Their actions have been supported and assisted by local paramilitaries, army soldiers and municipal governments.
The peace communities’ collective territory is protected under Colombia’s Constitution and protective measures under the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. According to documents released by the Colombian human rights organization, Intereclesial Comisión de Justicia y Paz (Justicia y Paz) , Banacol workers are displacing vulnerable Afro-Colombian peace communities, thus enabling the corporation to occupy sections of communal, resource rich land. This violates the sovereignty of the long-standing communities, and puts them at risk for complete displacement from their collective territory in a country with almost 5 million internally displaced people. They are also bulldozing the subsistence farmers’ crops, destroying natural habitats and contaminating waterways.
Flyers posted in poor neighborhoods and communities across the northwestern part of the country lured the squatters into Curvaradó in the Urabá region of Chocó, Colombia. The flyers assured three months of paid living expenses, titles to 2.5-hectare plots, materials and pay to build settlements, and a contract with Banacol Inc. to grow bananas.
What the flyers didn’t include is that the Curvaradó territory is already inhabited by Afro-descendent communities, committed to maintain their collective territories, granted to them under law 70 of Colombia (1993), which recognizes and protects Afro-Colombians’ right to collectively own and occupy their ancestral territory.
The “bad-faith occupiers,” as the Curvaradó residents call them, are mainly made up of vulnerable individuals; some displaced by violence in other regions of the country, some farmers without land, and others recently unemployed by palm oil or banana plantations. Unfortunately, their vulnerable situations put them at risk to be taken advantage of by the corporate agenda, promising them “the good life”, and thus at risk to further impoverish other vulnerable communities for their gain. According to the ancestral inhabitants, the invaders admit that they collectively own the land, but contend to remain on the stolen plots because it is their only opportunity for work. Banacol, as so many other multinational corporations, has pitted these vulnerable populations against one another, putting them at higher risk of oppression.
The squatters say they expect to receive up to 180,000 pesos ($90 U.S.) for each hectare cleared. So far, according to Justicia y Paz, they have cleared-out over 200 hectares and built over 122 temporary huts and camps. The “bad-faith occupiers” are still arriving by the hundreds. Although the squatters would not identify who the money is coming from, the promised contracts with Banacol implicates them as the instigators and funders of an intended illegal displacement for profit.
The peace communities filed a legal complaint with the municipality of Carmen del Darién, but no response has been taken by local authorities thus far. The Carmen del Darién police ordered an eviction of the illegal occupiers, but then said that they do not have the resources to carry out such an action. The most recent demonstration of state support and collusion with the illegal occupation was the funneling of flood victims relief funds to the illegal land invaders by the Mayors Office in Carmen del Darién, according to Justicia y Paz.
These Afro-Colombian communities have lived in the region for generations, peacefully farming the land for subsistence. Chocó was a relatively low populated department of Colombia, with little conflict until the late 1990s, when violence erupted from the paramilitaries protecting large landowners from hovering guerrillas.
The paramilitaries protected certain properties, and attacked others, displacing thousands of indigenous, Afro-Colombians and mestizos in less than a decade, amidst the presence of a large military force.
Subsequently, demobilized paramilitaries and many survivors of the violence have testified to complete collusion of the military with the paramilitary that involved the sharing of information, weapons and even feet on the ground, to the extreme of the second shift idea in which military soldiers would work for the army by day and the paramilitaries by night.
One example of the military and paramilitary cooperation and collusion is Operation Genesis, the largest counter-guerrilla operation in Urabá during this period of violence between 1996-1997. Documentation of this state offensive shows that the Colombian army aerial bombed ancestral subsistence farming communities and immediately afterwards the paramilitaries entered on foot raiding, massacring, and burning the remains. In total, 140 innocent civilians were killed.
Since those mass violent displacements, palm oil plantations, extensive cattle ranches and banana companies have moved onto the vacant land, still protected by paramilitaries.
After ten years of living displaced in humiliating conditions, some of those displaced from the Curvaradó river basin decided to return to their land. The initial group was mainly mothers and children; the mothers determined to die for their ancestral lands if necessary.
As of today, approximately ten percent of the Curvaradó small-scale farming communities have organized themselves and nonviolently returned to their territory with the accompaniment and advocacy of national and international human rights organizations such as Justicia y Paz and Peace Brigades International.
With the territory as their history, the land is their only possible dignified future. Because their livelihood is tied to the land, some returned communities sought and received protective measures by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. With this protection, the communities’ plots are called Humanitarian Zones (living spaces) and Biodiversity Zones (native fauna and flora reserves). No armed actors, state or independent, are allowed within the premises of the zones, as a means to protect civilian life from the surrounding armed conflict.
Since their establishment, the communities have faced recurrent, rampant repression in the form of intimidations, death threats, political and media smear campaigns, and judicial frame-ups where they are accused of being guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers.
Just last October Justicia y Paz received warning that a prosecutor in Medellín issued around twenty arrest warrants for Afro-descendant community leaders of Curvaradó. The anonymous source indicated that the warrants are based on the claim that the communities have been collaborating with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo (FARC EP), and that there are plans for armed forces to plant weapons and guerrilla publications on community private property in order to provide false evidence for the case. No arrests have yet taken place, but the warrants are now an available tool in the defamation campaign.
Consequences of Occupation
This invasion puts the Afro-Colombian communities at increased risk for two reasons. The first is that it greatly diminishes the communities’ ability to cultivate subsistence crops, such as corn, rice, plantain and yucca, since the invaders are clear-cutting the area, many of their crops along with native flora is being killed. The farmland resides outside of the established humanitarian zones because of a legal loophole in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling, that only protects the life and safety, and ability to live in their ancestral territory, and only advocates for their ability to subsist in their ancestral territory. This legal impediment places the farmland outside of protective measures, making the crops more difficult to physically and legally protect. If the people have nothing to eat, they have to leave their homes to find food. And because they are subsistence farmers, they have no other immediate sources of income to supplement their diet.
The second reason is that such a drastic shift in the local population, with an average of fifty people in each humanitarian zone, greatly affects elections, which ultimately decide the fate of these communities.
Article four of Law 70 of Colombia (1993) specifically gives authority to and protects “Community Councils” as the governing body of each community. The establishment of this Community Council makes the community legally recognized and able to receive and occupy its collective, ancestral territory. As stated in article four, “…other functions of the Community Councils are: to watch over the conservation and protection of the rights of collective property, the preservation of cultural identity, the use and conservation of natural resources; to identify a legal representative from the respective community as their legal entity, and to act as friendly conciliators in workable internal conflicts.”
Because of continual disputes concerning who is the real regional community council in Curvaradó, a census has been ordered to establish who is living and subsisting in the collective territory. After the census is complete there will be regional elections for the regional community council (Curvaradó), to verify that the authentic inhabitants support the current, legally recognized community council.
With all the new “inhabitants” in Curvaradó, because of the land invasion and occupation, the elections could be substantially swayed by whatever their suspected funders, Banacol, want. Therefore, the ancestral inhabitants would also lose their power over their collective property, cultural identity, natural resources, and legal representation.
Banacol’s Bloody Bananas
The Colombian tropical fruit company Banacol bought all of Chiquita Brands Inc.’a Colombia banana plantations back in 2004, while accusations were mounting that Chiquita was funding the paramilitary group the A.U.C. (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia). This purchase made Banacol the largest banana producer in Colombia. Chiquita pled guilty in 2007 to the felony, “Engaging in Transactions with a specifically designated Global Terrorist,” admitting to funneling funds to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) through its subsidiary Banadex Inc. (now Banacol), from 1997 through 2004, totaling 1.7 million.
This all took place in the same Urabá region where Curvaradó is located.
According to reporting done by El Espectador, a Colombian newspaper, the Colombian prosecutor’s office found that Chiquita Brands Inc. acquired two cover companies to continue their relationship with the A.U.C.: Invesmar, by means of Banacol Inc. and Olinsa Inc. The Prosecutor’s Office even has testimony of a former A.U.C. member, alleging that Banacol Inc. paid his group three million pesos. The Attorney General’s Office investigated the claim by reviewing Banacol Inc.’s accounting records and found funds given to terrorist groups.
Natalia Springer of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most prominent newspaper, reported that Banacol paid taxes to a local death squad to protect their plantations and profit, thus reaping the bloody benefits of their purchased paramilitary violence.
Through interviews with ex-paramilitaries and banana businessmen, Springer found that in late 1997, with high paramilitary violence across Colombia, banana corporations operating in the country met to strategize a collective approach to interacting with the country’s powerful and growing right wing paramilitary death squads. According to Springer’s interviews with the former AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso, “Chiquita Brands Inc., Dole, Banacol, Uniban, Proban, and Del Monte all entered into this agreement. They paid us one cent for every box of bananas that left the country.”
Banacol and their paramilitary allies are being assisted by the U.S. supported Colombian government to occupy the sovereign Afro-Colombian territory, clear-cut natural habitat, and displace peasant farmers in order to produce and export bananas for profit.
The more the international community allows multinational corporations to exploit our brothers and sisters, and our environment in this way, the more we allow them to exploit all of us.
We need to put tremendous international pressure on Banacol Inc. through public denouncements and boycotts, and on the Colombian government by U.S. representatives to hold corporations accountable to Colombian law, so that these ancestral Afro-Colombian communities will not again be displaced and desolated by death squads for the profit of the multinational Banacol Inc.