In a move apparently aimed at appeasing US Congressional opposition to the free trade agreement, Bogotá has ordered nine palm oil companies to return thousands of acres to displaced Afro-Colombian peasants in Chocó department. The Prosecutor General’s office is investigating the firms’ operators on accusations of homicide, land theft and forced displacement.
President Álvaro Uribe’s administration urgently wants a free-trade agreement with the US, but Democrats have made clear the pact is contingent on human rights advances in Colombia. Uribe has touted Chocó—especially its conflicted northern region, Urabá—as a showcase.
But a pattern of government collaboration with the paramilitary violence in Urabá emerges from court documents and depositions by imprisoned para commanders and a former financial adviser to region’s largest palm oil company, Urapalma. Government investigators say the paramilitaries that terrorized Urabá in 1996 and 1997 worked with troops commanded by Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio, now himself detained pending charges. More than 100 villagers were slain, and up to 3,000 forced to abandon 247,000 acres—an expanse about a third the size of Rhode Island.
“I’m not so sure that these efforts by the government would be made had it not been for the external pressure that we’ve raised,” said Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-NJ), a member of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee and Congressional Black Caucus. Payne is among several Caucus members who have met with Uribe to raise their concerns. Some have also traveled to Chocó, under heavy military guard, to visiting the impacted areas.
Few groups have been hit as hard by the country’s civil war as the Afro-Colombians, who make up more than 20% of Colombia’s 45 million people—the largest Black population in Spanish-speaking America. The Afro-Colombian population in Chocó suffers from an infant mortality rate twice the national average, and a poverty rate topping 75%. In the ’90s, the palm companies then built roads through Chocó’s forests and planted nearly 15,000 acres with African palm, used as a biofuel and in many other products. The few peasants who had individual titles to land were forced to sell. “They would say, ‘Sell, or your widow will,'” recalled one campesino interviewed by the Washington Post.
The community held most of the land under collective title, as permitted under a constitutional provision recognizing Afro-Colombian territorial autonomy. Though collectively owned land cannot be sold, investigators charge the companies got around that by creating false titles and doctoring records.
Court documents show that loans to bankroll the palm oil operations came from the state rural development bank, the Banco Agrario. Urapalma received most of its start-up funding from the bank, and the company accounted for 89% of the Rural Credit Initiatives (ICRs) provided from 2002 to 2006 through a state rural development fund, FINAGRO.
Urapalma and its partner comapnies Palmas de Urabá, Palmas de Curvaradó, Agropalma and Palmura took over the Afro-Colombian collective territories of Curvaradó y Jiguamiando after they had been cleansed by the paramilitaries. Again forging documents, the companies signed deals with paramilitary-controlled “peasant associations” that now claimed title to the land. Court documents and testimony indicate that Urapalma and Palmas de Urabá representatives met with Vicente Castaño, a top para commander who had publicly outlined his plan to cover the region with African palm.
Another jailed commander, Ever Veloza (AKA “HH”), told prosecutors that one man hired by the companies to “legalize” the land seizures was Rodrigo Zapata, a paramilitary leader who was wanted in connection with hundreds of killings. Last April, in a scandal that rocked the country, Zapata helped organize a secret meeting at the presidential palace, Casa de Nariño, between top presidential aides and the emissaries of imprisoned para commander Diego Fernando Murillo AKA Don Berna.
“The investigations by the attorney general’s office are beginning to clear up the story of these companies,” said Victor Abramovich, head of an Organization of American States delegation that visited Chocó and issued a report on the case. “I’m not saying that all the companies are tied to the paramilitaries, but there are some that are directly linked.”
Palm company officials did not return calls to the Washington Post; nor did Urapalma attorney Abelardo de la Espriella. But a former manager and lawyer for Urapalma, Carlos Daniel Merlano, said the companies thought the land had been acquired legally. “If the company had known this land belonged to the Afros, no one would have invested in that land,” he said.
Three of the companies agreed to return 3,200 acres to the Afro-Colombians, which the government turned over to the community last week. The other companies, which hold about 39,000 acres with what the government says are false titles, are still trying to negotiate a deal, with litigation pending.
“This is the African palm they planted on my farm, illegally, without permission,” repatriated campesino Enrique Petro told the Washington Post’s Juan Forero. “They killed families, sons, friends and neighbors to plant this palm, so this plant is stained with blood.”
In Chocó, there is skepticism that the reign of paramilitary terror is over. Afro-Colombian leaders continue to face threats and one, Walberto Hoyos, was killed in October. “The criminal networks are still there,” said German Romero, a lawyer with a local rights group, Justicia y Paz. “So they are afraid.” (WP, March 23; Kaos en la Red, Barcelona; March 11, 2009; Semana, Bogotá, Aug. 23, 2008)