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Colombian community leader allegedly murdered for standing up to palm oil

  • Colombian community leader Hernan Bedoya, who defended collective land rights for Afro-Colombian farmers as well as local biodiversity in the face of palm oil and industrial agriculture expansion, was allegedly assassinated by a neo-paramilitary group on Friday, Dec. 5.
  • Bedoya was owner of the “Mi Tierra” Biodiversity Zone, located in the collective Afro-Colombian territory of Pedeguita-Mancilla. The land rights activist stood up to palm oil, banana and ranching companies who are accused of engaging in illegal land grabbing and deforestation in his Afro-Colombian community’s collective territory in Riosucio, Chocó.
  • According to the Intercelestial Commission for Justice and Peace in Colombia (CIJP), a Colombian human rights group, Bedoya was heading home on horseback when two members of the neo-paramilitary Gaitánista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) intercepted him on a bridge and shot him 14 times, immediately killing him.
  • According to Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (PARES), 137 social leaders have been killed across Colombia in 2017. Other observers have found lower numbers, but most track over 100 killed over the course of the year.

Colombian community leader Hernan Bedoya, who defended collective land rights for Afro-Colombian farmers as well as local biodiversity in the face of palm oil and industrial agriculture expansion, was allegedly assassinated by a neo-paramilitary group on Friday, Dec. 5.

Part of a rise in targeted assassinations of social leaders across the country, Bedoya was the second Afro-Colombian leader to be killed in the Bajo Atrato river basin region in less than 10 days after Mario Castaño was killed in late November. Overall, there have been three social leaders killed in the region over the course of the year.

According to the Intercelestial Commission for Justice and Peace in Colombia (CIJP), a Colombian human rights group, Bedoya was heading home on horseback when two members of the neo-paramilitary Gaitánista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) intercepted him on a bridge and shot him 14 times, immediately killing him.

Bedoya was owner of the “Mi Tierra” Biodiversity Zone, located in the collective Afro-Colombian territory of Pedeguita-Mancilla. The land rights activist stood up to palm oil, banana and ranching companies who are accused of engaging in illegal land grabbing and deforestation in his Afro-Colombian community’s collective territory in Riosucio, Chocó.

As one of more than an estimated 8 million people afflicted by five decades of armed conflict in Colombia, Bedoya had returned to his land with family in 2012 after being displaced by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group in 1996.

Following his return to the community, Bedoya fought alongside non-governmental organization to push back against powerful palm oil, banana and cattle interests. He wanted to ensure that the collective Afro-Colombian territory was protected from ongoing “invasions” that were cutting into his community agricultural lands and destroying protected areas set aside for their rich biodiversity.

Bedoya allegedly began receiving threats from illegal armed groups beginning in 2015. According to CIJP, the Colombian state, through the National Protection Unit (UNP), had given Bedoya a cell phone and a bullet-proof vest in an attempt to protect his life.

In June, CIJP denounced an industrial agricultural company for “destroying primary forests and resources for illegal industrial agriculture,” also claiming that their the group’s lawyer had singled out Bedoya’s biodiversity reserve as a target for parcelization and development.

“They are cutting the forests, destroying subsistence crops and causing displacement when they take over the family farms to plant plantain and palm oil projects,” said CIJP to local media.

The human rights group claims the agro-industrial projects that are planned for the collective Pedeguita-Mancilla territory have been supported by the neo-paramilitary group AGC, and that the murder of the social leaders benefits a group of industrial agricultural landowners who took advantage of the armed conflict to expand their commercial ventures into the region.

The Colombian Ombudsman announced on Twitter that it “rejected the assassination of the land reclamation leader” and called on the authorities to “quickly clarify the facts” surrounding the killing.

In response to the two killings, international human rights organization Amnesty International called on the Colombian government to provide a “comprehensive response… ensuring respect for the boundaries of the humanitarian zones, guaranteeing the safety of their members and [an increased] presence of state security forces.”

On Thursday, 25 social leaders from Bajo Atrato and Urabá regions in Choco and Antioquia, who had received death threats or had relatives who were murdered, met in Bogotá to demand guarantees that they would be able to return to their territories. In order to protect their identities, the leaders wore masks to the press conference.

Social leaders from Bajo Atrato and Urabá wore masks to their meeting in Bogotá. Photo courtesy of Contagio Radio

The activists said they know of plans to kill several other land rights leaders in the region: Miguel Hoyos, Eustaquio Polo and María Ligia Chaverra, as well as two local communal leaders.

Hernan Bedoya: No more palm oil in Pedeguita-Mancilla

Filmmaker Nico Muzi met and interviewed Bedoya while producing 2016 documentary short Frontera Invisible, which explored the expansion of palm oil into Colombia and the effect it has had on local rural communities across the country.

In the interview, Bedoya told the history of his community and their struggle with paramilitaries and industrial agriculture. He denounced the communal council, who he said had struck a deal to illegally allow cattle ranchers, banana and palm oil companies into the collective territory.

“We are now hearing they want to plant another 1,000 hectares of palm [in our collective land],” Bedoya said. “But I don’t know where they will plant it because we are here in this land.

They will have to remove us first from the territory if they want to plant those 1,000 hectares of palm.”

Industrial agriculture taking advantage of armed conflict

In the 1990s, more than 8,000 individuals were forced to leave the Bajo Atrato region when the AUC launched a fierce attack to take over the strategically important drug-trafficking route along the Atrato river, which was previously controlled by left-wing guerrilla FARC and ELN, according to an investigative report by local media group Verdad Abierta.

The report details that by 2000, local authorities and business leaders began pushing for the expansion of palm oil cultivation — or as they referred to it “green gold” — on lands that had been abandoned or sold at cut-rate prices by Afro-Colombian and mestizo farmers who had left the region fearing for their lives.

Ex-paramilitary bosses reportedly testified that the Vicente Castaño — one of two brothers who led the AUC and its estimated 30,000 fighters from 1997 to 2006 — maintained relationships with the palm growers and cattle ranchers, inviting them to invest in the territory.

To protect cultural heritage and identity, the Colombian Congress passed a law in 1993 that recognized the right of Afro-Colombian communities to hold communal lands. In 2000, 48,000 hectares in the Bajo Atrato region were granted to an Afro-Colombian community known as Pedeguita-Mancilla who had ancestral rights to the land.

The AGC neo-paramilitary group accused of slaying Bedoya is a direct descendant of the AUC, which formed in 2008 following the extradition of AUC commanders to the U.S. The group has grown tremendously over the past decade, taking back most of the AUC’s drug trafficking routes along the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts, and is now the largest illegal armed group in Colombia.

In the past few days, the AGC called an unilateral ceasefire as it prepares to surrender an estimated 7,000 members of the country’s largest drug trafficking organization to the Colombian government. The government in September asked Prosecutor General Nestor Humberto Martinez to talk with the group after leader “Otoniel” offered to surrender to justice.

Dangerous situation for human and environmental rights leaders

In the past year, scores of human rights and environmental leaders have been killed in Colombia, provoking a human rights crisis that has international observers concerned for the long-term prospects for peace — even as the country’s former largest illegal armed group, the FARC, has demobilized over the past year.

According to Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (PARES), 137 social leaders have been killed across Colombia in 2017. Other observers have found lower numbers, but most track over 100 killed over the course of the year.

“The vulnerability of leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia remains critical. The acts of violence against this population show high degrees of systematic behavior,” PARES stated in its report on the killings of social leaders.

Hernan Bedoya. Photo courtesy of Frontera Invisible

The PARES report said that the motivation of the killings are to “limit the participation of social leaders in politics, impede processes of truth-building, land restitution and environmental protection.”

The United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) agreed that there is a pattern to the killings of social leaders. William Spindler, spokesperson of the UN agency, pointed out that the majority of the killings have taken place in regions where the FARC gave up territorial control.

“In many cases criminal activity has increased, in this case because of the [power] vacuum left by the FARC demobilization that was not filled by the state,” Splindler said in a press briefing.

Colombia’s palm oil expansion

While Indonesia and Malaysia account for around 85 percent of the world’s palm oil supply, Colombia is the fourth-largest producer globally and the largest in Latin America. The global commodity is widely used in food, and cosmetic products, and as as biodiesel — even though a European Commission study found the fuel source creates three times as much carbon as regular fossil fuel diesel.

Driven by a worldwide boom in palm oil cultivation since the turn of the century, the amount of land cultivated with palm oil in Colombia has increased nearly 200 percent since 2000, according to palm oil producer organization Fedepalma, growing from 157,000 hectares to 466,000 hectares planted in 2015.

The government and palm oil association Fedepalma have studied the country’s soils, and signaled that 16 million hectares around the country are suitable for oil palm cultivation. With the demobilization of the FARC, the government aims to open the doors to industrial agricultural development especially in areas that were previously off-limits due to the conflict.

Proponents of the country’s palm oil boom boast it has not incurred the same levels of forest destruction that have been well documented in other countries, particularly in Southeast Asia.

However, as illustrated by the death of Hernan Bedoya, the expansion of industrial agriculture may be coming at a social cost, with critics saying development is taking place on lands that were illegally seized by paramilitary groups or abandoned during the country’s half-century of armed conflict.

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