Blood on the Palms: Afro-Colombians Fight New Plantations

Source Dollars & Sense

On Sept. 7, 2006, paramilitary gunmen invaded the home of Juan de Dios García, a community leader in the Colombian city of Buenaventura. García escaped, but the gunmen shot and killed seven members of his family.

The paramilitaries, linked to the government of President Alvaro Uribe and to the country’s wealthy landholding elite, wanted to stop García and other activists from the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Process of Black Communities, or PCN), who have been trying to recover land on which Afro-Colombians have lived for five centuries. The PCN is a network of over 140 organizations among Black Colombian communities.

García later told Radio Bemba, "when the paras [paramilitary soldiers] came looking for me, I could see they were using police and army vehicles. They operate with the direct and indirect participation of high government functionaries. So denouncing their crimes to the authorities actually puts you at an even greater risk."

South of Buenaventura along the Pacific, in the coastal lowlands of the department of Nariño, oil palm plantations are spreading through historically Afro-Colombian lands. The plantation owners’ association, Fedepalma, plans to expand production to a million hectares (about 3,861 square miles), and the government has proposed that by 2020 seven million hectares will be used for export crops, including oil palms.

Helping planters reach their goal is the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In what the agency describes as an effort to resettle rightwing paramilitary members who agree to be disarmed, USAID funds projects in which they are given land to cultivate. The land, however, is often located in historically Afro-Colombian areas.

On paper these resettlement projects may appear to be effective components of a national peace process. On the ground, however, what typically happens is that the paramilitaries take on the task of protecting the plantation owners’ (and the government’s) investment. And Afro-Colombian activists who get in the way pay a price in blood.

Growing Plantations

In the 1960s, only about 18,000 hectares were planted with the trees. By 2003 oil palm plantations occupied 188,000 hectares—and closer to 300,000 counting fields planted but not yet producing. Colombia has become the largest palm oil producer in the Americas, and 35% of its product is already exported as fuel. Palm oil used to be used just for cooking. But the global effort to shift away from petroleum has created a new market for biofuels, and one of the world’s major sources is the kernel of the oil palm.

In the November 11 squatter community water for dozens of families comes from a single tap. Photo by David Bacon

In the November 11 squatter community water for dozens of families comes from a single tap. Photo by David Bacon

Oil palm planters take advantage of the growing depopulation of the Afro-Colombian countryside caused by poverty, internal migration, and the civil war. But they also drive people off the land directly using armed guards and paramilitaries, who often seem to be the same people. "When the companies are buying land, if a farmer sells only part of what he owns, but not his house, he’ll be burned out the next day," said Jorge Ibañez, an activist involved in land recovery, whose name has been changed to protect him from retaliation.

Ibañez organizes urban committees in Tumaco, a coastal city where many of the displaced Afro-Colombians in Nariño now live. Displaced people have traveled to the department capital, Pasto, to protest and demand services for the communities of shacks they’ve built on the edge of Tumaco’s mangrove swamps. "But the government says the problem of displacement has been solved," Ibañez says, "even while those same displaced people are camping out in the plaza in front of the offices of the authorities, because they have no place to go."

Other community activists charge that coca production follows the palms. Raul Alvarez explains that "we never consumed coca here, but now it’s all over our schools and barrios." Residents accuse the newly arrived armed plantation guards of involvement in the traffic and suspect the planters themselves are its financial backers. The earliest and largest plantation owners have been the sugar barons of Cali, in the Valle de Cauca department, who for years have been suspected of involvement in the drug trade. Ibañez says the gunmen are "people who come here from other regions, go to work for these companies, and threaten people."

In Tumaco, among the shacks of the displaced, the network of armed guards runs loan sharking operations and pawnshops, keeping watch on community activity by monopolizing the tiny phone stores where residents go to make their calls.

"These people aren’t a political force themselves," García says. "They’re mercenaries. In an area like the Pacific coast, where the average income isn’t even $500 a year, they offer $400 a month to join up. Even Black and indigenous people get bought, and then they use one group to commit massacres against the other—Blacks against indigenous, indigenous against Black."

Regaining Land Rights

In the face of the displacement and dispersal of their communities, Afro-Colombians have fought with the government for decades, trying to force recognition of their land rights. Those persistent efforts have produced important legal gains. As a result of Afro-Colombian and indigenous community pressure, the country’s constitution, rewritten in 1991, finally validated their right to their historical territories. Law 70, passed in 1993, said these communities had to be consulted and had to give their approval prior to any new projects planned on their land. But having a law is one thing; enforcing it is another.

The gate into the processing plant belonging to Palmeiras, S.A. Photo by David Bacon

The gate into the processing plant belonging to Palmeiras

In Nariño’s interior, displaced residents have joined forces with those still on the land. Together they’ve filed a series of legal challenges to regain title to land where their ancestors settled centuries ago. Francisco Hurtado, an Afro-Colombian leader who began the effort over a decade ago, was assassinated in 1998. Nevertheless, Afro-Colombians recovered their first collective territories in the department in 2005. Since the passage of Law 70, Afro-Colombians have gained title to 6.1 million hectares of land. Recovery is still far from complete, however.

Tiny communities in the jungle, like Bajo Pusbi, still live in fear of the various armed groups who walk their dirt streets with impunity. And Palmeira, the largest of the Nariño planters, has ceded land planted in palms, but not the roads that lead to or through that land. As a result, the territory’s inhabitants still earn their living by collecting wood. Most people can’t read or write. Deep in the selva, or jungle, Bajo Pusbi has neither a school nor a clinic.

President Uribe’s response to this poverty is his plan to force Afro-Colombian communities to become the planters’ junior partners, maintaining and harvesting the trees and turning over the product to the companies for refining. Further, he wants to take even more land for this monoculture. To support expanding palm oil production, conservative parties in the Colombian Congress—with encouragement from USAID—have promulgated new laws for forests, water and other resources that require their commercial exploitation. If a community doesn’t exploit the resources, it can lose title to its land.

At Fedepalma’s 2006 congress in Villavicencio, Uribe told the growers’ organization that he would "lock up the businessmen of Tumaco with our Afro-Colombian compatriots, and not let them out of the office until they’ve reached an agreement on the use of these lands." Leaders from the Community Councils of the Black Communities of Kurrulao condemned the idea in a letter to the president, claiming "it would bring with it great environmental, social and cultural harm." They argue that more palm plantations would affect the ability to reproduce Afro-Colombian culture, and would replace one of the most biodiverse regions of the planet with monocrop cultivation.

"Afro-Colombian communities on the Pacific Coast," García told Radio Bemba, "use the land, and are the owners of what the land produces, but don’t believe they own the land itself, which belongs to us all. We follow the concept of collective property. The fact that we’ve recovered some of our lands and now hold them in this way has infuriated powerful economic forces in our country, as well as transnational corporations."

The PCN was organized to push for land recovery and to address the extreme poverty Afro-Colombians suffer. Some of its leaders have traveled to Washington to denounce the project in meetings with U.S. Congress members, trying to convince them to vote no on the proposed United States/Colombia free trade agreement. That agreement would vastly expand palm oil production.

A History of Forced Labor

Development projects like the palm oil plantations threaten more than just a group of families or a single town. They endanger the territorial basis for maintaining the unique Afro-Colombian culture and social structure, developed over nearly 500 years. The first Spaniard landed at what would eventually become Colombia in 1500, finding a territory already inhabited by Carib and Chibchan people. Before the century was out, musket-bearing troops of the Spanish king had decimated these indigenous communities, forcing survivors away from the coast and deep into remote mountains. To replace their forced labor in plantations and mines, colonial administrators brought the first slaves from Africa. By 1521, a hundred years before slavery began in the Virginia colony, the first Africans had already started five centuries of labor in the Americas.

In Colombia, as in the U.S. South, Africans were not docile. They fled the plantations in huge numbers, traveling south and west to the Pacific coast and inland to the jungle-clad mountains of the interior. The runaways called their towns "palenques." By the time Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander raised the flag of liberation from Spain in 1810, African rage was so great that slaves and ex-slaves made up three of every five soldiers in the anti-colonial army.

Yet emancipation was delayed another 40 years until 1851, a decade before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the United States. By then, the rural Afro-Colombian communities founded by escaped slaves were as old as the great cities of Bogotá and Cartagena.

Poverty Polarized by Race

Today Colombia, a country of 44 million people, is the third largest in Latin America and one of the most economically polarized. Its Department of National Planning estimates that 49.2% of the people live below the poverty line (the National University says 66%). In the countryside, 68% are officially impoverished. And within rural areas, poverty is not evenly distributed.

The Asociacion de Afro-Colombiano Desplazados (the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians) documents more than 10 million Black Colombians living on the Pacific Coast, making up 90% of the coastal population. Even in interior departments like Valle de Cauca and northern Cauca, they are a majority. In Afro-Colombian communities 86% of basic needs go unsatisfied, including basic public services from sewers to running water, according to a report given to the 23rd International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association. Most white and mestizo communities, by contrast, have such services.

The country’s health care system, damaged by budget cuts to fund the government’s counterinsurgency war, covers 40% of white Colombians. Only 10% of Black Colombians get health services, and a mere 3% of Afro-Colombian workers receive social security benefits. Black illiteracy is 45%; white illiteracy is 14%. Approximately 120 of every 1000 Afro-Colombian infants die in their first year, compared to 20 white babies. And at the other end of life, Afro-Colombians live 54 years on average; whites, 70 years.

And while non-Black Colombians have an average annual income of $1,500, Afro-Colombian families make $500. Only 38% of Afro-Colombian young people go to high school, compared to 66% of non-Black Colombians. Just 2% go on to the university.

Institutionalized inequality has been reinforced by decades of internal displacement. From 1940 to 1990, the urban share of Colombia’s population grew from 31% to 77%. Afro-Colombians joined this internal migration in hopes of gaining a better standard of living. But those hopes were dashed—instead, they joined the ranks of the urban poor, living in the marginal areas of cities like Tumaco, Cali, Medellin and Bogotá. Currently, most Afro-Colombians are living in urban areas, according to Luis Gilberto Murillo Urrutia, the former governor of Choco state. "Afro-Colombians make up 36-40% of Colombia’s people," he says, "although the government says it’s only 26% (or about 11 million people). Only 25%, approximately three million people, are still based on the land."

More Displacement Expected

The Colombian government’s current development program will depress that number even further. Afro-Colombian communities are in greater danger of disappearance and displacement than at any previous time in their history, thanks to huge new government-backed development projects, pushed by the United States and international financial institutions.

Local communities do not control these large development projects. Palm oil refineries create dividends, but the only Colombians who benefit from them are a tiny handful of planters in Cali and Medellín. But the Colombian government, like many in the thrall of market-driven policies, sees foreign investment in these projects as the key to economic development, and thus revenue. It cuts the budget for public services needed by Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other poor communities, while increasing military spending.

Plan Colombia, the U.S. military aid program, underwrites much of that growing military budget. Both Plan Colombia and a new free trade treaty, expected to be ratified by Congress this year, will lead to further displacement of rural Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. Leaders who stand in the way of foreign investment projects will disappear or die.

PCN activists estimate that the proposed free trade agreement will force approximately 80,000 families working in agriculture off the land. They say this will be just the beginning, and point to the 1.3 million farmers displaced in Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

And while most displaced Colombians become internal migrants in the country’s growing urban slums, that migratory stream will eventually cross borders into those wealthy countries whose policies have set it into motion. Since 2002, over 200,000 Colombians have arrived in the United States.

Preserving Land and Culture

García points out that Afro-Colombian communities are the historic guardians of the country’s biodiversity. "The whole Pacific coast is made up of rich mangrove forests, to which we owe our subsistence," he explains. "Afro-Colombian and indigenous culture sees that territory as a place to live, and not as a potential source of economic wealth. But this is the basis for planning these megaprojects, so they are now using their private armies, the paramilitaries, and have assassinated thousands of our movement’s leaders and displaced millions of people. That includes a million Black Colombians who have had to leave the Pacific coast."

Afro-Colombian communities and their centuries-old culture have no place in the current megadevelopment plans. "They see Black people as objects that have no value," García emphasizes. "Therefore sacrificing us, even to the extent of a holocaust, doesn’t matter. That’s the kind of racism to which we’re subjected. We believe all acts against a people’s culture should be considered crimes against human rights, because there is no human life without culture."

García and others warn that continued funding of Plan Colombia will produce more conflict and more displacement. The government often accuses the guerrillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) of committing massacres, and in fact uses their activity as a pretext for maintaining an extremely heavy military presence in the countryside. On the other hand, it says it has forced the paramilitaries to demobilize. "But at the same time they make these commitments in the U.S. and Europe, the paras are massacring people here," García told Radio Bemba. "The government asks for money for the peace process, but what happens on the ground is the opposite of peace."

The U.S. Congress has appropriated $21 million to aid the resettlement of paramilitaries. Local people say the same paras, with the same guns, are doing the same killing. High officials of the Uribe administration have been forced to resign because their links to the paramilitaries were exposed.

"The displacement of our communities isn’t a consequence of conflict," García points out. "The conflict itself is being used to displace us, to make us flee our territories. Then the land is expropriated, because the state says it’s no longer being used productively. We have no arms to fight this, but we will resist politically, because to give up our land is to give up our life."

David Bacon is a journalist and photographer covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers.