Under the oil palm trees

“We are walking land”
(Indigenous saying)

 The landscapes of the Bajo Atrato region in Colombia are inundated with palm trees. You might be thinking they are the like the palm trees that appear on postcards next to beaches and crystalline waters, but no, these are somewhat different: flatter, wider and lower. Instead of juicy coconuts hanging at their centre there is a red, oily fruit, a bitter crop indeed for the communities who live here. In the beginning, when this product began to arrive in Colombia, it was “sold” as an opportunity for rural development; then over the years, oil palm trees (or African palms) have become the cornerstone of the agribusiness model implemented in Colombia since the late 1980s[1].

In the Bajo Atrato area there are hardly any manioc, mango, or avocado trees any more, because the oil palm trees are everywhere, even surrounding the houses that dot the roads, the landscape covered with these hardy, monumental palms. But what lies behind this agribusiness model that has been imposed in many Colombian territories and is linked to the displacement and murder of small-scale farming leaders who are reluctant to change their traditional agricultural methods for this capitalist model?[2]

Danilo Rueda, of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – CIJP), knows the answers to that question because he has been accompanying communities for years in Urabá, the region where the lower Atrato River is located, one of the areas most affected by territorial dispossession caused by the Colombian conflict and where its people have constantly struggled to remain in their lands. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the CIJP held in April in Bogotá, the documentary “Bajo la Palma” was shown, a work produced by the Commission ten years ago to show the problems related to this phenomenon that they call the “green desert”.

Danilo Rueda from the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission with Silvia Arjona, from PBI

PBI has been working alongside the CIJP and we talked with Danilo about the validity, even today, of this film and about the challenges for society of this unprecedented imposed agrifood model that affects communities in so many rural areas of Colombia.

Danilo, what does the defence of land mean for the CIJP?

It is a process with many different aspects. During the Commission’s first ten years we talked deeply about land rights linked to civil and political rights. Then we found out what it means to be uprooted, or forcibly displaced, and we discovered that the earth is part of people’s existence. And so it became something that must be protected and defended, and that means we must create conditions so that people can remain on land that others are trying to usurp or use in a way that they do not agree with. For us the earth is life, and without the earth there is no existence.

Oil palm trees is part of the landscape of the Bajo atrato region

What did the arrival of oil palm mean for the Bajo Atrato region and what does this crop mean for Colombia?
Under the palm trees there are murders, disappearances, tortures, judicial set-ups and the design of criminal strategies which the State participates in, for the benefit of business sectors. In Curvaradó, since 1996, before all the displacement, paramilitaries installed themselves in the region. They used dead people’s identities to allege that they had legal possession of the land, but the truth is they stole land titles through a combination of corruption, bribery, lies and murder.
I remember how beautiful it was to cross the Atrato and Curvaradó Rivers: by canoe or on foot you saw snakes, ocelots, lots of different birds, immense trees, water … All life was there. And it took days to get to a village. Not like now when you can arrive from Apartadó in an hour and a half or two hours. There was a complete ecosystem there but because of oil palm all this life was destroyed and we have never seen it again. If I can see that as an outsider, what must it be like for the local population. We are not saying that there should be no development, but rather that it can not exist without evaluating the costs for humans and other local life forms.

Palm oil means death because of the violence it brings with it and because of the environmental damage it causes. Because big business, hand in hand with Colombian and international policy, is destroying water sources and flora and fauna by depleting the forests. This is capitalist logic, which favours the accumulation of capital, and in the long term, the effects are highly negative.

In Colombia this model has been combined with violence and drug trafficking. If we look at the areas where palm is being cultivated in the Bajo Atrato region, we can see that there are cocaine laboratories in the hands of apparently legal businesses such as banana, plantain and others. All this has been created through lies, murder, disappearances and environmental crimes that remain in absolute impunity.

 Have the palm oil companies and the State assumed their responsibility for the impacts of this monoculture crop?

They use the term “other actors” to describe the beneficiaries of an economic model within a democratic state, but the reality is that this entire economic model is part of plans in the world market. Communities should not just be consulted, they should also be involved in the design of what is going to be done and how. Meetings could even be organised with private actors who are willing to create trading agreements with communities based on principles of respect for the other person, and discussions could be held on how to avoid environmental damage, how to share ancestral knowledge, etc… That is to say, how to combine this knowledge with economic projections for products, because over the years we have come to realise that there are business sectors that are sensitive to building fair and democratic relations with local inhabitants. We consider that there has been a change and a transformation in these sectors, private actors who have a different position about who owns the land, who has inhabited and protected it. That is why we need to consider how to build fair business relationships and how people can be empowered and jointly benefit; not only the two trading partners but society as a whole, through clean production, healthy food, protection of the sources of life, water, oxygen, etc.

Hernan Bedoya who was assassinated on December the 8th, 2017, was a leader of the Pedeguita y Mancilla territory, in this pictures he shows us the fruit of the palm oil tree that invaded his land.

What has been the role of the justice system in the territories of Urabá?
The Colombian justice system continues to be the same as it always has been: it has investigated those who have carried out crimes, those who have played the role of frontman in some way, but the system has never reached the real beneficiaries of those crimes. For example, in the Bajo Atrato region 13 companies had relationships with the paramilitary structures present at the time. These paramilitary structures were supported by a business sector[3], which has not faced any criminal responsibility whatsoever.

The cases of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó[4] and the Operation Genesis case[5] are said to be successful legal cases, but I do not see it that way. The real beneficiaries are covered up and protected, and we are sure that they continue to do really good business in Chocó and other places. Everything that is hailed as successful is just a smokescreen: if a General is sentenced it does not mean that justice has been done because we do not know the whole truth. And although today the JEP[6] could enable us to find out this truth, we are also seeing just how much they want to get rid of this tool, to guarantee impunity for a very important person in this country and their entire business circle.

The Biodiversity Zones and Humanitarian Zones in Urabá which are featured in the documentary, were small-scale farming resistance models protected by International Humanitarian Law under the principle of distinction. What has been their role in protecting the lives of small-scale farmers, taking into account the fact that members of these zones continue to be killed, like Hernán Bedoya, who was accompanied by CIJP and by PBI?

The Humanitarian Zones (ZH) are really beautiful creations by people who agree with IHL, however, they arose after a 2001 paramilitary operation, in which the XVII Brigade also participated, which aimed to carry out a plan to assassinate some 25 people. The operation was dismantled thanks to international presence and to advocacy pressure, especially with the Ombudsman’s Office.
The Nueva Esperanza settlement, a space for the population to coexist, was one of the first to be created but it was open and anyone could enter. After the state security forces visited asking what the place was for, it was decided to enclose these areas as people considered that their protection mechanism had been violated and that is why the “fence for life” was erected in Cacarica in June 2001: the first Humanitarian Zone in Colombia. This allowed people to sleep peacefully once more, to go to school, to create peace universities… On the other hand, the Biodiversity Zones (BZ) emerged later as places where food was stored and crops were planted, that is to say, people would leave the humanitarian zones to go and work the land in the biodiversity zones.

With the Peace Agreement we thought that these spaces would disappear and eco-villages would be created, but the ELN[7] continues to have a presence in the Bajo Atrato region and people started thinking that they could not dismantle the humanitarian zones and they began instead to strengthen them and make them more visible. They are also struggling for recognition of their land, and against the presence of the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia… it is as though history were repeating itself.

Why does the Peace Agreement fail to look at the Colombian economic model, given that monoculture crops and established agribusiness affect both territories and the people who inhabit them?
I think that it was not viable for one of the parties. They gradually understood the environmental impact, not only for the land, but they did not discuss the economic model. The point in the agreement about land and crop substitution is really a liberal reform that also implies environmental protection as a secondary objective. But the subject of the economic model is not up for discussion. Agribusiness, the Zidres law, etc., show that the wishes of the ruling economic class run contrary to the possibility of creating another way to use the territories. It also makes it impossible for businesses to invest in more healthy projects by listening to local communities.

What do you mean?

There are many challenges and we believe that there are possibilities for reconciliation with some business sectors in the Bajo Atrato region. Honest, private businesses and communities (national and international), and we are not only talking about Corporate Social Responsibility; these sectors are very altruistic. They are aware of the crisis that the planet is experiencing and of the importance of rural actors, of the needs for responsible consumption that many inhabitants have and of economics with a social perspective, which could bring quality of life for rural inhabitants and offer them a better economic life.

Within the current situation, this is a change. We are clear about the existing model, and so business sectors with fair practices are a good thing and talking about a restorative model in the peace agreement is an important change. Dreaming and believing in what you dream is worth it.

In your opinion, what parts of the Peace Agreement are not being fulfilled for the Bajo Atrato communities?

If you look at the Agreement it says that land restitution will be speeded up in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, but there has been no such acceleration. Nothing has been fulfilled that was agreed by the Government and ordered by the Constitutional Court in three different rulings[8]. And yet, the armed structure which the businessmen depend on to avoid returning the land is being strengthened. The Government is unable to show authority; and the communities are increasingly confronting the reality in the HZ and BZ, of what the territory means for their lives.

So, under the oil palm trees there are agrofuels that cause violence and go against models for traditional agriculture, food sovereignty and agro-ecology that make so much sense in a rural and agricultural country like Colombia.
Under the oil palm trees in Colombia and the Bajo Atrato region there is impunity, 13 forced displacements, destruction of human lives, widowed women, orphans, a lot of pain … also, the palm oil business is now extending to banana, plantain, pineapple and teak businesses, strengthening this dark side of human nature that was created by state policy on agrofuels and that coincided, in the case of the Bajo Atrato region, with criminal paramilitary operations that were aided by the military and benefited businessmen.

Silvia Arjona M.


[1]Carro de Combate: “No le llames africana. La violenta expansión de la palma de aceite en Colombia”. 18 October 2016.

[2]PBI Colombia: Pedeguita y Mancilla, legal delays and threats . 16 January 2018.

[3]Report Empresas Bananeras, vulneración de derechos humanos y narcotráfico en el Bajo Atrato. Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz) and Mundubat. October 2016.

[4]La Silla Vacía: Curvaradó y Jiguamiandó: la gran prueba de restitución de tierras de Santos, 18 March 2011.

[5]Sentence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the case of afrodescendant communities displaced from the Cacarica river basin (Operation Genesis). 20 November 2011.

[6]Special Jurisdiction for Peace.

[7]National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).

[8]Between 2010 and 2013, the Colombian Constitutional Court issued six Orders related to Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó, one of which is Order 299, of 18 December 2012.

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