Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Biodiesel Push Blamed for Violations of Rights

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Dec 5 2006 (IPS) - The Colombian government is stepping up production of biofuels amidst an unstable mix of a boom in clean energy technologies, the advance of monoculture and the stripping of indigenous and black communities of their land, a habitual practice in Colombia’s four-decade civil war.

The production of biofuels from certain crops, a cleaner alternative source of energy that is drawing ever-increasing global interest, is tainted in Colombia by the armed conflict and reports of violations of human rights and the environment.

By 2008, this South American country will produce 645,000 tons a year of biodiesel from oil palm through eight megaprojects, four of which are already in progress, according to the National Federation of Oil Palm Growers (Fedepalma).

The production of biodiesel will be added to that of ethanol, a fuel extracted from sugar cane and used in Colombia since 2005. Five plants in Colombia produce 25 million litres a month, which supply Bogota and southwestern Colombia, engineer Johan Martínez of the Association of Sugar Cane Growers told IPS.

Ethanol, which emits less harmful gases than petroleum derivatives, is used in Colombia mixed with petrol in a proportion of 10 percent, with the aim of reaching 25 percent within 20 years.

Projects are also underway to extract ethanol from other crops, like yucca, potatoes and beets, whose large-scale cultivation will take place in areas located far from the country’s jungles and forests, so that it will not put them at risk, reported the Agriculture Ministry.

Meanwhile, the expansion of oil palm plantations has drawn increasing criticism from both within and outside the country.

There are now 285,000 hectares of African oil palm trees in Colombia, up from 118,000 in 2003. Grown in this country since the mid-1960s, oil palms are the main crop used in the production of biofuels, according to Fedepalma.

At the start of his second consecutive term, last August, President Álvaro Uribe announced his aim to increase that total to one million hectares in the next four years.

Oil palm cultivation is especially concentrated in the provinces of Magdalena and Sucre along the Caribbean coast in the north, in the Pacific coastal province of Chocó – which has the greatest biodiversity in the country – in the northwest, and in the central-eastern Llanos (plains) region.

“The Llanos region is the one that worries us the most right now, because we have no clear and precise information,” researcher Darío Mejía, with the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), told IPS.

“The purchase of enormous extensions of land has begun quietly, and the phenomenon has reached widely dispersed, isolated indigenous communities that have no means of communication and information. They are visited by foreign companies that paint castles in the sky and have them sign documents, but the indigenous communities have no idea what is really going on,” he said.

“The history of the plantations is painful, stained in the blood and tears of black and indigenous communities,” writes Tatiana Roa, the head of the non-governmental organisation Censat-Agua Viva, on the group’s web site.

“It is the history of disappearing forests that turn into plantations. It is the history of ageold traditional cultures transformed into palm oil plantation workforces. It is these voices that are calling for a halt to the destruction spurred on by the defenders of biodiesel,” she adds.

In Mejía’s view, the impacts of monoculture in general, and oil palm plantations in particular, are not only environmental, but political and cultural as well.

“This kind of megaproject aggravates the concentration of land in a few hands and foments the loss of land that indigenous communities have suffered continously since the time of the so-called Spanish ‘conquest’,” he said.

In addition, the megaprojects “undermine the tradition of crop rotation that ensures production of food crops and helps enrich the soil – the opposite of monoculture farming,”

“Although the situation in the Chocó region is sad and infuriating, at least people there know what is happening, and public complaints have even been voiced by the Agriculture Ministry and the office of the public prosecutor,” said Mejía.

The gravity of these reports led the Agriculture Ministry to set up a special investigation unit in April, according to which “at least 25,000 hectares suitable for the cultivation of oil palms, which had been awarded by the state to black communities, were acquired by private interests through illegitimate land titles.”

The investigation unit found that land had been illegally acquired in places with immense natural wealth that have been plagued in the past two decades by forced displacement and killings, such as Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó in the northwestern province of Chocó.

Under a 1959 law, Colombia’s Pacific coastal region is a forest reserve. Furthermore, the 1991 constitution recognised the right of traditional black communities to their ancestral land, while a 1993 law established “communally owned lands of ethnic groups” in that area.

In 2000, two government resolutions assigned uncultivated land to black communities in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, where agribusiness companies now operate.

A petition for the protection of the rights of the communities was filed with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

In March 2003, the Inter-American Commission accepted the petition, and in February this year it urged the Colombian government to protect the communities who were forcibly displaced from Urabá in the Chocó region.

Urabá covers an area of 105,000 hectares. Black communities, private companies, the state and ultra-right paramilitary groups are in conflict over ownership of 33,000 of those hectares, according to the report by the Agriculture Ministry investigation unit.

Despite the Agriculture Ministry’s findings, the expansion of oil palm plantations is fomented by a bill on rural development, also known as the land law, submitted by the executive branch and approved in October by a Senate commission. The Chamber of Representatives could debate it in the first quarter of 2007.

With respect to the illegal acquisitions of land, Attorney-General Edgardo Maya told the weekly newspaper El Espectador that these are practices “that run counter to the rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples, and on the contrary could contribute to legalising and legitimising behaviour contrary to their territorial rights, in a number of cases with the active participation of armed groups that act outside the law.”

IPS made repeated attempts to obtain the reaction of large farmers and agribusiness interests grouped in Fedepalma to the complaints. But the only response received was emailed information on the social and economic benefits of the production of biodiesel that was already available on the association’s web site.

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