Critics hit out at the eco-friendly cosmetics firm after a supplier cleared Colombian ranch land to grow palm oil– and riot police were brought in to enforce the removal of farmers
The Body Shop, the cosmetics giant that claims to source ingredients from companies that protect local farmers’ rights, buys palm oil from an organisation that pushed for the eviction of peasant families to develop a new plantation.
Daabon Organics, a Colombian firm that provides the British chain with 90% of all its palm oil, was part of a consortium that asked the courts to remove farmers from a sprawling ranch 320km north of the capital Bogotá with a plan to grow African palm. Police in riot gear evicted the farmers in July.
Now solicitors for 123 peasant farmers and their families are appealing against the decision with the backing of a British charity. They say that some locals had lived and worked on the land for more than 10 years and had already applied for the right to own it under Colombian law before the consortium bought it.
The disclosure will embarrass the Body Shop, which has claimed that it respects the rights of local farmers in developing countries and uses Daabon’s oil to make the equivalent of 7.5 million bars of soap every year. It will also highlight the many battles between farmers and palm oil companies across the globe as the product becomes increasingly lucrative.
“The Body Shop should reconsider its decision to buy palm oil from Daabon in the light of this conflict,” said Catherine Bouley of Christian Aid, which is backing the farmers’ legal action. “The Colombian government would like to triple the area under palm cultivation, which will only exacerbate the problem of displacement.” The dispute began in December 2006 when Daabon’s subsidiary CI Tequendama and a partner company bought Las Pavas, a 1,100-hectare (2,700-acre) ranch in Southern Bolivar province. The consortium applied for an eviction order in January this year which was enforced in July.
Solicitors acting for the peasant farmers claim that the consortium should have been aware that the land had been home to families who had been cultivating crops including plantain, maize and squash for more than 10 years.
The peasants say they had previously been forced off the land in mid-2006 by paramilitary groups, but had moved back some six months later and made a legal submission to own it for good. Under Colombian law, ownership can be granted to farmers who have occupied abandoned land for more than three years.
Banessa Estrada, a solicitor for the peasants, said that the families had formed a co-operative and submitted an official claim on the land in mid-2006, several months before the consortium’s purchase. “It was an illegal eviction because they did not take into account the claim of the land made by the peasants,” she said.
Another palm oil company had taken an interest in buying the land in 2006, but had backed down after discussions with the peasants, campaigners claim.
A small group of farmers returned to the ranch last week for the first time since their eviction – with a reporter.
Misael Payares, leader of the peasants’ association, pointed to a row of recently felled trees by the side of a new road. “This is what a supposedly ecologically friendly company is doing,” he said.
Ader Rojas, who grew plantain on the ranch, said much of the plot had been churned up. The wooden shelter he built near the plot had been destroyed and a bog near his land had been drained. “This was all I had,” he said.
The evicted peasants have set up a camp in the schoolyard of the nearby village. Over open fires, they prepare meals of corn fritters and cheese for the 500 men, women and children with food donated by aid agencies.
The Body Shop, which is the world’s second largest cosmetics franchise and has 2,400 stores in 61 countries, was founded by the late Dame Anita Roddick and is now part of L’Oréal group.
Its distinctive eco-friendly image – it was the first British cosmetics chain to introduce refillable bottles – has been preserved by L’Oréal and it continues to campaign for the rights of local producers. In June 2007, while announcing its deal with Daabon, The Body Shop called on manufacturers and retailers to follow its lead to help slow the drastic environmental and social effects of unsustainable production.
“We have changed our entire soap range to be manufactured using palm oil from one of the leading sustainable plantations – Daabon in Colombia,” it said in a press release. “We have commissioned our own audit and visited the plantation to ensure the protection and welfare of communities, workers and the surrounding jungle is preserved.
“Production impacts on the rights of indigenous populations, often creates poor labour conditions and has severe health implications for women working on the plantations,” it read.
The Body Shop has a current commitment to community trade by seeking out small-scale farmers, traditional craftspeople, rural co-operatives and even tribal villages, according to the company’s website.
Daabon, a certified organic producer, is a family-run company that was set up in 1914 but has grown substantially over the past five years. It now has 714 office in Colombia and 28 offices in other countries including the US, Germany, Japan, and Australia. Alberto Davila, Daabon’s president, has been photographed embracing Colombia’s president Dr Alvaro Uribe Vélez.
The demand for palm oil has soared over the past 15 years and it is found in foods such as margarine, crisps and chocolate, as well as in soap, cosmetics and biofuel.
The oil is used as a hardener in a wide range of personal care products. It was present in 497 products launched globally in 2007 compared with 246 in 2006, according to market researchers.
But the growth has led to a backlash from environmental groups concerned that forests across the tropics are being cut down to make way for plantations, destroying habitat for endangered species and resulting in the displacement of local people.
Greenpeace says the palm oil industry contributes to carbon emissions when producers establish new plantations on peat bogs, which store carbon. Draining and burning peat bogs to establish plantations releases greenhouse gases.
The protests have taken some producers by surprise because five years ago they developed a certification system for producing environmentally sustainable palm oil.
A spokeswoman for Daabon said the company had never been involved in any other land disputes and was seeking to resolve the case through the courts and “community outreach”. She said it had no knowledge of any claim by the farmers before it acquired the land and had taken all steps to come to an agreement with them.
She added that any preparation of the farmland since July would have ensured that any protected areas would not be affected.
“The Daabon group and its subsidiaries have never had any previous land conflicts and would under no circumstances knowingly violate the rights of legitimate land holders,” she said.
“[A] consultation will focus on explaining the company’s plans for an inclusive model which could offer better living standards and opportunities for communities in the areas, similar to that developed in the Magdalena region.”
A spokesman for The Body Shop said that the disputed land has not produced oil for its products.
“The Body Shop is committed to the defence of human rights and trading ethically, and works closely with suppliers to uphold our values. We are aware of the allegations regarding land rights in Colombia and we are liaising with our suppliers in that region and monitoring the situation closely.”
• Palm oil, a reddish substance derived from the pulp of the fruit of African oil palm, is widely used as a cooking oil, for producing detergents and biofuel.
• It is the target of campaigners because demand has led to the deforestation of millions of acres of forest in Indonesia, Malaysia and Colombia.
• In Borneo, tropical hardwood forests are being cleared for palm oil plantations, leading to fires covering parts of south-east Asia in haze.
• The UN has said that if deforestation in Sumatra and Borneo continues, the orang-utan could be extinct in 15 years.
For more about the use of African palm as a biofuels, click here
To find out what Christian Aid thinks about UK policy towards Colombia, click here