- The community of Barranquilla de San Javier, located near the northern border with Colombia, is trying to reclaim ancestral land that’s being used for palm oil cultivation by a company called Energy & Palma.
- Since entering the area in 2006, Energy & Palma’s plantations have diminished the quality of the land residents rely on for subsistence farming and polluted local rivers and sources of drinking water with agrochemicals, according to community leaders.
- Faced with a peaceful sit-in by the community, Energy & Palma sued seven residents for negatively impacting their profits. The community has also started a case to reclaim the ancestral land taken by the company.
An afro-descendent community in northern Ecuador is fighting to retake its land from a palm oil company that has allegedly used questionable permits and expensive lawsuits to maintain a hold on the area.
The community of Barranquilla de San Javier, located near the northern border with Colombia, is trying to reclaim ancestral land that’s being used for palm oil cultivation by Energy & Palma. The operations have complicated subsistence farming and access to drinking water, critics have said.
“People are going hungry,” said Nathalia Bonilla, a campaign coordinator for Ecological Action, a local environmental group. “Imagine if the water in your rivers was contaminated — the rainwater, too. Obviously, that’s causing a lot of illnesses in animals and people.”
Energy & Palma is part of the Ecuadorian domestic goods company La Fabril Group that supplies palm oil to corporations like Pepsico, General Mills and Nestlé. Since entering the area in 2006, its plantations have diminished the quality of the land residents rely on for subsistence farming and polluted local rivers and sources of drinking water with agrochemicals, according to community leaders. Some residents have also suffered from rashes and other sicknesses after being exposed to chemicals in the water.
Companies like Pepsico and Nestlé have expressed their concern about the allegations. And last July, several U.N. experts issued a joint statement on human rights violations against residents.
“We express our deep concern regarding the alleged acts of intimidation and criminalization of human rights defenders and the lack of protection against the human rights abuses that [the residents] have allegedly suffered at the hands of the company,” the statement said.
Energy & Palma didn’t reply to Mongabay’s request for comment for this article. However, on its website, it says it maintains 2,500 hectares (6,177 acres) of forest reserve across various biological corridors.
Records of the San Javier community date back to at least the 1600s, when a slave boat traveling from El Salvador to Brazil is said to have hit the Ecuadorian coast following an uprising. Other residents are believed to have crossed the border from slaveholdings in Colombia.
San Javier received the official status of an ancestral community in 1999 and a land title in 2000. It spans 1,430 hectares (3,459 acres) and, in theory, provides protection against outside development while allowing residents to continue subsistence farming.
But around the same time they received the title, the Ecuadorian government was also opening up to palm oil companies interested in expanding in the country. Throughout the early 2000s, the Ecuadorian Institute of Territory granted six private property titles on ancestral land that the community believes were then illegally transferred to Energy & Palma.
“All these titles ended up being sold or assigned to Energy & Palma not long after being awarded,” said Gustavo Redín, a lawyer for the community. “Even though the [titles] for the territory clearly say they should be used for sustainable or artisanal production.”
Community leaders started negotiations with the company in 2017 in hopes of getting reparations. But after two years without progress, the negotiations collapsed and residents decided to stage a peaceful sit-in on one of the roads used by the company’s transportation trucks.
Energy & Palma claimed the sit-in caused it a loss of activity worth $350,000, and sued seven community leaders for that figure in February 2020. Later, the amount was lowered to $150,000 and four community leaders.
Redín said the case is arbitrary and unfair.
“At no time has [the judge] justified the sentence or told us where those numbers of $150,000 or $350,000 come from. Nor has he told us why it’s these four and not all seven community leaders.”
With Redín’s help, the community hopes to win a separate lawsuit that would require Energy & Palma to return its ancestral land. But there’s still a long way to go, Redín said. A recent hearing was just postponed until late July, and he worries that the judicial system is rigged against them.
“These legal processes are extremely important,” he said, “because we’re talking about racialized and discriminated populations. Populations that, if they lose their territory, will have to migrate to major cities. And who knows what happens to them when they get there.”
Banner image: A river cuts through the rainforest in Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Rhett A. Butler.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.
See related from this reporter: