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Palm oil, coca and gangs close in on Colombia’s Indigenous Nukak Makú

  • Satellite and aerial images show the advance of extensive cattle ranching and mechanized agriculture of plantain, pineapple, yucca, oil palm and eucalyptus in the rainforests of Colombia’s Guaviare department.
  • Law enforcement efforts have not been enough to stop the expansion of illegal palm oil plantations that surround the Nukak Indigenous reservation.
  • The Indigenous tribe, which had no contact with the outside world until 32 years ago, is also losing its forest home to coca cultivation and cattle ranching.

A group of nomadic hunters who once lived deep in the Amazon is today on the brink of physical and cultural extinction. Though their tribal lands are designated as an Indigenous reservation, their forest was long the site of an armed conflict that plunged Colombia into a wave of violence for more than half a century.

The relationship between the Nukak Makú people and the Colombian government officially began in 1988, after 43 Nukak left the Amazon in the nation’s southeast Guaviare department and turned up in the town of Calamar seeking medical help for a flu outbreak in their community. As their immune systems had never been compromised with this kind of ailment before, 40% of the population died during their first five years of contact with the outside world.

Palma ilegal en el departamento de Guaviare. Foto: Fundación para la Conservación y el Desarrollo Sostenible (FCDS).
Illegal palm cultivation in the Guaviare region. Image courtesy of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

The Nukak’s most challenging time came when a paramilitary group — the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), responsible for the massacres of Mapiripán (1997) and Caño Jabón (1998), among other human rights violations — invaded their territory, according to anthropologists Dany Mahecha and Carlos Eduardo Franky. The AUC began to dispute territorial control with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) over the Guaviare River’s middle basin, which is a historically coveted land. The Guaviare River is formed by the confluence of the Guayabero and Ariari rivers that run from the Andes; it flows through the Orinoquía ecosystem that makes up the Orinoco River watershed), and into the Amazon. Along this route, it creates a corridor long seen as strategic for the mobilization of troops, weapons, food, and drugs, which finance the armed conflict.

Palm oil and coca plantations in Guaviare

Colombia only accounts for 2% of global production of palm oil (Indonesia and Malaysia together produce 84%), but the country still ranks fourth in the world and first in the Americas, with nearly 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of oil palms spread over 21 departments.

Guaviare isn’t one of Colombia’s top palm oil-producing areas, nor it is a priority area for the National Federation of Oil Palm Growers (Fedepalma). But the plantations there still pose a problem, with the crop being cultivated in areas of important ecological connectivity.

Cultivos de palma ilegal rodean el resguardo indígena Nukak. Foto: Fundación para la Conservación y el Desarrollo Sostenible (FCDS).
Illegal palm crops surround the Nukak Reservation. Image courtesy of Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), says the region might be entering a point of no return, in which former settlers’ farms and small coca crops are rapidly and extensively transformed into livestock pasture and mechanized agriculture of plantain, cassava, peach palm, oil palm, and eucalyptus.

Overflights of the area and satellite imagery analysis carried out by the FCDS show there are at least 250 hectares (618 acres) planted with oil palm in Guaviare. Under a law that dates back to 1959, another 3,800 hectares (9,400 acres) are earmarked for the cultivation of other crops, much of that area in protected forests. Some plots are only 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the Nukak-Makú reservation.

Botero says the oil palms planted in the forest reserve, where the Nukak reservation is also located, “are illegal and are not affiliated with Fedepalma.” He says organized crime groups see the absence of the government in the region as a “signal to invade and to do as they please. And that is what’s happening here: a pattern that originates in the savannas of La Fuga” — a plain in Guaviare — “and reaches the interior of the Nukak reservation. And nobody does anything.”

Mujeres Nukak cocinando la única comida del día. Foto: Alberto Castaño.
Nukak women cooking the only meal of the day. Image by Alberto Castaño.

For many years, palm oil companies have been linked to land grabs in Colombia. Massacres, murders, dismemberment, torture, disappearances and displacement of local inhabitants were part of the grisly reality of life around oil palm cultivation and extensive cattle ranching promoted by paramilitary leader Vicente Castaño Gil in the late 1990s in the lower basin of the Atrato River.

This was the case in Mapiripán, a municipality Meta department, on the northern border of Guaviare. According to the Colombian investigative news site Verdad Abierta, the paramilitaries didn’t just fight to take over the drug-trafficking business from the guerrillas. “Vicente Castaño wanted to take over extensive farms to develop palm projects and he had [drug traffickers] Miguel Arroyave and Daniel Rendón as partners,” the news site reported.

But palm oil isn’t the only threat to the forest home of the Nukak of Guaviare. There are at least eight large areas of cattle ranching, one of which resulted in the clearing of 3,500 hectares (8,650 acres) of natural forest, according to the FCDS.

Illegal roads and illicit coca crops also threaten the Nukak reservation. The FCDS has mapped out 20 roads with their respective branches within the Indigenous territory. Two of them, running 62 and 38 km (39 and 24 mi) respectively, have prompted the greatest concern because of the amount of deforestation that has occurred along them; one of the roads already has small farms along its route.

In the first half of this year, the FCDS detected small plots of no more than 2 hectares (5 acres), spanning a combined 566 hectares (1,400 acres), within the Nukak reservation that are apparently being prepared of coca cultivation, according to Botero. The latest report from the U.N. Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System (Simci) has identified coca cultivation within 161 Indigenous reserves and 14 natural parks in Colombia. In Guaviare alone there are 3,118 hectares (7,704 acres) of coca crops, of which a third are in Nukak National Natural Reserve, with half of that number, 548 hectares (1,354 acres), specifically in the Nukak-Makú reservation.

Julio César López Jamioy, director of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC), tells Mongabay that the Nukak have had to bear the full burden of violence in the region. “Their shelter was a corridor for guerrillas and army soldiers,” he says. “The armed conflict attacked them head-on and all they want now is to protect their territory.”

Who takes action?

Who exactly is deforesting Guaviare and the Nukak territory remains unknown. According to José Jacinto Cubides, the Guaviare department secretary of agriculture, there are rumors that point to dissidents of the FARC and the Sinaloa Cartel. Others say that people from the departments of Arauca, Meta and Antioquia are the ones responsible.

The community is not holding people accountable because they are afraid of retaliation, according to Cubides. “Here, people come and take over 500 or 1,000 hectares [up to 2,500 acres] but they place intermediaries who are not the owners or the ones paying to clear [the forest],” he says. “The problem is that if you give someone’s name then you become a military target and no one is going to risk losing their lives.”

Imagen aérea del resguardo Nukak Makú. Foto: Fundación para la Conservación y el Desarrollo Sostenible (FCDS).
Aerial image of the Nukak reservation. Image courtesy of Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

Two years ago, a court in Meta decreed a precautionary measure for “serious and urgent cause” in favor of the Nukak Indigenous people. The 52-page measure not only detailed a series of abuses against the community, but also ordered the Attorney General’s Office to initiate criminal proceedings over a litany of environmental crimes: “indiscriminate deforestation, contamination with solid waste, illegal fishing and hunting, and the invasion of areas of special ecological importance.”

Between 2018 and 2020 there were 43 investigations into deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, according to the Attorney General’s Office. It prosecuted 20 people in 2018, 122 in 2019, and 58 so far in 2020. “In two of the investigations, they have denounced deforestation linked to the planting of illicit crops within the Nukak National Natural Reserve. In one of them, palm cultivation of more than 100 hectares [250acres] is registered,” a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office told Mongabay. They did not provide specific information about the Nukak reservation.

In the same precautionary measure, the Meta court ordered the Sustainable Development Corporation for the Northern and Eastern Amazon Region (CDA) and the Ministry of the Environment — both government agencies — to take action over the Nukak’s situation and stop the “deforestation in the areas with the biggest pressure in the reservation,” including implementing a strategy for “the ecological restoration of corridors … and thereby create conditions for an eventual return” of the Indigenous population.

In response to a freedom-of-information request filed by Mongabay, CDA director Elizabeth Barbudo detailed 11 sanctioning processes related to logging and burning, involving areas of between 30 and 385 hectares (74 and 951 acres), inside the Nukak reservation between 2017 and 2019. Barbudo says that due to the public order situation, no field monitoring has been carried out.

While the Nukak people continue to wait for justice to be served, they have decided to seek refuge in the forest from another threat. COVID-19 has already taken nearly 38,000 lives in Colombia. The Nukak hope to isolate themselves once again, but the forest that they call home is no longer safe, with criminal groups encroaching on it. Mongabay tried to contact several Nukak leaders, but there is no telecommunication coverage within the reservation.

Incendios dentro de la Reserva Nacional Natural Nukak para ir creando lotes para monocultivos y ganadería. El resguardo indígena se superpone a parte de esta área protegida. Foto: Fundación para la Conservación y el Desarrollo Sostenible (FCDS).
People burn the forest inside the Nukak National Natural Reserve to clear the land for monocrop farms and livestock pasture. The Indigenous reservation overlaps with part of this protected area. Image courtesy of Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

Palm plantations and the agricultural frontier in Guaviare

After five years of work, the ministries of agriculture and environment, with the Rural Agricultural Planning Unit (UPRA), detailed in 2018 the location of areas where agricultural, livestock, forestry and fishing activities were to be developed throughout Colombia.

It identified 383,000 hectares (946,000 acres) as suitable for agriculture in Guaviare, or just 7% of the total area of the department. This indicates that much of the planted area there today is illegal; in the case of oil palms, this amounts to at least 87 hectares (214 acres) planted in prohibited areas, according to the FCDS.

La FCDS advierte de 87 hectáreas sembradas con palma aceitera en zona de exclusión legal.
The FCDS warns of 87 hectares (214 acres) planted with palm oil in a legal exclusion zone in Guaviare department.

The collective territories of Afro-Colombian communities and Indigenous reservations aren’t excluded from this agricultural frontier; instead, they are deemed conditional. For the Nukak reservation, this means agricultural activities may be allowed, restricted or prohibited, depending on what the people in the territory decide. But the situation is complicated by the fact that the community has been displaced from its territory for more than a decade and is now living in precarious conditions, where some have to look for food by digging through garbage.

Felipe Fonseca, director of UPRA, a government agency, denies knowing anything about oil palm crops inside the Nukak reservation. He says UPRA considers conserving Colombia’s natural resources a top priority. “Deforestation is an illegal activity, a crime, and therefore it’s promoted by other illegal agents; however, the diagnosis process must be improved so as not to include livestock and agriculture [in the same category] which are legal activities within the formal economy,” Fonseca says. “If palm deforestation was indeed present [inside the reservation], those plantations are not part of Fedepalma, as we make major efforts in terms of research and technical assistance to comply with demanding environmental standards.”

For Clarita Bustamante Zamudio, an expert in agrarian systems, it’s an invalid argument to say that oil palms planted on previously transformed lands pose no environmental impact. That view fails to account for the connectivity and functionality of the ecosystem, she says. “As there is no deforestation, it is assumed that there is no impact, but it is a completely false argument. This monoculture can dry up wetlands and shrink grasslands; that is why it is necessary to see if it is a prioritized area for restoration or not. If so, no matter how many uses it has had before, you have to recover the vegetation,” she says. “If there was a direct change in land use, a monoculture is never going to replace a forest.”

Bustamante says she is not only concerned about the trend in which any activity is given the label of “sustainable,” but also about the effects that it could have on the Nukak’s way of life. “Sustainability occurs in four dimensions: environmental, social, economic and institutional. Many times these activities, which include wire fences, signs that prohibit hunting or displacement, cause the privatization of the use and enjoyment of the services provided by ecosystems. This affects the traditional practices of indigenous people,” she says.

Can zero deforestation in the palm oil chain be achieved?

In November 2017, an agreement was signed to guarantee that Colombia’s palm oil supply chain is free from clearance of natural forests. At the time, the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) undertook the development of a baseline to understand past trends, since January 2011, of oil palm cultivation in Colombia.

It identified, between 2011 and 2017, oil palm-linked deforestation amounting to 17,132 hectares (43,334 acres), equivalent to 1.5% of the total deforestation throughout the country during that period. Of that area, approximately 2,800 hectares (6,900 acres) were associated directly with land clearing for planting, while the rest corresponded with “infrastructure associated with crops, recently deforested areas not yet planted or very young crops that cannot be identified in satellite images,” IDEAM said.

During this analyzed period, 11 of the 21 departments officially registered by Fedepalma exhibited at least one deforestation event. Guaviare — which in 2019 lost 24,200 hectares (59,800 acres) of forest and is the third most deforested region in Colombia, after Caquetá and Meta — was not analyzed because Fedepalma officially didn’t recognize any palm plots there during that time.

But the federation is aware of the problems in the area. Andrés Felipe García, Fedepalma’s director of sectoral planning and sustainable development, recently warned about the situation during a conference: “Without a doubt, there are criminal actors, money laundering, drug trafficking, illegal mining and land grabbing here that demand urgent action from the government,” he said. “I’m the most interested in having clear figures with a precise geographical location of what is happening in the Amazon but it is not as easy as some believe.”

García tells Mongabay he has flown over Guaviare and spoken with several top officials from the police, military, Attorney General’s Office and Comptroller’s Office about the palm oil so that they can find the exact areas where it is being cultivated illegally and identify those responsible.

La destrucción de bosque dentro del Resguardo Indígena Nukak avanza cada día. Foto: Fundación para la Conservación y el Desarrollo Sostenible (FCDS).
The destruction of the forest within the Nukak reservation advances every day. Image courtesy of Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

“Although we are not the environmental authority or the ones responsible for monitoring, we are the most affected by any false or biased information that accuses palm oil of deforestation in the region,” García says. “Although there are some crops in Guaviare, which I believe are not many, it’s not possible to establish that it has all been deforestation because in these regions there is also an agricultural frontier for productive development. Without precise and timely data, a lot of damage can be done to thousands of farmers who are doing things right.”

The 2017 agreement on a deforestation-free palm oil supply chain requires the signatories — producers, processors, marketers and consumers — to demonstrate that the entire process is free from the cutting of natural forests. To do this, they must self-declare the areas where the crop is planted; in the event that they buy it from third parties and do not know its origin, they have to demand their suppliers’ georeferencing data for where the crop was grown.

Traceability is still a weak link, with questions over how to guarantee that palm fruit grown in the Guaviare forest reserves or other prohibited zones in Colombia don’t enter the supply chains of companies affiliated with Fedepalma. There’s also uncertainty over what mechanisms to use, and who will be responsible for the monitoring.

In response to a freedom-of-information filing, the Ministry of the Environment says “the legality of any economic activity is guaranteed by the company itself, as well as the sector to which it belongs.” It adds that its mission is not to “identify the legality or illegality of the country’s economic activities.” IDEAM, echoing the same position, says it “cannot verify whether the information provided is true, complete or has no omissions concerning the chain of each company.”

En la comunidad Nukak Maku, muchas veces deben repartir una gallina entre más de 70 personas. Foto: Alberto Castaño.
In the Nukak Makú community, food is so scarce that a single chicken often has to be shared between more than 70 people. Image by Alberto Castaño.

Fedepalma’s García calls for a collaborative effort between all parties involved to guarantee the traceability of the crops. Asked what mechanisms exist to verify the information provided by companies, he says “a protocol is being built,” and “clear rules are being established to guarantee that the information is reliable and effective and that they are not deceiving us.”

For now, it is not clear how environmental and judicial authorities are fighting against the expansion of illegal palm in the Colombian Amazon, especially in the Nukak Indigenous reservation. The palm oil sector says it is working on a protocol, but the only certainty is that fear continues to surround the Nukak people. In the face of threats to their existence, they continue to press for a return to the territory where they once hunted, fished and tended orchards of peach palm, chili, yam, sweet potato, achiote and calabash — orchards where, in the past, there was no room for oil palms, cattle, or landmines.

Banner image of Indigenous Nukak Makú in Guaviare department, Colombia, by Alberto Castaño.

This article was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Oct. 20, 2020.

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