Saturday, 21 February 2009

'Green fuel' kills

In October 2008 Ualberto Hoyos, a Colombian citizens was shot through the head and killed by para militaries. Was this part of a drug feud? Was Mr Hoyos a sympathiser of left wing guerrillas? No, he was killed as a consequence of EU policies aimed at protecting the environment.

In Colombia, there are numerous cases of right wing paramilitaries being used to remove local people from land used to produce palm oil. The European Union are strongly encouraging Colombia to produce more palm oil, despite human rights abuse and environmental damage. The EU is promoting a free trade agreement with Colombia. EU plans to produce 10% of fuel from biofuel will increase demand for Colombian palm oil and with it accelerate human rights abuse.

"The paramilitaries are not subtle when it comes to taking land," said Dominic Nutt of Christian Aid, in an interview with The Times of London. "They simply visit a community and tell landowners, 'If you don't sell to us, we will negotiate with your widow.'"

Farmers Who Refuse to Sell to Biofuel Interests Pay with Their Lives
Some farmers who have refused to sell or surrender their land have been murdered. There are also stories of paramilitaries cutting off the arms of illiterate peasants and using fingerprints from the severed hands to create fraudulent documents that transfer land ownership.

The Afro-Colombians, communities who live an ecological lifestyle, descended from African slaves brought to Latin America, are especially threatened by EU demands for biofuels.

A report from the BBC notes:

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.

"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.

Tens of thousands of Afro-Colombians have been forced to live in shanty towns in Colombian cities such as Bogota, there land is taken for plantations to produce 'green' fuel for cars in Paris, London and Brussels.

In the 1940s the civil war between the Conservative and Liberal Parties was used as a cover to expropriate 200,000 peasants from the land to make way for plantations. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel 'One Hundred Years of Solitude', one of the central episodes is based on a real life massacre of striking banana workers in the 1920s. There has been a long history of violence against peasants in Colombia that continues to this day.

Palm oil producing companies have made huge donations to the campaigns of President Uribe, whose ruling party have been connected to acts of repression. Despite being implicated in a palm oil scandal, Uribe's agriculture minister has resigned so he can run as Conservative Party Presidential candidate. Companies involved in the biofuel business are likely bankroll his election bid.

Arias is best known for the Carimagua scandal. The Minister was fiercely criticized when he decided to grant 43,000 acres of government land to large agribusiness companies, promising a fifty-year lease to the highest bidder. The land in question had previously been promised to displaced farmers. After a storm of protest, the Minister decided to give the land to state-owned oil company Ecopetrol, who intends to produce biofuel with the help of displaced farmers.

Britain is the biggest importer of Palm oil in Europe. Palm oil is in a range of goods everything including margarine and a variety of processed fuels, we cannot escape using it. Biofuels are going to lead to a huge expansion of palm oil imports into the EU from Colombia.

Uribe has pledge to increase the amount of land used to grow palm oil ten fold to 3m hectares. Obama is keen to expand US use of biofuels and the US sees Colombia as a key ally.

In October 2008 a gathering of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people opposed to land seizures for palm oil was violently attacked by government forces:
1. From 13 October until today, 15 October 2008, a contingent of at least 1,000 men, amongst them the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron ESMAD, members from the José Hilario López Battalion, the 29th Brigade 29 and the 3rd Brigade of the National Army, have been operating in the María Piendamo reserve, using excessive force.

2. Today these state forces used Galil and 765 rifles, shooting at the indigenous people. They have for three days been firing tear gas canisters. Some of the fired rounds have been highly irregular, charged with black gunpowder, puntillas, tacks, glass that break on impact. They have also been using clubs and machetes.

3. Up to this momento at least a hundred serious injuries have been reported, including 5 rifle shootings. These reports are by no means the total injured, work of the emergency indigenous and human Rights teams has been impeded by multiple attacks from the state forces. Several media teams trying to reach the different gathering points of protesters in the two departments have similarly been completed blocked.

However EU negotiator Fernando Cardesa García when challenged about human rights noted 'we don’t believe the human rights issue is a problem for the negotiations, because it is not an element in the commercial agreement....In economic terms, under the interests Europe has in Latin America, Colombia is very important. Alongside Mexico and Brazil, Colombia is one of the three countries that absorb most of the EU’s investment in the region.

From the political point of view Colombia is important, because during its recent history the country has been stable in terms of changes in the government.

Socially, Colombia is an interesting case. Even though it is one of the countries with the greatest social inequality, it has developed more dynamic inclusion policies and social equality throughout the years. We find this quite interesting and useful if we want stability for the whole region.

Britain's Labour government are keen supporters of Uribe. Tony Blair is especially close to the regime and acts as an advisor to Uribe's government:
Three days ago Blair was condemned by former Labour Party colleagues for describing Colombia, where a brutal civil war has been raging for 50 years, and which has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere, as "one of the few bright spots in the world today". Earlier this week both Blair and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by outgoing US President George W Bush – a move which was also widely condemned.

Palm oil plantations are also a major threat to the Amazon rainforests. One report notes:
The Chocó forests which are being destroyed by palm oil expansion are amongst the most biodiverse forests on Earth (biodiversity hot spots). They are home to 7,000 to 8,000 species, including 2,000 endemic plant species and 100 endemic bird species. Even before the current palm oil and agrofuel expansion, 66% had been destroyed.

The European Union should reject palm oil especially from Colombia and insist that human rights and environmental quality are respected as part of any trade agreement.

War on Want has produce an excellent report on the human rights abuse linked to with palm oil production in Colombia

As a European election candidate I pledge to oppose the EUs plans for increased palm oil imports, particularly from Colombia, where palm oil production is associated with human rights abuse and environmental destruction. I would urge all European Election candidates to pledge their opposition to palm oil production in Colombia.

You can find out more about Colombia from Justice for Colombia here
and Colombia Solidarity

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