Projet Accompagnement Solidarité Colombie

Palm Growers and Paramilitaries in Uraba

4 October 2006

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

Sean Donahue