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Story Publication logo December 30, 2014

In Colombia, a Palm Oil Boom with Roots in Conflict


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Colombia’s fast growing palm oil industry has been a boon to its economy. But behind it is a fight...

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Palm oil is shown after being extracted from palm fruits at the palm oil processing plant in Cabuyaro, Colombia. Image by Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post. Colombia, 2014.

MAPIRIPAN, Colombia — Long before the massacre, when Mapiripan was just a faraway little place not worth fighting for, Aida Gordilla and her family came to the wide-open grasslands outside town and fenced off a homestead. They called it Macondo, like the enchanted village in the Colombian novel popular at the time, "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

Today a sign at the edge of town still reads "Macondo Way," but the road leads to a palm oil processing plant amid a vast orchard of a million trees, sown in tidy rows by a Spanish-Italian company, Poligrow. Gordilla's family and the others are gone.

What drove them from Mapiripan and Macondo is only one dark little episode in the civil conflict that has scarred Colombia for half a century, leaving at least 220,000 dead and 5.7 million uprooted by four-way violence among leftist rebels, government forces, right-wing paramilitary groups and criminal gangs.

Gordilla fled Mapiripan more than a decade ago, hiding in a hearse that carried the body of a local doctor whom the paramilitaries accused of helping the rebels. "They told me I was next on their list," Gordilla said. "I didn't know why. But it was because they wanted our land."

The Poligrow mega-project is one of several that have helped make Colombia the world's fastest-growing producer of palm oil, used widely in snack foods, cosmetic and beauty products, and as biodiesel. Having doubled its output in the past decade, Colombia today ranks fourth in total production behind Indonesia and Malaysia, which dominate the market, and Nigeria.

But the palm industry's rapid expansion is yielding new evidence of a boom that benefited from the displacement of small farmers, indigenous groups and others by the armed conflict. Several of the regions where palm has spread during the past decade are places notorious for paramilitary violence and rural terror, like the north coast outside Cartagena, the Venezuela border region and the southeastern plains of the Meta department, where Mapiripan is located.

As the government and the country's largest rebel group, the FARC, now attempt to reach a peace accord to end the fighting, Colombia faces the painstaking task of trying to sort out what happened in Mapiripan and other places like it, and how to move forward.

Central to the dispute is a clashing vision of rural development, between the traditional model that has been partly destroyed by the violence and an agribusiness vision that promises growth, jobs and modernization through the spread of commodity crops like African palm.

War-torn Mapiripan, where children play in the town square under the watch of rifle-toting soldiers, now has 24-hour electricity for the first time, thanks to Poligrow. A job with the company is essentially the only one in town that doesn't require a gun.

These areas suffered a collapse in land values as residents fled or sold their farms for a pittance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, at the peak of the paramilitary counter-offensive. Many of those who fled never held formal titles. In other cases, land records were falsified under threat or payoff.

In the Pacific coastal region of Choco, three men were recently issued 10-year prison sentences for conspiring to forcibly displace Afro-Colombian farmers on behalf of palm plantations. A dozen other palm growers and ranchers there face charges of similar crimes.

While the industry's expansion elsewhere in Latin America has extracted a steep environmental cost, as tropical forests have been cleared for palm mono-cultures, Colombia's growers say they are at the forefront of efforts to produce palm oil that meets guidelines for environmental and social responsibility. They note that the country's plantations are spreading fastest on Colombia's grassy eastern plains, where they are primarily replacing low-yield cattle ranches.

"There is an unfair international perception that the only way to grow palm oil is through deforestation," said Jens Mesa, president of Fedepalma, Colombia's palm industry trade group. "We are encouraging palm to be grown in the right places and with the right practices."

But some of those places have been polluted by violence. It is only recently that Colombian courts and government investigators have begun to sort out the thousands of pending claims from those who say they were driven off their land.

After two years of peace talks in Havana, government negotiators and FARC commanders have agreed in principle on a plan to help small farmers and improve rural infrastructure, but the details of the agreement remain secret because negotiations are ongoing.

In the meantime, top FARC commander Rodrigo Echeverry, alias Timochenko, issues communiques denouncing the government for allegedly encouraging foreign companies to invest in palm "biofuel" that pushes out family farms.

"Timochenko has declared us a military target," said Mesa, the trade association president.

That has been the case this year in Mapiripan. Though government troops occupy the town and control the airport, FARC units move freely in the thick jungles just across the Guaviare River. In May, the rebels blew up the bridge linking Mapiripan to the nearest paved highway, and in July they torched one of the trucks belonging to Poligrow, the company that now owns Macondo.

From massacre to 'frontier'

The Mapiripan massacre of 1997 is remembered less for its scale and ferocity than the shameful revelations that emerged years later, when Colombian investigators determined that government forces not only allowed, but aided, a mass murder of civilians.

FARC rebels had muscled into Mapiripan in the 1980s, taxing local coca growers in exchange for protection. But the town became a target for paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño and the fearsome militias of his United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC.

In July 1997, more than 100 AUC gunmen arrived in boats and military trucks. They were outfitted with heavy weapons, army-issue radios and chain saws.

Over the course of five days, the Colombian army let the paramilitaries have their way with town residents, torturing and executing suspected rebel collaborators. Their dismembered corpses were put on display in the streets and tossed in the river.

Witnesses to the Mapiripan massacre later testified that 49 were killed, but to date the government has only been able to confirm 12 victims, with much of the evidence destroyed in the cover-up attempt.

Even in 2005, when the government issued an official apology to the victims, Mapiripan remained largely under the sway of the paramilitaries. More than 10,000 residents were displaced from the town and the surrounding municipality after the massacre, according to government records.

Some tried to go home, only to flee again. Having left in 1997, Cecilia Lozano returned a few years later with her family to their once-prosperous 750-acre dairy farm. Then one day in 2002 her husband and father-in-law went out to round up their cattle and didn't return. "I never found out what happened to them," Lozano said.

Mapiripan remains a place of secrets, she said. "No one there wants to talk."

Lozano said she never understood why her family was driven away until she returned to Mapiripan a few years ago and saw the palm groves. "That's when I realized why they wanted our land, so they could sell it to the multinationals," she said. She now lives in the city.

The director of Poligrow, Carlo Vigna, insists that when he selected a location for the company's plantations in 2008, he studiously avoided land with a questionable past. He knew that an investment in Mapiripan would be risky, he said, but he and his partners believed the moment had arrived for the town, and Colombia, to transcend its darkest moments.

Mapiripan, he said, is "the new agricultural frontier of Colombia."

Speaking from his glassy Bogota offices with views of the city, Vigna, who is Italian, said the company has projects to provide child care, host soccer tournaments, train and hire local workers, plant vegetable gardens and restore the habitat of the area's native forests.

With $45 million already invested, the company wants to double the size of its orchards to nearly 35,000 acres and build a much larger processing plant at Macondo. Carbon-emission mandates have created a booming market in Europe for biodiesel.

Yet Poligrow's plans are now in limbo. A report this year by Colombia's Comptroller General's office cited "irregularities" in the company's land acquisitions, and investigators have questioned the legality of the sale by its former owners.

It noted that Poligrow acquired two parcels under the Macondo name in 2009 whose values had increased more than 12,000 percent since their previous sale a decade earlier, after the massacre. Another Macondo property jumped 7,000 percent in just six years.

"No Colombian company was willing to take a chance on Mapiripan," Vigna said. "When we arrived, there were 25 formal jobs in the whole town. Now there are 500. The community supports us. They know that if our company leaves, Mapiripan will disappear. And there won't be another opportunity."
Moving forward

Colombian officials say the Poligrow investigation, and those of others who acquired large holdings in conflict zones, is ongoing. With so many pending claims of forced displacement, a moratorium on land transactions is in effect for the Mapiripan area. But government investigators say they've been unable to perform basic survey work because the rural areas beyond the town are still too dangerous.

Aida Gordilla has been too scared to go back. She lives in Bogota, the capital, and works as a maid, keeping her late husband's old cattle records in a folder with photos of Macondo.

Only Syria has more "internally displaced persons" than Colombia, according to U.N. figures. It is a common refrain that the country's bloody conflict is rooted in an unequal distribution of land, the traditional source of wealth and power.

If that is the case, Colombia will have a long way to go even if a peace deal is reached. In the department of Meta, where Mapiripan is located, 18 percent of the population owns 87 percent of the land.

Yet an aerial flight over its broad, sweeping plains suggests there is plenty of room for everyone. There are millions of sparsely populated, lightly grazed acres with enough space for Colombia's palm oil industry to double again in size, and keep on going. Growers say the crop is a solution to the violence, not a source of it.

The trees are a cash crop with many virtues, they say, requiring a large, year-round labor force. They need relatively little fertilizer, irrigation or pesticides and can thrive in poor soils ill-suited to growing food.

Every 2.2 acres of mature trees can produce $4,500 worth of oil each year, with annual profit margins of 20 to 30 percent, growers say.

A palm worker skilled in the use of the pole-mounted knives needed to harvest the oily fruit can earn $25 a day or more, slightly better than Colombia's minimum salary but at least twice the wages in Asia, according to industry data.

With backing from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Colombian government and the palm industry have set up pilot projects to give jobs to demobilized guerrillas and ex-paramilitaries, sometimes on the same farms. The industry is also encouraging small farmers to plant palm and pool their resources.

In a more peaceful corner of Meta, far from Mapiripan, 26 families share ownership of a 450-acre palm grove that provides each member with a monthly dividend. Displaced by violence in the 1990s, the families were resettled by the government and encouraged to plant palm by large growers nearby who wanted to prove the crop isn't only for big business.

The families say the trees keep them from going adrift again, like so many others uprooted by the war.

"Palm is just an instrument," said Jorge Parado, the cooperative's director. "It's a way to restore value to the land."


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