Palm oil engulfs Colombia's 'mountains of the jaguar'

No more jaguars here: a worker picks up African palm fruit for processing into palm oil from a young tree in Minas, Colombia, April 25, 2016. Photo: Carlos Villalon / Solidarity Center via Flickr (CC BY).
No more jaguars here: a worker picks up African palm fruit for processing into palm oil from a young tree in Minas, Colombia, April 25, 2016. Photo: Carlos Villalon / Solidarity Center via Flickr (CC BY).
Thousands of small farmers were forced from their lands and homes by paramilitaries in Colombia's Santa Maria mountains, writes Paula Álvarez. But now as a welcome peace allows their return from involuntary exile, they find a new enemy that has come to stay - huge plantations of oil palm that have obliterated the mixed, patchwork landscape of small fields, villages, and swathes of forest on steep-sided hills that they used to inhabit.
All the displacement had something hidden behind it: land purchase on a massive scale. While we were leaving, others bought lands and stayed. Now we are seeing who were the ones who came to our lands, and the ones who murdered and displaced our people.

Palm oil monoculture is expanding in the Montes de María mountains in Colombia, generating protests among communities who are left without lands.

Today it is almost impossible to see a jaguar in Montes de María, an environment where the jungle has been felled and which is now dominated by monocultures, such as teak or oil palm.

The feline king of the American jungles, which was deified by indigenous peoples and became a problem for European conquerors, is, however, still present in each of the cultural expressions in this region of the Colombian Caribbean.

Painted in murals, sung in songs or told in ancestral legends, the jaguar or 'tiger' as it is known locally, is the central figure of the peculiar Montemarian culture.

Legend has it that a sorcerer turned a hungry shepherd into a jaguar so he could eat the cow grazing in front of him. The only thing that the shepherd had to do to return to his human form was refrain from eating the animal's heart, but the 'shepherd tiger' couldn't control himself and so his body has been forever struck in its animal form, and roams the mountains, roaring. 

"Each one of us interprets the legend in our own way", explains Manuel de la Rosa, a young musician of San Juan de Nepomuceno, a town nestled among forested mountains in the Montes de María.

"With the onset of the war, many saw the jaguar as the guerrilla, there in the mountains, and its roar as the explosions characteristic of battles", added Manuel, who was displaced by the conflict three years ago and currently lives in the capital, Bogotá.

No one knows the origins of the legend, although it could have a pre-Columbian origin or have even been introduced in the region by the numerous African slaves that settled there after fleeing their Spanish masters in the coastal cities. Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and mestizo populations make up a melting pot of the mountainous and jungle region of northern Colombia.

Close to a third of the population fled the region between 1998 and 2008.

In the 1980s the war that was spreading throughout the country between the guerrilla groups and the state arrived here to stay. Montes de María was the scene of several of the worst massacres committed during a war that reached unimaginable levels of brutality.

According to Colombian government data, close to a third of the population fled the region between 1998 and 2008, leaving their villages at the mercy of the ghost of war.

After the demobilisation of the paramilitaries and the retreat of the guerrillas a decade ago, the fighting, attacks and kidnapping stopped, and the displaced population started to return to Montes de María.

But the region has been forever changed. Communities found themselves broken. The land has new owners and traditional crops like ñame (yam), cassava and banana have been replaced by a new coloniser: the African oil palm.

All the displacement had something hidden behind it: land purchase on a massive scale. While we were leaving, others bought lands and stayed. Now we are seeing who were the ones who came to our lands, and the ones who murdered and displaced our people.

Monoculture as a consequence of the war

By the side of the road going from María la Baja to El Playón, the oil palm is the queen of the landscape, interrupted only by an enormous treatment plant. The small fruit product of this palm, which originated in Africa, is transformed into oil for culinary, cosmetic and industrial purposes.

During the war, many displaced local peasants decided to sell their lands at any cost while they survived begging on the streets of Cartagena or Barranquilla. Others, having no access to bank credits, agreed to become partners with large agro-industrial companies -  like the ones that are part of Fedepalma - committing themselves to cultivate oil palm for the next 20 years.

From the time of its creation this company ended up convincing many doubters by filling the gaps of a non-existent State in the region with the construction of schools and basic infrastructure. One way or another, the monoculture made its way to become practically the only form of agriculture in the area.

In the Afro-Colombian community of San Cristóbal a massacre was not needed to oblige 70% of the population to move away before death came to their homes. "What we can see is that, through the armed conflict that was present, all the displacement had something hidden behind it all, which was land purchase on a massive scale", said Luis [fictitious name], now spokesman for the San Cristóbal Community Council, who was a child at the time.

In an interview in the main square of the municipality of San Jacinto, he added: "While we were leaving, others arrived, bought lands and stayed. We are reacting now and seeing who were the ones who came to our lands and the ones who murdered and displaced our people. There is a relationship."

In the case of Montes de María it has not been possible to prove in court the direct relationship between the palm oil agro-industry and the displacements that occurred at the hands of paramilitaries groups, as it is the case in the Chocó. But it is interesting that massive land purchases by palm growers ('palmeros') followed the massacres, displacements and emptying of the territory, similar to what took place in other parts of the country like Chocó and Catatumbo.

Agrochemicals the cause of gastrointestinal and skin diseases?

At the beginning of last year, dead fish began to float in the Arroyo Grande dam, a few kilometres from María la Baja. The Colombian Institute of Rural Development (Incoder) took samples, but never determined the reason why the dead fish were piled up on the banks of the reservoir.

Many inhabitants of the nearby villages believe chemicals used in the palm monocultures were responsible. They also believe the same chemicals are causing the gastrointestinal and skin illnesses experienced by the communities, and they had no alternative sources of water. 

Abel Mercado, manager of the palm oil processing plant in Mampuján, denies a relationship between Fedepalma activities and problems with water in the region. "We must understand that this is a long-term project and we cannot just come and make problems for the communities. We must live in a harmonious way", he explains.

For the palm entrepreneur "under the model of alliance with small producers all the elements in the production chain benefit, and the crops generate work for people", though he does recognise that oil palm cultivation does not sufficiently compensate for the lack of food crops in economic and food sovereignty terms.

To remedy this, Mercado assures his partners that they can include other types of crops other than oil palm on their lands, but currently there are thousands of uninterrupted hectares of only palm monoculture in María la Baja.

Grass-roots alternatives and resistance

As the road moves away from María la Baja and begins to go around the mountains in the direction of San Juan de Nepomuceno, the vast stretches of palm crops slowly disappear.

In this transition area between oil palm plantations of the north and teakwood plantations of the south, peasants have been able to organise themselves into cooperatives and resist the advance of monocultures.

Sixty-nine families have come together under an association called Asoagro to work in partnership on their lands and to create an economic project that is both respectful of their traditional forms of cultivation and economically viable. There, every farmer still owns his land, while the community has to give its approval for the sale of a plot to a third party.

"Grass-roots organisations like Asoagro have served as a protective shield to prevent land dispossession", says Antonio [fictitious name], an Asoagro representative. "Logging companies have offered us a lot of money, but we don't want it because the land gives us back much more than money when we work on it. I do not know what I could do with money, but I do know what I have to do with the land."

The organisation, founded in 2004 by smallholder (campesino) victims of displacement, produces yams, cocoa, and honey, among other products which now they are starting to export. It is one of the examples of grass-roots organisations emerging - and succeeding - in the area.

Ecotourism one route to harmonious development

In the southern part of Montes de María lies La Esperanza, one of the few Zenu indigenous communities that still exists in the area. It has opted for community-managed tourism that respects the environment as an alternative to agribusiness.

"Teak and palm projects have been offered to us, but we have rejected them because we maintain our culture and our right to the environment, we live from nature", explains the indigenous community leader (Captain) Isaías.

The Ecolosó ecotourism park, which includes a waterfall in the middle of a forested area, was approved this year despite the initial reluctance of some of the indigenous people to receive tourists in their region.

"It is a natural source, which can be damaged if used in excess, but we realise that if we properly manage it, we could improve the quality of life of the inhabitants and the visitors can take with them a very good image of the community once they are gone", says Julia, a representative of the indigenous Cabildo (council).

Cansona Hill (cerro de la Cansona), belonging to the municipality of Carmen de Bolívar, is one of the few points more than 1,000 metres above sea level in Montes de María. From its summit there is a panoramic view encompassing the Arroyo Grande dam, the beginning of the 11,000 hectares of the oil palm monocultures of María la Baja and, on a clear day, the Caribbean Sea and the city of Cartagena de Indias.

On the top of the high mountain, young people like Steven, who is 24 years old, started to get organised in 2013 to try to prevent what was starting to look as a second wave of displacement after the one caused by the war.

"With the monoculture, we are going to be displaced again because we are running out of land, and a campesino without land is not a campesino. Our identity is to sow", explains Steven, member of the group 'Youngsters Who Make Peace Happen'.

The monoculture has not yet arrived in this upland area as it has done at the foot of the mountains. Steven attributes this to greater organisation and peasant consciousness, like in San Juan or with the indigenous people of Esperanza:

"The difference is that the María la Baja area is not organised, so we got together and submitted a proposal of different grass-roots organisations stating that we didn't want palm. They saw that we were organised and stopped asking."

'Somehow, we resist so others resist too'

In the majority of cases, however, resistance from the bottom up collides with public policies functionally articulated with the interests of the private sector. People claim a place to live and eat, and the palm provides neither of them.

Meanwhile, traditional forms of cultivation, respectful of the environment and guarantor of at least a minimum of food sovereignty, are receding together with ancestral cultures. The Montemarian jaguar seems condemned to disappear entirely in the face of expansive agricultural methods. 

Surrounded by oil palm crops, the rural settlement (vereda) of Mampuján, in María la Baja, is an island of resistance against the advance of monoculture. Its roads are not paved and almost all the houses are half finished. Carlos, a campesino who was displaced during the conflict along with 1,400 more people, explains why they continue to resist, against wind and tide, like a jaguar that defends its territory:

"When we work in the field, the sun is very strong, very hot. And we know that if we leave the machete and go in the shade, the others will go in the shade too. Therefore, we continue with the machete, working, even if the sun is overpowering. Somehow, we resist so others resist too."



Paula Álvarez is an independent researcher in the conflict surrounding the cultivation of oil palm in María la Baja.

This article was originally published here in the E-Newsletter of the Forest Peoples Programme . Also available in Español, Français, Bahasa Indonesia.

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