Page last updated at 16:49 GMT, Sunday, 21 December 2008

Afro-Colombians fight biodiesel producers

By Jane Monahan

For Afro-Colombians evicted from their land in north-western Colombia and along the Pacific coast, the loss of familiar surroundings of lush jungle and rugged mountains can be devastating.

Members of the community being stopped by local paramilitaries and members of the army
Many families have faced eviction from their land

Take Yajaira, a slender 18-year-old, one of four children whose family was displaced from a settlement in the Cacarica river basin just south of Colombia's border with Panama.

She misses her place of origin deeply.

"My home was surrounded by banana and mango trees, and coconut palms," she recalls, fingering a bracelet she wears made of seeds and feathers gathered in tropical forests.

"We used to bathe and fish in a nearby stream."

Currently, Yayaira spends part of the year in Bogota, Colombia's Andean capital, where blue-black clouds seem to hover perpetually over the city.

It often rains and it is cold, in sharp contrast to the sultry heat of the north-west.

Tens of thousands of other displaced Afro-Colombians are also dispersed in Colombian cities.

Many live precariously in sprawling shantytowns, such as Ciudad Bolivar, in the south of the capital.

"A peasant without land is like a being without life," Yajaira says, clearly not convinced by the urban existence.

"We don't know how to live in towns."

Displaced, black and poor

Talking to Jose Caceido, another displaced Afro-Colombian, there is so much tension in the air it almost seems as if you could cut it with a knife.

Mr Caceido, in his early 30s, says he moved to Bogota in 2001 after being threatened by presumed paramilitaries in Tumaco, a Pacific coast region.

Afro-Colombian child in the community at Choco
Afro-Colombian children grow up in the cities, far from their parents' land

"We have been discriminated against in three ways," he says with steely restraint.

"We are displaced, we are black and we are poor."

It is Mr Caceido's view that underlying the displacement of countless Afro-Colombians is a clash in values between the communities' use of the land and an initiative of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to produce more palm oil for biodiesel.

For Afro-Colombians, Mr Caceido says, land use is based on cultivating a few traditional crops for subsistence - such as corn, yucca and cocoa - or for hunting and fishing.

But, according to human rights organisations working in the north-west Choco province, and in dense forests along the Pacific, paramilitary gangs are seizing Afro-Colombian land to facilitate biofuel conglomerates.

The land is also being transformed, with elaborate network of highways, drainage canals and palm oil plantation sites. Tropical forests are cut down, water sources diverted, to aid the development of agribusiness projects.

The changes make it harder for the Afro-Colombians to ever recover their former way of life, observes Mr Caceido. "Once palm oil is planted we cannot hunt anymore because the animals have fled," he says.

"There is no more birdsong because the forests have been cut down. The soil hardens for lack of shade. Rivers dry up. Nothing else grows except palm."

Source of revenue

President Uribe's government is pinning a lot of hopes on its palm oil strategy, however.

Afro-Colombian dragging a palm oil tree off illegally seized land
Afro-Caribbean protesters have taken action against the palm oil growers

The government says it wants the area planted with the crop to increase tenfold in the next decade to more than three million hectares, or some seven million acres.

It believes the cash crop, which is also used in many foods, will be a viable source of revenue for the government.

It hopes bio-diesel will solve air pollution in cities.

It is confident it can be an economic alternative to the cultivation of coca, the raw material of cocaine, for many Colombian farmers.

Not banned

But the increasing deforestation and humanitarian costs associated with President Uribe's policy have led human rights organisations and many concerned observers to ask: what went wrong?

Local community leader in Choco who has experienced violence

According to the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, (ICJPC), a human rights organisation, a fundamental problem is that paramilitary gangs, apparently funded by the drugs trade and listed by Washington as terrorist organisations, have not been disbanded in Choco and the Pacific region.

In many other parts of the country, they have been banned under a government security plan.

"The paramilitaries re-engineered themselves," says Danilo Rueda, a founding member of ICJPC and a lawyer who represents Afro-Colombian families from Choco at hearings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

"The same ones that started protecting businessmen, and which participated in military campaigns against leftwing guerillas in Choco, are the ones that have illegally taken control of land belonging to Afro-Colombians and who threaten Afro-Colombians trying to recover their land, " he insists.

Brutal evictions

The ways in which Afro-Colombians have been forced off their land in Choco and in the Pacific region have not been remotely subtle.

Dozens of peasant farmers who have refused to sell or relinquish their holdings, or who are community representatives, have been murdered.

One recent case is Ualberto Hoyos, a family farmer and community leader, who was murdered by two presumed paramilitaries on 14 October in an execution-style killing with a shot through the head.

Stepping up the pressure on the communities, human rights organisations that defend Afro-Colombian rights have also begun to be targeted.

Afro-Colombians harvesting rice on their own land
Afro-Colombians harvesting rice on their own land

In September an ICJPC field worker was kidnapped.

"It is complicated to dismantle [the paramilitaries]," says Luc Gerar, president of Tribeca Partners, a private equity firm in Bogota.

"They have a lot of connections. Often, the police or the army trained them. Some are ex-police and ex-army. They have a lot of money and weapons."

Mr Rueda says this situation is a reflection of the immunity enjoyed by the paramilitaries.

"The businessmen continue in the area, cutting down the fruit from the palm trees and extracting the oil. They continue to exploit Afro-Colombian lands that do not belong to them," he claims.

"In 99% of the cases there has been no clarification, no punishing of the guilty, no sanctions."

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