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The Dark Side of Plan Colombia | The Nation

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The Dark Side of Plan Colombia

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Land Theft and the Biofuel Boom

About the Author

Teo Ballvé
Teo Ballvé is a freelance journalist.

Brig. Gen. Pauxelino Latorre led an elderly farmer through a maze of concrete hallways, past a series of harshly lit rooms overlooking banana plantations and deep into the barracks of the Colombian army's Seventeenth Brigade in Carepa, a town in northwestern Colombia. Soldiers saluted stiffly as the general barreled by. The farmer--Enrique Petro--poor, in his late 60s, shuffled a few steps behind, trying to avoid eye contact.

Petro was understandably anxious. Criminal investigations had repeatedly linked the Seventeenth Brigade to illegal paramilitary groups that had brutally killed thousands, including Petro's brother and teenage son. As he walked deeper into the barracks, Petro had a sense of foreboding. Latorre opened a door into a building at the back of the base, where Javier Daza, then head of Urapalma, was waiting. In the ensuing encounter, Daza and the general did most of the talking.

It was August 2004. A few days earlier, Petro had complained to the general that Urapalma was growing oil palms on land paramilitaries had stolen from him in 1997, in the nearby province of Chocó. In response, the general had suggested a meeting at the base, and Petro, supposing he had little to lose, had agreed. By the end of the brief sit-down, Petro says, Daza and Latorre had intimidated him into legally validating the seizure of his land. With Latorre's signature on the contract as a witness, Petro lost 85 percent of his 370-acre farm--for which, nearly five years later, he has yet to receive the meager payment.

Petro is one of the lucky ones; he is still alive. According to reports by the Colombian government and nongovernmental organizations, Urapalma has illegally claimed more than 14,000 acres of dense tropical land in Chocó--land seized with the help of people like Latorre and his paramilitary collaborators. Latorre, a graduate of the US Army training academy known as the School of the Americas, was charged last year with laundering millions of dollars for a paramilitary drug ring, and prosecutors say they are looking into his activities as head of the Seventeenth Brigade. Another general, Rito Alejo Del Río, who led the Seventeenth Brigade at the time of Petro's displacement, is in jail on charges of collaborating with paramilitaries; he, too, received training at the School of the Americas.

Government reports, legal documents and testimony from human rights groups show that drug-fueled paramilitaries--often in cooperation with the US-funded military--forcibly displaced thousands of Chocó's farmers in the late 1990s, killing more than a hundred. Since 2001 Urapalma and a dozen other palm companies have seized at least 52,000 acres of the depopulated land in Chocó, most of it held collectively by Afro-Colombian farmers like Petro.

The damage may be just beginning. In 2005 Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, citing surging markets in food and biofuels, urged the country to increase palm production from 750,000 acres to 15 million acres--an area the size of West Virginia. Critics point out that many of the new palm growing regions exhibit patterns of narco-trafficking and paramilitary violence similar to that in Chocó, including massacres and forced displacement. A report by the international organization Human Rights Everywhere found violent crimes related to palm cultivation in five separate regions--all of which fall within Uribe's initiative. Almost all of these regions have also been targeted for palm cultivation support by USAID.

The US agency administers Plan Colombia's alternative development program from its headquarters in the massive bunkerlike compound of the US Embassy, on one of Bogotá's busiest streets. Oil palm, or African palm, is one of the few aid-funded crops whose profits can match coca profits. Since 2003 USAID's alternative development contracts have provided nearly $20 million to oil palm agribusiness projects across the country.

Almost half the palm oil produced in Colombia is exported each year--mostly to Europe but also to the United States. The government now has its sights on the stalled US-Colombia free trade agreement, whose passage by Congress--seen as likely, with President Obama's explicit support--would allow Colombian palm oil to enter US markets duty-free. Although the oil finds its way into various US food imports, Colombia is banking on the burgeoning market for biofuels.

"We are at the dawn of a grand new development in energy: biodiesel production from African palms," president Uribe said in 2005 as he announced the initiative. The country has roughly doubled its acreage planted in palms since 2001, the year Colombia became the world's fourth-largest exporter of palm oil--and the year palm companies arrived in Chocó.

Human rights groups have long accused palm companies in Colombia--Urapalma in particular--of cultivating stolen lands. Jens Mesa, president of Fedepalma, the national palm growers' federation, says these charges are grossly overblown. Mesa complains that the Chocó companies, which are not in the federation, are exceptions that have unfairly stigmatized the industry.

Nonetheless, the Congressional Black Caucus has frequently expressed its concerns about the palm industry, which is concentrated in areas with large Afro-Colombian populations, to the Uribe administration. Worried that Congress will withhold Plan Colombia funds or block the trade deal, the Colombian government has begun to take these charges more seriously. In late 2007, Attorney General Mario Iguarán announced an investigation into allegations that twenty-three palm company representatives in Chocó, including Urapalma's, worked with paramilitaries to seize community-owned land. Around the same time, Senator Patrick Leahy attached an amendment to Plan Colombia funds that prohibits the financing of palm projects that "cause the forced displacement of local people." Congress will soon debate Plan Colombia funding for 2010, the first foreign appropriations budget penned by the Obama team. In the bill's current draft, Leahy's amendment is marked for deletion.

Sean Jones, until mid-May USAID's director for alternative development in Colombia, recognizes that the country's palm oil industry has "two faces." One is the law-abiding companies, he says, but "there is this ugly face of African palm, too, where you have some really nasty players out there."

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