Biofuels = massacres and paramilitary land seizures


Richard Moore

Original source URL:,,2095349,00.html

Massacres and paramilitary land seizures behind the biofuel revolution

· Colombian farmers driven out as armed groups profit
· Lucrative 'green' crop less risky to grow than coca
Oliver Balch in Mutat and Rory Carroll in Cartagena
Tuesday June 5, 2007

Armed groups in Colombia are driving peasants off their land to make way for 
plantations of palm oil, a biofuel that is being promoted as an environmentally 
friendly source of energy.

Surging demand for "green" fuel has prompted rightwing 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 3 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 Andres 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.

The revelations tarnish what has been considered an economic and environmental 
success story. The fruit of the palm oil tree produces a vegetable oil also used
in cooking, employs 80,000 people, and is increasingly being turned into 

"Four years ago Colombia had 172,000 hectares of palm oil," President Alvaro 
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 1.2m 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 rightwing paramilitaries, and also possibly leftwing 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 palm oil 
plantations. Luis Hernandez (not his real name) fled his 170-hectare plot 
outside the town of Mutata 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 Hernandez.
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 palm oil 
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 Dr Castro, of the 
producers' association.

Christian Aid is funding an effort to protect peasants who are trying to reclaim
land from the paramilitaries, said Dominic Nutt, who has visited the 
plantations. "It is the dark side of biofuel."

The paramilitary groups, first formed in the 80s by businessmen, landowners and 
drug lords to fend off guerrillas, became a powerful illegal army which 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 UN High Commission for Refugees, with
most coming from palm oil-growing areas on the Caribbean coast. "We can't keep 
up, they just keep coming," said Ludiz Ruda, of the Hijos de Maria 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 

Cocaine output rises regardless

Coca production in Colombia has surged despite US-funded eradication efforts, 
according to an estimate that casts fresh doubt on Washington's "war on drugs". 
Satellite imagery collated by the White House Office of National Drug Control 
Policy survey suggests that cultivation of coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine, 
jumped 8% last year to 156,000 hectares.

The estimate was made public before a trip to Washington this week by President 
Alvaro Uribe. If confirmed, it would be the third consecutive rise in 
production, and a blow to the US strategy of bolstering Colombia's security 
forces to help them destroy the crops.

Under its Plan Colombia project, Washington has funnelled more than $5bn 
(£2.5bn) in mostly military aid to its South American ally since 2000 - its 
biggest aid project outside Afghanistan and the Middle East. The Democrats say 
the security forces are accused of human rights abuses and complicity with 

Mr Uribe revealed the unpublished findings in an effort to get the bad news out 
of the way before he started lobbying Congress; the White House did not 
immediately respond.

"They told me they were worried about revealing this number because of my 
upcoming trip to the United States - that the Americans should reveal it," he 
said. "But that's why I'm revealing it. We're not trying to put makeup on what 
is a serious matter."

Plan Colombia began in 1999 and was supposed to halve production of coca within 
five years, using sprayer planes and officers on the ground. But the latest 
estimate suggests that since then it has risen 27%.

Last month Mr Uribe trumpeted a UN report that said cultivation was down to 
79,000 hectares. The conflicting figures were incomprehensible and disorienting,
said the president: "Could it be we've worked in vain? That all our work hasn't 
produced the desired results?"

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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