This Tiger Doesn’t Like Palm Oil

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 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 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.

According to data from the Colombian government, 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.

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 happened in other parts of the country like Chocó and Catatumbo.

Oil palm, arguments for and against

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. For many inhabitants of the nearby villages, 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.

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July 2017
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