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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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USAID and Palm

About the Author

Teo Ballvé
Teo Ballvé is a freelance journalist.

Three months after the paras vandalized Petro's home, Urapalma submitted a grant application to the Bogotá offices of ARD Inc., a thirty-year-old rural development contractor based in Burlington, Vermont, with offices in forty-three countries. On its website ARD describes itself as guided by "Vermont's ideals of leadership in environmental affairs and local participation in government." USAID, a major source of ARD's revenue, has $330 million in active contracts with the company.

In January 2003, ARD began administering $41.5 million for USAID's Colombia Agribusiness Partnership Program (CAPP). Urapalma was one of the first palm companies to send an application; the Macaco-linked Coproagrosur received its $161,000 grant the following year (a third of which was returned, unspent). ARD's quarterly reports show that Urapalma requested $700,000 in financing to cover the planting of palm on some 5,000 acres in Urabá--the epicenter of stolen land. The grant application began working its way through ARD's process.

USAID officials refer to Urapalma's proposed project as a "strategic alliance" and typically call such efforts "community driven." "Without our support," said an embassy official, "farmers would have a weaker ability to negotiate fair alliances with the industrial processors." But according to documents from the Colombian attorney general's 2007 investigation, obtained by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, palm companies in Chocó set up these partnerships to legitimize illegal land acquisitions after the fact--often through fraud and coercion.

The investigation files include an affidavit by Pedro Camilo Torres, a former Urapalma employee who from 1999 to 2007 handled the company's loan applications, including the USAID grant proposal. His affidavit charges that Urapalma created campesino "front" organizations to secure phony land titles and gain access to public funds.

The most notorious case of fraud involves Lino Antonio Díaz Almario, who allegedly in 2000 acquired 14,645 acres--an impossible fortune for a poor campesino--and immediately sold these lands to the Association of Small Palm Oil Producers of Urabá, an organization started by Urapalma. But Díaz had been dead since 1995, when he drowned in the Jiguamiandó.

Urapalma's proposed USAID project, as summarized in an ARD report, referred to "Afrocolombian Associations." According to Torres's affidavit and eyewitnesses cited by the attorney general, all of Urapalma's campesino organizations were set up by Teresa Gómez, whom the US Treasury identifies as the "financial manager" of the Castaños' vast narco-paramilitary federation. She managed at least two other paramilitary-affiliated NGOs and is wanted for the murder of a campesino leader in Córdoba province who had clamored for lands seized by the Castaños. Phone calls and messages left with Urapalma's staff over months were not returned.

Urapalma never received the grant money in question, an outcome that Susan Reichle, USAID-Colombia's mission director, says vindicates the agency's "due diligence." Reichle says her team has developed a "land protocol and a whole process to really ensure, to the best of our abilities and through several layers of investigation, that this land is clean land." But, she admits, "unfortunately, you'd love to say it's 100 percent--you're never going to be." Sean Jones, who became head of USAID's alternative development programs in Colombia in 2006, contradicts Reichle, pointing out that Urapalma's application stalled because the company failed to submit paperwork on land titles.

According to CAPP's quarterly reports, a joint USAID-ARD "review committee" had advanced the Urapalma proposal as far as the penultimate stage of the process--the last step before awarding money--by January 2005. Roberto Albornoz, who has headed ARD's agribusiness program in Colombia since the inception of the USAID contract, says his staff conducted due diligence but never turned up evidence of suspicious activities. He confirms that the project was "put on hold" in April 2005 only after Urapalma stopped submitting documentation. Albornoz says his staff did not learn of Urapalma's questionable past until they came across a magazine article published five months after the proposal was put on hold. When pressed as to why ARD screeners failed to suspect the company of illegal activity, Jones echoes Albornoz: "The allegations around Urapalma weren't coming up in the press at that point."

But the forced displacements and massacres in Urabá were already in the public record. In July 2003, a month before Urapalma's USAID application, the national daily El Tiempo reported that "the African palm projects in the southern banana region of Urabá are dripping with blood, misery and corruption." The Washington Post picked up the story two months later.

In declassified cables from the US Embassy, US officials in Bogotá sounded the alarm about the paramilitaries' stranglehold on Urabá as early as 1996. A cable from that year states, "The Castaños have profited greatly from their activities, reportedly acquiring thousands of acres of land in northern Colombia." The cable refers to growing paramilitary control of entire regions and specifically mentions Urabá.

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