Colombian bio-energy boom is a bust for farmers

Colombia’s biofuel industry is increasingly coming under scrutiny for human rights abuses. Palm tree oil companies in particular have been accused of using using illegal militias to seize land from thousands of primarily Afro-Colombian and indigenous farmers. The Washington Post has reported that as many as 3,000 farmers have been forced to abandon a total of 247,000 acres of land.

After launching an investigation against 27 palm oil companies in 2007, last March Colombia’s Attorney General ordered nine of them to return thousands of acres of land to rural households. This territory was allegedly obtained through methods like doctored records, false land titles or slightly messier strategies, like cutting off people’s arms and using the fingerprints to forge signatures.

So far, three palm oil companies have agreed to return 3,200 acres to their rightful owners. But more needs to be done to ensure that Colombia’s bio-energy boom is actually beneficial for the rural poor, rather than yet another cause of terror and displacement.

At the moment, most of the production and processing of biofuels is done through large-scale producers, such as the five sugarcane mills in Valle del Cauca that reportedly pump out one million liters of ethanol a day. The State needs to better promote and develop small-scale bioenergy technologies that campesinos could use to tangibly improve their lives. In countries like Zambia, Tanzania and Mali, local farmers’co-ops – often headed by women – have turned biodiesel-producing-plants into their village’s new cash crop. In Costa Rica, one non-profit helps foster local sustainable energy use by assisting rural women in building and using their own solar stoves.

If small-scale farmers in Colombia could sell seeds and produce to biofuel processors in the same way that small-scale coffee farmers already do with coffee buyers, this would also help cut down on the damage caused by large-scale biofuel farming. Massive monoculture plantations are used to cultivate palm oil, sugar cane and cassava, which not only threatens local biodiversity, but also necessitates heavy duty use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Microlevel banking has already been proved a huge success around the world. Similarly for Colombia’s bio-energy business, bigger is not always better.

The State also needs to do more to address the disgrace which is Urapalma. There is strong evidence that this particular palm oil company has seized approximately 52,000 acres of land in Choco since 2001, with paramilitary thugs doing the dirty work. Both Jens Mesa, president of the national palm growers’ federation, and Prosecutor General Mario Iguaran need to stop complaining that these charges are blown out of proportion and actually conduct a transparent, thorough investigation.

This is no easy task in Colombia, but Uribe’s government should realize that it desperately needs to clean up its image. For better or worse, Uribe is hoping that the Obama administration soon ratifies the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The U.S.A. will remain iffy about doing so, as long as it appears that paramilitary groups are terrorizing the countryside without so much a slap on the wrist.

Colombia can demonstrate its commitment to stopping human rights abuses by coming down hard on biofuel-related violence.

The U.S. government also needs to pull its own weight. There is some evidence that U.S. dollars may potentially have ended up funding at least two palm oil companies with paramilitary and drug trafficking links. $161,000 worth of USAID money allegedly went to Coproagrosur and another $650,000 to Gradesa, two companies that reportedly had known ‘paras’ sitting on their board of directors.

The U.S. can make good when the Senate votes on Plan Colombia, slated for 2010. Earlier this week, a subcommittee of the House of Representatives approved $520 million in aid. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has added an amendment to the plan that would pull funding from palm oil companies shown to have forcibly seized land and displaced farmers. As of now, this Senate amendment is slated for removal by 2010. Quick, painless advice: don’t delete it!

Colombia may yet see a green revolution within its borders. But let’s ensure it’s a revolution without blood on its hands.