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What Biofuels mean to the citezens of Colombia

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  • landerian
    I had the honour to meet, listen and learn from a representative of Organizacion Nacional Indigena De Colombia (ONIC). He visited the UK to tell the story of
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2007
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      I had the honour to meet, listen and learn from a representative of
      Organizacion Nacional Indigena De Colombia (ONIC). He visited the UK
      to tell the story of what is happening to his peoples and the Afro-
      Colombian community at the hands of those who wield the power in his
      country. He explained the role palm oil plays in the lives of the
      people he represents. In Columbia oil palms are known as African

      In the notes I took, I have tried to accurately reproduce what I

      ONIC speak on behalf of the voiceless people who live in the Choco
      (which is on the Pacific coast) and Amazonas (in the South,
      bordering Peru & Brazil) regions of Colombia. These vast areas are
      home to indigenous, Afro-Colombians and small farmers and huge
      biodiversity, rainforests, water, minerals and oil.

      These areas have always been ignored by the government. Although in
      1959 they were declared forest reserves. And in 1980, they became
      important to international capital, with associated development
      plans. In practise, this meant; airports, roads, ports. The words
      rural development was also used, which meant that the old growth
      forest became cocoa, rubber and African palm (oil palm) plantations,
      for biodiesel. Colombia has signed the Convention on Biodiversity
      and the Kyoto Protocol.

      Colombia has endured civil violence and murder for over 25 years.
      The paramilitaries claim to force guerrillas out of rainforests when
      it is clear the land is owned by the indigenous and Afro-Colombian
      communities, who have title to the land.

      We were told of one case where paramilitaries displaced 25,000
      people and stole from them, 30,000 hectares of land. This land was
      cleared and African palm plantations were sown as the paramilitary
      said it was not collective property. The international community
      challenged this and ordered the companies to return the land to the
      rightful owners. This was ignored. In the last 20 years, more than 3
      million people have been displaced. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian
      people are killed by the government, paramilitaries and guerrillas.

      The African palm plantations force the displaced communities to
      become associates of the palm oil companies. The workers are paid in
      vouchers which can only be exchanged for goods in the company shop,
      where items can be double the price of normal outlets. The price of
      sugar has gone up because of land use changes. If workers speak out
      they are assassinated. The corporations involved in the biofuel
      industry say they have nothing to do with human rights.

      The most important thing to the local communities, who live in the
      rainforests, is food security and their homeland guarantees this.
      The biodiversity of the forest provides them with an environmentally
      stable social infrastructure and they know how to look after this.
      They say that the government model signifies destruction of all this
      and it is all about money. They say that their communities offer
      sustainability and conservation of the environment, based on the
      values of their community life. The government model leads to death
      and human rights abuses.

      African palm oil is not only against the local community and natures
      interests, but international interests. Activists and international
      people should concern themselves about this. There are 20 national
      parks in Colombia. This makes no difference to deforestation. These
      parks contain animal and plant species not found in any other region.

      Our speaker went on to talk about palm oil from the point of view of
      deforestation. He said that: you know the implications on climate
      change, the implications on biodiversity and the earth's genetic
      bank, on contamination of rivers, which are central for the people's

      He explained how there is no control in Colombia of environmental
      degradation, new diseases and epidemics, bought by the loggers and
      plantation workers. There is no control over destruction of
      ecosystems, in over production of the land, which destroys the
      streams and rivers, and which reduces the fertility of the soil, all
      of which generates more poverty.

      The government is planning to develop 12 million hectares, mostly in
      Choco and Amazonas. The government is planning to destroy 12 million
      hectares of rainforest as it is not deemed to have any productive
      value. We were told that when this happened, the forests would no
      longer be the lungs of the earth. This is despite Colombia having
      international obligations in terms of forest protection. This
      destruction represents another way for the rich families of Colombia
      (who possess most of the wealth of the nation) to get more land. The
      land in the centre of Colombia already has a productive value and is
      not suitable for growing African palms.

      The leading environmental University in Colombia publishes false
      information on the environment. Environmentalists and students, who
      do not go along with these falsehoods, are threatened with death.

      We were told that every plant (this might have been tree) that grows
      to 50cm or higher belongs to the state. Therefore companies don't
      need a licence to chop the trees down. The state can hand over
      forests to logging companies or plantation owners who can use the
      land as collateral for loans to carry out their business plan for
      the forest.

      The government says that this state of affairs only applies to empty
      unpopulated forests. We were told that this was a lie as all forests
      are populated by Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The
      government pretends that deforestation and African palms are
      unconnected. 6 million hectares of rainforest have already been
      destroyed for African palm plantations, rubber plantations, or used
      to rear cattle. The majority of the land is for African palm and the
      majority of palm oil will be used for biodiesel. Paramilitaries have
      taken the land by force from the local communities.

      In Colombia if you had lived on some land for twenty years, it was
      your land. When President Aribi was elected, he changed this law to
      ten years. So when the indigenous and Afro-Colombian people were
      displaced from their land in Choco in 1996, in 2006 the paramilitary
      owned it. The government is proposing to lower this period to five
      years. We were told that this was legalisation of robbery and that
      the paramilitaries are financed by palm oil and cocoa. That is why
      the indigenous people have an integrated understanding and vision of
      this problem.

      We heard a description of how the indigenous people recognise the
      sickness that mother earth is suffering and we all need to recognise
      how we can ensure its survival. Developed countries who value the
      forests should pay to protect them. Reference was made to work
      Survival International have done with an indigenous tribe in the
      North of the country. This tribe says that their people's laws are
      based on systems of permanence, an idea of forever, based upon the
      water, the land and the living beings that inhabit it. This is the
      perspective from which they use the natural resources; whereas the
      younger brother's laws are based on systems of constant change.

      So our call to you is to see this as part of an international whole.
      It's not a problem for one country, but of the global community
      because the impact of climate change, affects not just the people in
      Colombia, but all over the world. It is clear that without
      solidarity there will not be a change in Colombia. We need a
      globalised solidarity, that's the only way left to us.

      The representative of ONIC said that concerned people in the West
      can help the people he represents: They need to know which companies
      have interests in Colombian biofuel. These companies need to be
      boycotted as this strategy will hurt the plantation owners. We were
      shown a film where a plantation owner was interviewed. The
      plantation owner also had a request: He appealed for people not to
      interfere in his trade, but to help him instead.

      The representative said that his people needed help to deal with the
      government. He said ONIC needs funding to educate local communities
      what the implications of African palm plantations are.

      He said that they need Westerners to live and travel with indigenous
      and Afro-Colombians as the paramilitaries don't tend to kill

      He asked that we share information and experiences.

      Finally there was a people's tribunal on palm oil in Colombia this
      February. Local communities and other interested parties were able
      to deliver evidence to a jury of intellectuals.

      The speaker said that what he had said were not so much his words,
      but a mandate from the indigenous authorities.

      Ian Lander
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