty International, said Little, 60% of these people have been displaced from resource-rich areas.

Colombia, continued Little, is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, receiving 5 to 6 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars since 2000, 80% spent on the military in a country with the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere.

The 39-year-old Polo is vice president of the board of the Major Council, an organization of 21 communities that owns 42,700 hectares in the Curvaradó river basin in Chocó, Colombia. He is an active leader in his community’s efforts to recuperate collectively titled lands that have been occupied since 1997 by multinational oil palm companies connected to Colombia’s paramilitary. He has been the target of death threats by palm oil companies, he said, as have the legal representative of Curvaradó’s Council, Ligia Maria Chaverra, and farmer Enrique Petro.

Polo said, through interpreter Rocio Orantes, that he lives in a part of Colombia populated by people who were brought to the country from Africa as slaves, as well as indigenous and mixed-raced people. All have shared cultures and farmed there for many years, growing their own food and raising bananas for export to the United States.

In October 1996, Genesis Operation, controlled by General Rito Alejo Del Rio in conjunction with a paramilitary group called A.U.C. [United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia], asked peasants in the area to move out – or others would come and kill them. After the paramilitaries killed six people, half the residents left. The rest resisted displacement – with some subsequently being mutilated and brutally murdered by the paramilitaries. Polo recounted the horrific murders of 113 people in his community.

In 1997, incursions by the military and paramilitary increased, and residents were told that they all had to leave because the area was going to be bombed to eliminate guerrillas. Most left.

In 2000, police collected signatures from paramilitaries and some peasants left in the area enabling the military to establish bases there – saying this would enable peasants to return to the land. “This was not the case,” said Polo. The signatures were used by big businesses to take the land and plant palm monocultures and to “prove” that the peasants had agreed to the monocultures.

In some cases, peasants were told to sell their land – “and if we didn’t want to sell to them,” said Polo, he and others were told that “our widows would sell, cheaper.

“In 2000, we realized that their goal was not to take the guerrilla out of our land, but to take our communities from us to implement the monoculture of palm oil, and for cattle ranches.” Over 7,000 hectares are now in palm trees, and about 20,000 more are in intensive cattle ranching.

Some community members who had fled to the mountains were able to return to Chocó, to “humanitarian zones” established by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Unfortunately, these are tiny plots in the middle of palm plantations, and peasants can’t access the agricultural land they need to survive because it’s planted with palm. When organizers denounced the crimes of the Colombian government and asked that their land be returned to them, several, including Polo and others whom he named, received death threats if they left the humanitarian zones.

“They said that we are from the guerrillas, when what we are is peasants with families.” One is a 68-year-old woman with nine children and 33 grandchildren. Polo himself, with nine children and two grandchildren under his care, said, “It’s impossible for us to be guerrilla commanders!”

He said that the Colombian government uses such strategies (calling dissidents guerrillas) in conjunction with paramilitary groups to avoid recognizing the damage done to the local populations and to avoid returning their land. “They are hurting our forests that were natural reserves in our territory; polluting our waters with chemicals that produce stomach illnesses and skin diseases; using chemicals to capture butterflies. This is why we…are not in accord with this monoculture in the Chocó departamento. This is the land of a lot of oxygen.

“We also want to testify to the government of the U.S. that even though the government of Colombia has said that they’ve given us our land back, it is false. The lands continue to be in the hands of businesspeople who took it away from us at the hand of a gun.”

Of the government’s claim that it demobilized the paramilitary groups, Polo says, “This is a lie.” The groups continue, legalized, as police inspectors called “Black Eagles” who “walk hand-in-hand with the police and the army.”

Polo’s group asks that the U.S. government not sign the FTA (Free Trade Agreement), because the peasants’ land is illegally in the hands of businesses. “[E]ven the cemeteries where our loved ones are buried have been destroyed with bulldozers.

“We also do not want the use of genetically modified seeds in our land, because our ancestral lands were cultivated with natural seed.”

Recently one of Polo’s children died from parasites because Polo did not have the money for treatment, and because he was threatened with death if he left the humanitarian zone. “This is how many peasants live. They cannot leave their homes because of threats placed upon their heads.”

An audience member from Colombia said that part of Polo’s talk was true but that he exaggerated; that the present Colombian government is one of the best in years; that the current president has been willing to fight the paramilitaries and the guerrillas, having jailed some; and that President Uribe is not involved in reported human rights abuses. She claimed that disputes in the Chocó are due to groups wanting to grow coca and produce cocaine in the isolated jungle area, and then ship it to the United States.

Jake Hess of the Colombia Solidarity Network noted that Human Rights Watch says that the government of Colombia’s President Uribe has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere; that Amnesty International called Uribe’s demobilization of paramilitary groups “a sham” and said the paramilitary structure has just been re-engineered; and that the Colombian Commission of Jurists says that between 2002 and 2005, during the supposed demobilization, 3,000 people were killed by the paramilitaries. He also challenged the claim that coca is grown in Chocó.

Polo said that even though some paramilitary bosses are detained, they continue to communicate with the outside world and to form their groups. For example, they have roadblocks where policemen “tax” those who are trucking lumber; the police give the money to the paramilitary groups. Any loggers’ coop that does not pay the tax is not allowed to buy wood.

Also, said Polo, when demobilization occurred, the paramilitary paid nonparamilitaries to turn in their rifles. Actual paramilitaries did not turn theirs in.

Asked about their history of farming, Polo explained that before the 1950s, people had their individual plots but helped one another in a system of collective farming. Blacks who had been slaves owned no land. In 1993, the government gave “Collective Black Land” in Chocó to the blacks. People of mixed descent recognized these lands, because they had been sharing them with blacks for many years. By law (and Polo carries a copy of the law with him), this land belongs to the communities and cannot be divided or sold. Nevertheless, the government gave this land to businesses to bring foreign investment, which resulted in the African palm monoculture. Polo listed some half dozen companies growing palm in his region, including Urapalma.

Journalists and witnesses have helped peasants prove legal ownership of their lands, said Polo, “but we’re still not done. We haven’t been given our land back. We just have paper.”

Asked if the United States had responded to the human rights violations, Polo said no, but U.S. pressure regarding the Colombia Free Trade Agreement could help restore their lands. However, while the Colombian government wants the FTA, Polo asked, “Where are they going to have these projects? In the land that businesses have occupied, which actually belongs to us. So we are going to be slaves to these businesses. And what’s going to happen to the people they killed? [To] our houses, our homes? We lost our farms. We lost everything. What we ask for is for justice and that they give us back our land.”

– Jean English

For more information, please see the American Friends Service Committee site

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