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COLOMBIA: Oil Palms, Right Abuses Hand in Hand in Northwest

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, , Sep 5 2008 (IPS) - As of this week, there is one less human rights defender in the northwestern Colombian region of Bajo Atrato. Jimmy Jansasoy of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission was forced to flee the area, where oil palm plantations have encroached on the collectively-owned jungle territories of traditional black communities.

Military outpost on the Atrato river in Chocó.  Credit: Jesús Abad  Colorado/IPS.

Military outpost on the Atrato river in Chocó. Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS.

On Aug. 29, Jansasoy gave a workshop on "biodiversity zones" in a village on the Curbaradó river, which runs into the Atrato river.

In that region, the Colombian Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission and international human rights groups like the Canada-based Project Accompaniment and Solidarity Colombia (PASC) and the UK-based Peace Brigades International (PBI) provide support to "peace communities" that have come under attack from far-right paramilitary groups.

As a result of e-mail threats received by the groups since Aug. 24, two other members of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission had already fled the area.

On the afternoon of Wednesday Sep. 3, in the Bajo Atrato town of Chigorodó in the northwestern province of Antioquia, four armed men in civilian dress forced Jansasoy at gunpoint to get into their double-cabin pickup truck with tinted windows, where they questioned him for over an hour.

Receiving orders by cell-phone, one of the men, wearing dark glasses, reported to his superiors that "he only has a Bible, a notebook and his personal effects," as the men searched Jansasoy’s knapsack.

They told Jansasoy to give them "the full names" of all of those who provide support to the communities, "as well as their addresses and those of their families."

When Jansasoy said he did not have that information, they warned him: "We’ll give you until Sunday."

When they released him, they ordered him to go to the "Andalucía Caño Claro" Humanitarian Zone and write down the names and addresses of the families of human rights defenders working with the community. They also told him not to say anything about his brief detention.

"Because of this act of illegal detention, intimidation, psychological pressure and threat, Jansasoy was forced to leave the region," says a communiqué issued by the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission.

There are no guarantees "for the defence and promotion of human rights in the Bajo Atrato area," it adds.


The "humanitarian zones" were created by local peasant families in response to the atrocities and human rights abuses committed by the paramilitary militias, which peaked in the 1990s.

The communities emerged in the northern part of the province of Antioquia and the neighbouring province of Chocó as a result of the killings and forced displacement of peasant farmers that occurred simultaneously with the military’s Operation Genesis, launched in the area in 1997 by General Rito Alejo del Río, commander at the time of the army’s 17th Brigade.

The general, now retired, was arrested Thursday on charges of working with the paramilitaries during Operation Genesis, against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, which got underway while current President Álvaro Uribe was governor of Antioquia (1995-1997).

The humanitarian zones were set up as communities opposed to the war, which defend the distinction between civilians and combatants, as established by international humanitarian law.

The victims of forced displacement who have returned to the area to establish these peace communities have declared them off-limits to the members of any armed groups. But they are not neutral, because they consider themselves victims of the violence practiced by the military and their paramilitary allies.

Peasant farmers in the humanitarian zones may be practically illiterate, but they associate the terror and rights abuses that they have suffered with the imposition of a development model based on agribusiness and privately owned monoculture initiatives like the African palm plantations, the oil of which is used to produce biodiesel.

The humanitarian zones have adopted a model of production that involves traditional and innovative small farming techniques. In the Curbaradó river basin, with the support of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, the communities have been creating "natural reserves and biodiversity zones" since 2006, where subsistence farming is practiced in harmony with the surrounding Chocó rainforest, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world.

The same day that Jansasoy was held at gunpoint, four experts from Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay and Mexico gave conferences on biodiversity, sovereignty and food security in a seminar at the National University of Colombia in Bogota.

They provided a detailed map of a global model arising in recent years, in which each country specialises in one product: "Ecuador in bananas, Colombia in flowers, Argentina in soy," as stated by Elizabeth Bravo, an activist with the Ecuadorean environmental group Acción Ecológica.

Former food exporting countries have become net importers of food products, while transnational corporations that produce fertilisers, indispensable for monoculture farming, reap the benefits.

Fossil fuels are no longer inexhaustible in an economic system addicted to energy, and attempts are being made to replace them with biofuels partly obtained from food crops like corn. Land, and what is grown on it, have become strategic questions, said the experts.

Meanwhile, the prices of both fertilisers and food continue to climb. Bravo pointed out, for example, that in the last year, the price of rice has gone up 90 percent, wheat 130 percent and corn 53 percent.

According to a confidential internal World Bank report that was leaked to the press in April, biofuels have driven global food prices up by 75 percent, noted Silvia Ribeiro, a Uruguayan expert with the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), an international organisation dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights.

Since 1950, statistics have shown that agribusiness and monoculture based on technologies that pose a risk to the environment and to health do not produce more food, said Ribeiro. The solution, she said, is not to continue with the same old model, but to put food production "in the hands of the people themselves, the world’s small farmers."

The "Andalucía Caño Claro" Humanitarian Zone in the Curbaradó river basin, 45 km southwest of the town of Chigorodó, is surrounded by oil palm plantations guarded by numerous police and army control posts.

Since the demobilisation of the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) as a result of negotiations with the rightwing Uribe administration, these groups no longer exist, according to the government.

But they continue to swarm the region, under a new name: "Águilas Negras" (Black Eagles).

Behind their threats and operations "are hidden the business interests that benefit from paramilitarism," says the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission statement.

But in this part of Colombia in particular, the paramilitaries themselves "are businessmen and launderers of the assets arising from drug trafficking, who conceal their criminal activity under the guise of progress in the oil palm agribusiness, extensive livestock raising and intensive deforestation," the communiqué adds.

In the 1990s, the paramilitaries forced their way into the Jiguamiandó, Curbaradó and Domingodó river basins, pushing out the local rural communities, with the argument that they were eradicating the leftist guerrillas, who had been present in the area since the 1980s.

But "there are signs that these expulsions were not so much the result of an intention to force out the guerrillas, but to seize lands that belong to the local communities," Attorney General Mario Iguarán said in a December 2007 interview with the Bogota daily El Tiempo.

The attorney general’s office has taken the testimony of more than 100 people, carried out judicial inspections of oil palm plantations and factories, as well as banks and land registry offices, and decided to summon for questioning 26 oil palm growers and ranchers in connection with charges of forced displacement, conspiracy to commit crimes and illegal land seizures.

However, the attorney general’s office has not yet reached any decisions, and the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission complains that the investigations have been neither effective nor prompt nor timely.

Nor is there any information on concrete government measures to "promote the restitution of collectively-owned land wrongfully occupied by business interests that benefit from paramilitarism," says the Commission’s statement.

The proposal that the Commission set forth to the government on Thursday, "to develop an integral preventive strategy involving the environmental authorities in order to avoid the expansion of oil palm cultivation, ranching and intensive deforestation" is now awaiting a response.

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