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COLOMBIA: Palm Planters and Displaced People Wait for New Government

BOGOTÁ, Jul 6 2010 (IPS) - Twenty-three African palm plantation owners, who invested 34 million dollars in Colombia up to 2003 and have spent another 15 million dollars on a palm oil refinery, are soon to be sentenced by a court.

Military checkpoint on the Atrato River. Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS

Military checkpoint on the Atrato River. Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS

They are charged with, the forcible displacement of 5,000 small farmers and invasion of 100,000 hectares of land that is legally the collective property of Afro-Colombian communities in the jungles of Chocó, a province in the northwest of the country.

Lawyer Carlos Merlano, one of the accused, who works for the Urapalma company, agreed to plead guilty to the charges against him and testify against others involved, in exchange for leniency.

The case would be just another land dispute, but for the involvement of the army, notary’s offices, state bodies and even the Agriculture Ministry.

With the country’s attention focused on the actions of president-elect Juan Manuel Santos, this case has hardly been noticed, and yet it is part of the legacy of outgoing President Álvaro Uribe which the new government will have to deal with when it takes office in August.

The prosecution accuses leaders of ultra-rightwing paramilitary groups such as Freddy Rendón (alias “El Alemán”); a woman called Sister Teresa Gómez; and a palm plantation owner from Antioquía, a province bordering Chocó, Rodrigo Zapata, of colluding in crime for profit.

Thirteen years ago, some 5,000 black and mestizo (of mixed indigenous and European descent) small farmers fled from their homes and lands as a result of a terror campaign waged by 80 paramilitaries who went from farm to farm announcing: “We need your land. Sell up and leave; if you don’t sell, your widow will.”

The operation was commanded by paramilitary leaders Carlos and Vicente Castaño, two brothers who own Urapalma – one of the nine companies involved in an agro-industrial project to convert the extensive and fertile lands between the Atrato and Murindó rivers into plantations devoted to the production of biodiesel from palm oil.

The paramilitary offensive to take over the land did not stop at threats. Crops were destroyed, homes were burned and community leaders who protested and tried to organise resistance were killed. These actions were supported by the army.

Investigations in the area by prosecutors and non-governmental organisations, on which the verdict of the Constitutional Court will be based, describe paramilitary checkpoints that were set up close to those manned by the state security forces, where any small farmer could be detained on suspicion of collaborating with leftwing guerrillas or belonging to the Communist Party.

Paramilitary groups were organised to fight the guerrillas who took up arms in 1964 and had moved into these regions.

Accusing a small landowner of collaborating with the guerrillas was enough to make him a military target.

General Rito Alejo del Río, now serving a prison sentence for murder, ordered the bombing of the Cacarica river area in the north of Chocó in 1997 “to fight subversion”, which together with harassment from the paramilitaries provoked the displacement of the black community.

Between 2001 and 2005, the prosecution documented 15 mass displacements, 13 of which were attributed to the paramilitaries, one to the guerrillas and one to the army.

The prosecution and officials of the Colombian Institute for Rural Development (INCODER) found that contracts and titles for these lands are full of irregularities, such as falsified public documents.

Prosecution investigators were surprised to find that a 2000 sales contract for a property of 5,890 hectares had been signed by a man who drowned in the Jiguamiandó river in 1995.

The Agriculture Ministry encouraged these agro-industrial projects by granting generous loans for land purchases and infrastructure for extensive plantations.

Through state agencies like the Autonomous Regional Development Corporation for Chocó and INCODER itself – which is now under judicial investigation – officials in charge of assessing loans granted state funds to companies owned by paramilitaries.

Companies owned by Vicente Castaño were granted 2.8 million dollars from agencies like the Financial Fund for the Agricultural Sector (FINAGRO) and the Agrarian Bank, and three of the nine companies under investigation received over 6.8 million dollars.

Protests by non-governmental organisations and community councils to bodies like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) set the wheels of justice in motion.

The cause of the Afro-Colombian communities of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó has been taken up by the IACHR, the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, the Catholic diocese of Quibdó (the capital of Chocó) and the Administrative Court of Chocó.

In December, the Administrative Court gave the government a deadline of one month for the palm growers to vacate legally protected territories.

Complying with the court order, the Interior Ministry prepared to hand over the land to a local management board that was supported by only four community councils out of 24. The remaining councils denounced this board as a front for the palm plantation owners.

The Constitutional Court vigorously opposed the land management board about to be installed by the Interior Ministry, and ordered another board that would safeguard the rights of the black communities.

So far, this conflict has not been included as part of the new government’s programme. But it will have to be addressed, as it is part of the legacy it will inherit.

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