What Biofuels mean to the citezens of Colombia
- 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 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
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.