Oil-Palm Plantations on Afro-Colombian Lands

This article is from the November/December 2007 issue of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the November/December 2007 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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We received the following letter from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, in response to our article on the devastating effects of the expanding palm oil industry on Afro-Colombian communities of the Pacific coast (Blood on the Palms, July/August 2007). The author of the article, David Bacon, thought activists from the region should have a chance to respond to the embassy's claim that the U.S. government and USAID are having a positive impact on their communities. A joint statement by several activist groups from the region follows.


To the editors:

Mr. David Bacon's article is an unfortunate mischaracterization of the palm oil industry in Colombia and of the U.S. government's related efforts to promote sustainable, legal economic opportunities in Afro-Columbian communities. The article is correct on many fronts—that paramilitary and guerrilla activity has wreaked havoc on Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, that the palm oil industry in Colombia has ambitious expansion plans, and that Afro-Colombian communities face development challenges that are unparalleled in the rest of the country. However, Mr. Bacon's assertions that U.S. government resources through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are being used to displace Afro-Colombians, to destroy cultural ties to the land, and to further the economic interests of the palm industry just for the sake of doing so are simply inaccurate. During the past five years, as part of U.S. government assistance to Plan Colombia, USAID has worked with President Uribe's administration, municipal governments, elected Afro-Colombian councils and representatives, farmer associations, and the private sector to develop models that meet the needs of the communities. Indeed, only one USAID-supported palm-oil investment is in an Afro-Colombian community, and almost all other USAID palm-oil activities are designed as alliances. These alliances are structured whereby large processors are linked to small, privately-held or community-held palm farms, and the processors provide seed funding, common infrastructure (roads, bridges, irrigation), social investments, and technical assistance to small farmers and communities. Further, USAID assists the small farmers and communities to become more capable of negotiating competitive forward contracts for their product. Unfortunately, most of Colombia's agricultural sector has had experience with the issues that Mr. Bacon cites as palm-specific, and of course there remains a lot of work to do relating to palm cultivation and Afro-Colombian communities. The Colombian and U.S. governments and the robust private sector in Colombia will continue to be change agents in the agriculture sector, and USAID will continue to assist Afro-Colombian communities to identify opportunities for economic development, to strengthen representative councils and decision-makers with their ability to represent their communities' interests, and to protect their ties to the land and their cultural values in the face of very difficult development challenges.

Mark Wentworth,
Counselor for Public Affairs
Embassy of the United States of America, Bogotá, Colombia

Activists Respond:

Haga un "click" aqui para leer la respuesta original en español.

Having read the article by David Bacon as well as the letter by Mark Wentworth from the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, we wanted to contribute to a debate that has deep implications for our lives and rights.

Mr. Bacon's article is an accurate description of the impact that the monocultural production of palm oil has had, not only here in Colombia but in other parts of the world. U.S. officials have potentially valuable contributions to make in relation to the palm oil industry and to Colombia's forestry law. However, they cannot be effective when they push us to follow the dictates of the government and of Colombia's business class. These policy efforts are contrary to the ethnic and cultural production practices of Colombians of African descent, as well as to the ecological and conservation practices stipulated in Colombian law governing collectively-owned land.

Contrary to Mr. Wentworth's claims, activities are being promoted that are both environmentally and financially unsustainable for Afro-Colombian communities. For example, the communities have been forced to make "strategic alliances" with the large palm oil companies with unfavorable terms of credit, a lack of social security for small palm-oil producers, and fixed prices for products and transport, all resulting in disadvantageous terms for the small producers due in part to their lack of decision-making power. As far as environmental sustainability is concerned, there are many studies that show monocultural production, like that used for palm oil, to be incompatible with the simultaneously complex and fragile ecosystem of the Pacific coast bioregion.

The ambitious plans for expansion of palm oil in Colombia ignore the very serious environmental, cultural, social, and economic impacts on these communities, in both the medium- and long-term. The unprecedented development challenges faced by Afro-Colombians, and Colombian society as a whole, require an enormous societal effort that includes effective remedies for the inherited consequences of slavery and for the impact of the internal armed conflict that our communities have disproportionately suffered.

Such measures must not only respect the ethnic and cultural diversity recognized in the Colombian legal system, but must also respect the right of Afro-Colombians to develop economically in a way that is consistent with our own cultural aspirations. The failure to accept that racism and racial discrimination are problems that need to be overcome, and the failure to respect and support the proposals from the communities themselves, can only lead to the reproduction of the conditions that keep in place the racial inequality that our communities suffer, including massacres, displacement, loss of land and culture, acculturation, racism, invasion, dispossession, murder, persecution of our leaders, etc. Is there any difference between that scenario and the dawn of trafficking and slavery that resulted in the dispersion of the African diaspora in the Pacific Coast?

The progress of the palm oil industry is currently one of the most serious, complex, and systematic violations of rights against the Black communities of Colombia. Despite this, and with the support of USAID in Tumaco, there has been a growth of "strategic alliances," depriving the local Community Councils of their right to prior consultation in the areas where palm cultivation has been expanding. These so-called "associated businesses," promoted to advance the palm oil industry, divide communities and are both legally and culturally ignorant of the mechanisms established for the administration and management of collective territories—mechanisms which should be respected by the state, business, and international actors. Since 2006, those "associated businesses" have begun repaying their loans. Today, many are facing serious difficulty doing so as a result of crop infestations, fumigation with glyphosate [Monsanto's Roundup], the difficulty of adapting to the technical demands of monocultivation, and on top of it all, a sharp drop in prices from 490,000 pesos per ton of palm fruit to only 80,000 pesos per ton today.

In areas where communities use collective land titles, we face other challenges. Banks do not recognize communally-held titles and will neither issue a mortgage nor allow them to be used as credit guarantees, unless those communities apply for the loans through the "strategic alliances" formed for plantations that are already in production. Communities are thereby forced into these partnerships. Since loans are tied to the normal lifespan of a oil-palm tree, which can live 30 to 40 years, and given the interest charged and the life of the loan, the debts can last even longer. There is no guarantee that the loans will be paid off, so with the support of USAID, there is a grave risk that these lands will once again be stolen from us.

Further north in the area of Guapi and Charco, one of the regions of expanding oil-palm cultivation, communities are being subjected to repeated processes of displacement. Local leaders who have voiced concerns have received threats. We are still waiting for a response to our open letter of protest to President Uribe after he publicly threatened to "lock up" Afro-Colombians and local businessmen until we reached an agreement on how to use our lands. The government's megaproject to "fill the tanks, empty the lands" (of biological and cultural diversity) is incompatible with the life experience that we have accumulated for nearly 500 years in the Pacific coast bioregion, recognized as the second most biologically diverse region in the world.

Born out of our own knowledge of this land where we have been reborn, our communities have different approaches to palm cultivation than simple monoculture, although the government has refused to listen or support them. These methods are consistent with our way of life, responsible towards the future, respectful of our desire to remain in these territories, and loyal to the ways of our elders. We remain firm in our affirmation of life, happiness, and freedom.

Consejo Comunitario Bajo Mira y Frontera

Consejo Comunitario del Río Grande del Patía, sus Brazos y la Ensenada ACAPA

Palenque Regional Kurrulao, Corporación Ancestros–Costa Pacífica Caucana

Palenque Regional El Congal

Asociación Popular de Negros Unidos del Río Yurumanguí–APONURY

AFROLIBERTARIOS del Río Grande De La Magdalena

Asociación de Consejos Comunitario de Timbiquí–Cauca

Proceso de Comunidades Negras en Colombia PCN

Translated by Daniel Fireside and Wil Escobar. Click here for the activists' response in Spanish.
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