Fueling Conflict in Colombia: Land rights and the political ecology of oil palm
Author: Olivia Gilmore
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 11/01/2012
Characterized by decades of armed conflict, a volatile political arena, and rising inequality, the stability of Colombia is precarious. Historically, unequal distribution of land, compounded by illicit coca cultivation for the drug trade, has been central to engendering and perpetuating violent conflict. The agro-industrial model of oil palm plantations is often purported to bring economic, social, and environmental benefits while offering a viable alternative to coca production. However, these claims belie a far more complicated reality. Inappropriate and inadequate land tenure policies and a lack of monitoring and enforcement regarding palm oil expansion has led to aggressive displacement of rural farmers, particularly indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations, continued economic backing of paramilitary groups, and extensive environmental degradation.
The Problems with Palm
The statistics on internally displaces persons in Colombia are alarming. An estimated one to three million people have been forcibly displaced by threats or violence, the majority of whom owned land at the time of displacement.[i] Palm oil expansion is a significant contributor to these numbers, as there is a high level of causality between forced displacement and illegal land appropriation, and between land appropriation and palm oil production. The non-governmental organization Human Rights Everywhere, in conjunction with Amnesty International, found that in all palm oil complexes there has been both forced displacement and cases of land theft. Poor indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have been disproportionately affected by this phenomenon, as they often are less likely to have formal land titles or access to legal avenues through which to address their grievances. Individuals and communities are forced off of their land by large, multinational palm oil corporations, paramilitaries, or often a collaborative effort of the two. Armed incursions, murders, and massacres related to palm oil interests have become the norm in all of the major palm oil complexes throughout the country. The central Colombian government, with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), actively promotes palm oil expansion as a crop substitution for coca, to meet the demands of a growing and lucrative bio-fuel market, and to promote economic development at both the local and national levels. As such, palm cultivation in Colombia has increased dramatically in recent years, making it the fastest growing agricultural sector in Colombia and the fifth-largest producer in the world.[ii]
Since the rise of palm oil production in the early 2000’s, nearly all areas of expansion of palm plantations have coincided geographically with paramilitary areas of expansion and presence.[iii] Much like coca’s role in funding guerillas and paramilitaries, the costs involved in the production process of palm oil make growers an easy target for armed groups.[iv] There have been numerous allegations of palm oil companies meeting with paramilitaries in order to arrange the violent displacement and illegal appropriation of people’s lands. Earlier this year, the office of Colombia’s Prosecutor General charged 19 palm oil businesses of allying with paramilitaries after investigations linked the economies of palm oil and funding to such groups.[v] While some farmers have been able to escape from the violence and coercion of guerilla groups by switching to crops other than coca, the link between palm oil and the funding of violent conflict still exists. So strong is this correlation that a study conducted by the Universidad de los Andes argues that a legal product such as palm oil has an equal capacity to finance armed groups as similarly lucrative illegal products.[vi]
Finally, environmental degradation should not be overlooked in the critical assessment of the palm oil industry. Although often heralded as a “green” crop for its use as a non-CO2 emitting bio-fuel, the process of cultivation and production of palm oil is as destructive to the environment as any wide scale monoculture. Particularly on the Pacific coastal plains, the biodiverse ecosystem of equatorial forests is being replaced with a “green desert”, that is, vast swaths of land that can only support a very limited number of species. Deforestation occurs not only to clear land for the crop, but also for access roads so that the fruit can be transported out of plantations. Rivers near palm plantations are polluted by chemical fertilizers and by residual point source and non-point source waste from production that is poured into them.[vii] Particularly impacting indigenous communities is the issue of food sovereignty, as the vast amount of land and water required for palm oil attenuates many communities ability to grow traditional subsistence crops.
Background: historical precedence of land rights in Colombia
At the root of these problems are limitations in the effectiveness of Colombia’s land-use and land tenure laws, compounded by prolonged political turmoil and conflict. Short-term planning, corruption, and power vacuums have led to widespread distrust of both the government and insurgency groups. Also absent in Colombia is a culture of respect for people’s rights, which is a source of recurring human rights violations by both state authorities and individuals.[viii] Land has historically been used as a measure of power and tool of control.
Land ownership has frequently changed hands in the violent armed conflicts that have plagued the rural areas of the country since 1948. A guerrilla army of peasant origin, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC), was established in 1964, under the pretense that farmers should take up arms to defend themselves against state government-backed “land-hungry elites”.[ix] In response, landowners and local leaders, claiming a need for protection from the guerrillas, created paramilitary militias with army support. The majority of these groups operated under the centralized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and are now beyond the control of their original organizers.[x] Drug traffickers, who own substantial areas of the best agricultural land in Colombia, have been involved on both sides.
The security situation in Colombia is complex, and the number of individual conflicts goes into the hundreds, but the result is that, in addition to the blood spilt of the Colombian people, some 3.1 million inhabitants have fled their land or had it seized from them since 1985, creating mass internal migrations to urban areas. Agrarian reform efforts have been largely unsuccessful; the amount of land abandoned is about three times greater than the amount of land redistributed through state agricultural programs since 1961.[xi] Consequently, Colombia has the most unequal distribution of land in all of Latin America, with 0.4% of the population controlling over 60% of the country’s land.[xii] Present day, transnational and state projects have overshadowed any progress towards equitable redistribution of rural lands, thus marginalizing poor peasants, Afro-Colombian communities, and smallholders, and eroding the preservation of indigenous reserves.
Under the laws and boundaries set by the 1991 Constitution, the organization of Colombia as a unitary republic allows for strong central authorities, meaning most public functions are carried out by the state, while local councils are only able to execute a limited number of tasks.[xiii] In 2003, the Colombian Institute for Rural Development (INCODER) replaced the former government agency in charge of carrying out land titling.[xiv] Attached to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, INCODER is a decentralized agency with the mandate to execute agricultural policies, organize property titling, and provide technical and administrative services to territorial entities. It is also assigned the task of surveying indigenous community lands. However, despite its decentralized structure, with the creation of INCODER, many entities formerly working in agricultural reform and redistribution were liquidated, leaving minimal capacity to manage projects and fewer office locations. This is especially problematic for rural landholders, who have limited capabilities in terms of accessing the benefits central offices might provide.
The Colombian cadastre is the land information system used for the administration of land, including rural planning, environmental management, and sustainable development. The cadastre system is decentralized between municipalities, and the goal is to have a uniform methodology for maintaining updated information. However, in rural areas at least 100 municipalities are yet to be covered.[xv] The cadastre is also not coordinated with the public property registry. As such, there are many gaps in information regarding lot-by-lot identification of landowners throughout the country.
Under the constitution, indigenous territories (resguardos) and territories of African descendants are entitled to legal autonomy. Collective property rights for Afro-Colombian communities that have been occupying vacant land in accordance to their traditional farming practices is recognized by law. However, in addition to simply being ignored by more powerful actors, these laws leave room for interpretation and it is often difficult or impossible for rural landowners, particularly the indigenous and Afro-Colombians, to maintain and exercise control over territories they have traditionally occupied. In 2008, INCODER reported that 93% of the land under cultivation by some of the country’s largest oil palm companies was illegally located on lands that belong to Afro-Colombian communities.[xvi]
One of the major flaws in Colombian land tenure policy that is particularly germane to the expansion of palm oil is that assets can be acquired through mere occupation. Invaders can become possessors of rural land, including private property, if they maintain occupation (i.e. are not evicted) for 15 days. The same policy holds true for urban land with the exception that the invader must have 30 days of occupation.[xvii] Lands are typically “occupied” by way of agriculture, infrastructure, cattle ranching or other “improvements”. This form of land acquisition is obviously detrimental for many marginalized groups attempting to maintain autonomy of their territories, as well as for the environment as it creates perverse incentives for deforestation. The poorest communities and households have few options but to live on invaded land, often bordering rivers or ravines, or in other high-risk areas. Few have the ability to prove ownership because they have no titles or because sudden departure prevented them from holding on to such documents. Because of the conflict there is a widespread loss of titles throughout the country. The discrepancy between the occupation policies of rural vs. urban territories also speaks to the historic under-valuing of rural lands in Colombian law.
One of the main goals of the 1991 constitution was to add into the text a new series of laws to protect indigenous populations. As a result, two separate articles establish state recognition of the equality and dignity of all cultures in the country, stipulating that community land of ethnic groups and other public assets, such as natural parks and reserves, cannot be acquired through occupation.[xviii] This would seem to ameliorate the aforementioned problem of invaders occupying rural lands, however in practice this is rarely followed or enforced, especially by powerful palm oil companies using armed paramilitaries as their muscle. These articles also neglect to include the land of Afro-descendants as territorial entities. The following testimony of a displaced Afro-Colombian woman speaks to the common experience of many of these communities:
“The government negotiates projects with multinational companies in the collective territories of Afro-Colombian communities, which result in forced displacement. They make commitments with multinationals and it is we the poor who pay… it is we who suffer, those of us who have been protecting this territory we inherited from our ancestors.”[xix]
Problems related to land tenure, the palm oil industry, and conflict in Colombia are complex and interlinked. It does not seem plausible that the paradigm shift needed to build public confidence in government institutions and respect for the law will occur until conflict has ceased. Conversely, it is argued that peace processes cannot progress without a debate on agricultural reform and a reasonable agreement on the future of the farming sector and rural society.[xx] As such, current initiatives to address this problem are generally broad, aimed at solving larger issues of inequality and brokering peace agreements between major guerilla groups and the Colombian government, rather than addressing individual cases across the country.
Peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC began on October 17th of this year in Oslo, Norway, and will continue in Havana, Cuba, in a hopeful attempt to end the longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. The issues being addressed include the politics of land and agriculture, possibilities for FARC’s legitimate political participation, and the trade of illegal narcotics such as coca.[xxi] Previous round of peace talks that took place in 2002 broke down, causing former President Álvaro Uribe to focus on defeating FARC militarily, denouncing the guerrillas as terrorists. State security forces gradually weakened the guerrillas and their top leader, Alfonso Cano, was killed in 2011.[xxii] Thus far, land redistribution has figured heavily into the Oslo talks. The government is refusing a ceasefire until a peace agreement is reached, while FARC is still pressuring President Juan Manuel Santos and the government to address inequalities and uneven land distribution, which was one of the group’s key platforms at inception.[xxiii] Thousands of Colombians are also petitioning to retrieve more than 800,000 hectares of land allegedly seized by guerrillas. These initiatives are hugely important for the stability and security of Colombia and raise the issue of land reform to that of critical importance. However, as the negotiations are expected to last months, it is too soon to tell if the guarded optimism surrounding the current peace talks is a sign of impending agreements over the issues at stake.
In June 2011, Colombia passed its ambitious Victims’ Law, the government’s first serious attempt at addressing the rights of victims through legal mechanisms.[xxiv] It includes rights to reparation, establishes accountability for various perpetrators, and most significantly, declares the right of restitution for those who have been dispossessed of their land or forcibly displaced. Related to the palm oil industry, the law also imposes new mechanisms to address business accountability in terms of victimization and the involvement of corporations that often fuels displacement and conflict.[xxv] The law specifically targets agro-industrial projects, ensuring that corporations are held financially liable for their involvement in conflict. This represents a progressive step in the right direction in terms of curtailing the palm oil sector’s power to displace local people.
However, the Victims’ Law effectiveness as a justice mechanism that is enforceable is likely to face many challenges given its limitations. The state’s ability to protect the security of returned victims of land dispossession and displacement is questionable, especially in the many rural areas where paramilitary demobilization and dismantlement has yet to be achieved. Additionally, in terms of corporate accountability, the law grants local judges complete discretion in deciding whether businesses contracted land in “good faith”.[xxvi] This type of situation practically begs for corruption and bribes, especially without any additional mechanisms for oversight in the courts. The law also stipulates that general reparations claims will proceed through local courts. Although this could be beneficial for victims unable to proceed through larger courts, this decentralization is troubling because local courts have not typically been able to administer justice fairly or efficiently. Barely more than a year old, the effectiveness of the Victims’ Law has yet to be extensively tested. However, at the very least, this initiative could lead to the creation of more laws to improve the monitoring and enforcement of land tenure problems related to both conflict and palm oil industry.
At present, the land tenure policies and laws in Colombia are perpetuating a system of gross inequalities, displacement, and conflict. These problems are based on historical precedence, weak monitoring and enforcement, and a lack of culture of respect and trust in the government and its laws. First, it is imperative that a peace agreement be reached between the Colombian government and FARC. Without a ceasefire, all attempts at progressive land reform and redistribution will continue to be undermined by violent conflict and intimidation of the country’s rural populations, particularly those that have been historically marginalized. Concessions must be made on both sides. It is important that FARC be included in the political arena so that their demands may be heard through legitimate avenues other than violence. The talks should focus specifically on land reform, which has been at the root of conflict since the beginning, and the rights of the victims who have been displaced, including indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. In order to facilitate peaceful negotiations, the Colombian government should agree to a ceasefire, contingent upon FARC’s continued demobilization and upholding of their commitment to end acts such as kidnapping for ransom. Overall, there should be discussion of how the state’s military structures can be transformed to avoid a relapse into paramilitary conflict.
Reaching a peaceful agreement between parties that have engaged in violent conflict for nearly 50 years will not come easily. However, there are other measures that the Colombian government can take to address the more specific present day issues related to the palm oil industry.
First, the promotion of palm oil as a way to provide alternative livelihoods to demobilized paramilitaries and divert funds away from FARC’s coca revenues while championing the environment should be more critically examined. As this policy brief points out, oil palm can simply serve as a replacement conflict-fueling crop; rather than saving poor farmers from poverty and violence it has often exacerbated these problems while harming the environment. This will force the government to look beyond supply-side anti-drug efforts and tackle deeper institutional weaknesses.
Starting at municipal levels, local governments should commit to investing in crop diversification schemes that will produce other agricultural produce over a sustained period. As the country continues to move away from coca cultivation, it will be important to investigate sustainable alternatives to agro-industrial monocultures. As such, the traditional agricultural practices of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities should be protected by laws which are enforceable and hold palm oil companies accountable for the illegal appropriation of community lands. The Colombian government should focus on supporting the small landholders that build resilient agricultural systems and the foundation of rural communities. INCODER should be strengthened by way of intensifying its presence in decentralized areas and creating more specific delegation of goals, including expanding the cadastre to municipalities still not covered.
In terms of specific land tenure policies, the practice of occupation for 15 days leading to possession of the land should be put to an end. This encourages land grabbing by corporations and paramilitaries alike, leaving few avenues of recourse for poor, rural farmers and indigenous groups. The articles detailing these types of policies should be rewritten by the Colombian government with the political ecology of the country and rights of marginalized groups in mind. This means that alternative approaches for registering ownership of property are needed, especially for land abandoned by displaced persons. These could include more flexible mechanisms such as oral testimonies. In addition to strengthening the protection of indigenous reserves, the land of Afro-descendants should be included as territorial entities when specifying lands that cannot be acquired through occupation.
Finally, the weaknesses pointed out in the newly created Victims’ Law should pave the path for stronger land redistribution and land tenure policy and enforcement. Particularly important is an emphasis on corporate accountability and punishments for illegally appropriating lands either forcibly through collaboration with armed militant groups or through occupation after residents have fled their lands.
A balance must be met between the environment, human rights, and agricultural production. It is not within the scope of this policy brief to detail every possible reform needed in Colombian land policy, as it is a dynamic situation which is still unfolding. However, a more critical and even-handed analysis of the palm oil agro-industry will help to protect both human rights and the environment in a nation transitioning out of conflict.
Bio: Olivia Gilmore is an MA candidate at the University for Peace and American University in Washington.