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Community in Ecuador punished for trying to stop alleged palm oil pollution

  • A legal loophole allowed palm oil companies in Ecuador to establish plantations on ancestral land that belongs to small communities.
  • Community residents say that agricultural chemicals and waste from plantations and palm oil processing mills is polluting the water sources on which they depend.
  • In an effort to stop the contamination of their water and the degradation of their land, residents of the community of Barranquilla spent three months occupying the access road to plantations surrounding their village in 2020.
  • In retaliation, the company that owns and operates the plantations, Energy & Palma, sued four members of the community for lost profits; in Sep. 2021, courts ruled in the company’s favor and ordered the four to pay $151,000 to the company.

This is the first in a two-part series. Read Part Two.

San Javier de Cachaví is a small village of some 120 families in Ecuador near the Colombian border. The village is completely surrounded by plantations operated by the company Energy & Palma, a subsidiary of the Ecuadorian company La Fabril Group. The only access road to the community is a small dirt path through vast tracts of oil palm trees.

San Juan de Chillaví residents say that their river, once a source of clear, clean water, has become increasingly polluted since the oil palm plantations were established.

“When the company moved in, the contamination arrived with them,” said José Mina, the leader of San Javier de Cachaví. “We used to drink the river’s water and nothing happened. Now the children bathe and get pimples and their bodies itch. The fish arrive here dead.”

Residents of the community of San Juan de Chillaví use the river near their village for bathing and drinking water. Image by Alexis Serrano.
Residents of the community of San Juan de Chillaví use the river near their village for bathing and drinking water. Image by Alexis Serrano.

San Juan de Chillaví residents also say that the wildlife on which they depend for food has disappeared as habitat was cleared for plantations.

According to Nathalia Bonilla, coordinator of Acción Ecológica’s campaign to protect forests, this is “the perfect example of a two-faced state, which on the one hand has legally and economically promoted the palm oil industry, but on the other is incapable of demonstrating that it is concerned about or at least does its job of controlling the industry’s environmental and social impacts.”

These issues aren’t isolated to San Juan de Chillaví. The road to San Juan de Chillaví also leads to other rural villages: Nueva Esperanza, Guabina, Barranquilla, Chillaví del Ceibo and San Juan de Chillaví. The villages are comprised of small homes made of wood or brick with zinc roofs.

These communities share a common history: after being recognized by the now defunct National Institute for Agrarian Development, they received land titles in 1997 that officially designated their residents as owners of ancestral lands. However, a legal loophole allowed some community members to individually receive additional titles to the same properties, which were sold to Energy & Palma. This means that the land legally belongs both to Energy & Palma and to community residents, a situation that Ecuador’s justice system has not yet rectified.

According to the Tras las huellas de la palma journalistic alliance, a consortium of independent journalists and news outlets in Latin America that includes Mongabay reporters, 31 companies and individuals linked to the palm oil industry in Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras have been sanctioned, fined or investigated for violating environmental regulations over the last 11 years. According to the alliance’s investigation, three sanctions were imposed on palm oil actors in Ecuador, two of which involved Energy & Palma.

Tensions have been rising between communities and Energy & Palma. In 2019 Barranquilla residents organized a three-month protest during which they set up tents and camped out along the main access road to the oil palm plantation that surrounds the community.

“We wanted to be a bit more visible,” said Néstor Caicedo, the leader of the Barranquilla community. “Their plantations are in our territories, meaning they have to pass through, so we put ourselves there so that the company could see us.”

Oil palm trees flank the road to Barranquilla. Image by Alexis Serrano.
Oil palm trees flank the road to Barranquilla. Image by Alexis Serrano.

According to Caicedo, residents had three primary demands: that the company to recognize it had illegally occupied their territory with oil palm plantations, that it stop polluting their rivers and that it compensate local communities by contributing to public-good infrastructure projects.

Some Barranquilla residents say that one such project could be the construction of a road to their cemetery, which would make it easier for the inhabitants to visit their graves of family members; their journey currently involves crossing a bridge that is in a very poor condition. However, they say that the company refused to meet with the community as a whole and instead agreed to meet with a few select leaders, to whom they offered money in exchange for complicity.

“Their weapon has always been money. They offered me $8,000 but I didn’t accept it,” Caicedo said. “I said that if I’m going to sell my conscience, let it be for something that will fix my life or make it less miserable, because I have people behind me who want answers.”

The situation has continued to deteriorate. On Sept. 10, 2020, the company sued seven Barranquilla leaders for damages, claiming losses of more than $320,000 for the three months of road occupation.

Mongabay reporters and colleagues reached out to Energy & Palma and the National Association of Palm Oil Producers (ANCUPA) via phone and email, but received no response.

A pile of palm oil waste discarded along a community road. Image by Alexis Serrano.
A pile of palm oil waste discarded along a community road. Image by Alexis Serrano.

On Sept. 8, 2021, one year after the Energy & Palma lawsuit against Barranquilla residents, four of the defendants (including the community’s leader, Néstor Caicedo) were sentenced to pay $151,000 to the company for having obstructed the plantation’s access road for three months.

Caicedo said he and his co-defendants will appeal the court decision.

“We reject the judge’s decision because it violates our rights,” Caicedo said. “The community is outraged, but we are keeping calm. We hope that the higher authorities, who are in Esmeraldas or Quito, will look at the abuse that is being committed against us.”

Mongabay reporters and colleagues contacted Energy & Palma for the company’s version of events, but received no response.

Acción Ecológica published a statement denouncing the lawsuit as an intimidatory action that aims to stop Barranquilla residents from making claims to their own territory and defending their right to a healthy environment.

“This case is just one example of how large agroindustrial companies are beginning to use civil law against defenders,” Acción Ecológica said in its statement, “and how they abuse the justice system to continue their degradation of the environment.”


Banner image by Alexis Serrano.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on November 9, 2021.

See related Mongabay investigation: Déjà vu as palm oil industry brings deforestation, pollution to Amazon: Producers say their supply chains are green and sustainable, but prosecutors cite a long record of land grabbing, deforestation, pollution, and human rights violations.

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