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African palm plantation companies are playing a growing role in helping paramilitaries consolidate their control of the Uraba region of Choco and Antioquia in Colombia. Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and peace communities have long stood in the way of corporate projects in Uraba. Paramilitaries working closely with the Colombian military have mounted carried out a campaign of massacres and assasinations in the region for decades -- a history of violence and repression that Laura del Castillo Matamoros summarized brilliantly in a column on this site exporing the background of the most recent massacre in the peace community of San José de Apartadó. Paramilitary activity in the region has traditionally been funded by mining interests, drug traffickers, and cattle ranchers. But in recent years, companies planting large plantations of African Palm trees have played more and more of a role in helping paramilitaries consolidate their control of this coveted region. According to a prominent Colombian human rights activist who asked not to be named, mining and timber companies have been making informal deals with palm oil companies concerning their shared interests in suppressing unions and clearing land in Uraba. In recent years, international groups have focussed increased attention on the human rights situation in Colombia, and especially on the role of paramilitaries in the mining sector. Because of this, multinational mining companies have been working to clean up their image and distance themselves further from the paramilitaries. Palm oil companies have been picking up the slack, playing an increasing role in financing paramilitaries and laundering their money. They have less exposure to external pressure than mining companies, because they are generally Colombian owned companies that serve as a middle man selling their product to agribusiness giants like Unilever and General Foods that can easily deny knowledge of or responsibility for what's happening in the palm growing areas. The companies are buying up land abandoned when people flee massacres and planting it with palm trees. The trees quickly deplete the soil of its vital nutrients, further devaluing the land, making it cheaper for mining and energy companies to buy. Inspired by the success of Canadian companies in rewriting Colombia's mining code, lawyers from international financial institutions and big global agribusiness companies are apparentlly now in the process of rewriting Colombian agricultural laws to create incentives and tax rebates for plantation owners and allow for "securitization" for large plantation projects. The process of "securitization" and "capitalization" allows investors to raise money based on future projected earnings -- a method other industries have used to generate money to funnell to the paramilitaries. In the case of the agricultural sector the money is easily laundered through land transactions. (For background on the Colombian mining code see The Profits of Extermination by Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, President of SINTRAMINERCOL, recently translated into English by Aviva Chomsky and published in the U.S. by Common Courage Press.) The palm oil companies have also recently inserted themselves into the paramilitaries sham "demobilization process" by creating the "Empresarios Exitosos Por La Paz," a group of companies that have agreed to give jobs to "demobilized" members of the AUC. Many of these new workers are joining unions and spying from within, providing intelligence to help their unrehabilitated companeros know which organizers to kill first. Once the authentic leaders of the local unions are wiped out, the ex-paramilitaries will be able to take their place, setting up docile unions that won't cause trouble for the companies, and allowing Uribe or his successor to proclaim the end of paramilitary violence against union organizers in Uraba. Once Uraba is "pacified", and once the palm oil companies have ruined the soil and left, the mining and timber companies can remove the region's reminaining resources, the energy companies can dam its rivers, and the multinationals can finally build their roads and canals to speed commorce.
Sean Donahue