Armed groups in Colombia are driving peasants off their land to make way for plantations of oil palms, used to produce a biofuel that is being promoted as an environmentally friendly source of energy.
Surging demand for "green" fuel has prompted right-wing paramilitaries to seize swaths of territory, according to activists and farmers. Thousands of families are believed to have fled a campaign of killing and intimidation, swelling Colombia’s population of three million displaced people and adding to one of the world's worst refugee crises after Darfur and Congo.
Several companies were collaborating by falsifying deeds to claim ownership of the land, said Andrés Castro, the general secretary of Fedepalma, the national federation of palm oil producers. "As a consequence of the development of palm by secretive business practices and the use of threats, people have been displaced and [the businesses] have claimed land for themselves," he said. His claim was backed up by witnesses and groups such as Christian Aid and the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC).
The revelations tarnish what has been considered an economic and environmental success story. The fruit of the oil-palm tree produces a vegetable oil also used in cooking, employs 80,000 people and is increasingly being turned into biofuel.
"Four years ago, Colombia had 172,000 hectares of palm oil," President Álvaro Uribe told the Guardian. "This year we expect to finish with nearly 400,000."
"Four years ago, Colombia didn't produce a litre of biofuel. Today, because of our administration, Colombia produces 1.2 million litres per day." Investment in new installations would continue to boost production, he added.
However, the lawlessness created by four decades of insurgency in the countryside has enabled right-wing paramilitaries, and also possibly left-wing rebels, to join the boom. Unlike coca, the armed groups' main income-source, palm oil is a legal crop and therefore safe from state-backed eradication efforts.
Farmers who have been forced off their land at gunpoint say that, in many cases, their banana groves and cattle-grazing fields were turned into oil-palm plantations. Luis Hernández (not his real name) fled his 170-hectare plot outside the town of Mutatá in Antioquia province nine years ago after his father-in-law and several neighbours were gunned down. When he and other survivors were able to return recently, they found the land was in the hands of a local palm producer.
"The company tells me that it has legal papers for the land, but I don't know how that can be, as I have land titles dating back 20 years," said Mr Hernández. He suspects palm companies collaborated with the paramilitaries. "I don't know if there was an official agreement between them, but a relationship of some sort definitely exists."
A government investigation reportedly found irregularities in 80% of oil-palm land titles in some areas. "If there have been abuses and the titles are shown to be false, then the land needs to be returned and all the weight of the law needs to be brought down on those that are responsible," said Castro of the producers' association.
Christian Aid is funding an effort to protect peasants who are trying to reclaim land from the paramilitaries, said the organisation’s Dominic Nutt, who has visited the plantations. "It is the dark side of biofuel."
The paramilitary groups, first formed in the 1980s by businessmen, landowners and drug lords to fend off guerrillas, became a powerful illegal army that stole land, sold drugs and massacred civilians. Under a peace deal with the government, they have officially disbanded; but many observers say remnants remain active.
Displacement continues, with an average of 200,000 cases registered every year over the past four years, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with most cases coming from oil-palm-growing areas on the Caribbean coast. "We can't keep up -- they just keep coming," said Ludiz Ruda, of the Hijos de María school in a shantytown outside the coastal city of Cartagena. Since opening last year it had been swamped with impoverished newcomers, she said. "More than 80% are refugees."
Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007
Homepage photo by Philip Bouchard