Forced Displacement, Land Reclamation, and Corporate Power in Colombia

Eustaquio Polo Rivera is Vice President of the Major Leadership Council of the Curvaradó River Basin, Chocó, Colombia. He is an active leader in his community’s struggle for justice and food security, as they fight to reclaim collectively-titled lands stolen and occupied by oil palm plantations since the 1997 displacement of the region’s inhabitants at the hands of the US-funded Colombian military and affiliated paramilitary death squads. Colombia has the second-largest internally displaced population in the world; sixty percent of the roughly four million dispossessed Colombians have been driven from areas of "of mineral, agricultural or other economic importance," according to Amnesty International. For his advocacy and efforts to help his community reclaim what is rightfully theirs, Mr. Polo has received threats of assassination from paramilitaries reformed after the purported "demobilization" process. 


Mr. Polo was recently in New England for a solidarity tour coordinated by the Colombia Solidarity Network at Brown University, Colombia Vive, and many other grassroots organizations. What follows is the text of a talk he delivered in Unity, Maine on April 05, 2008. The talk is followed by a wide-ranging interview with Mr. Polo conducted by Margaree Little and Jake Hess, two organizers of the tour. Individuals interested in answering Mr. Polo’s solidarity appeals or learning more about the crisis in Colombia are welcome to contact Margaree and/or Jake; their contact information is listed at the end of this document. Many thanks to Rocío Orantes and Yesenia Barragan for their help with interpretation.




Thank you for letting me address you tonight. Please receive a warm welcome from the Chocó county of Colombia and from myself, Eustaquio Polo Rivera. I am Vice President of the Major Council of the basin of the Curvaradó River, and legal representative of a smaller council.


I come here with the grace of God and the support of the church of Justicia y Paz and also with help from Molly and Jake. I have been asked to tell you a little bit about the human rights abuses that the people of the Chocó territories are suffering.


These lands are the lands where most of the Africans brought to Colombia as slaves have lived for a long time. Three groups of people share culture here—people of African descent, people of mixed descent, and people of indigenous descent. There has been a shared culture there for many years now.


This is land that is recognized by Law 70 as collectively owned by the three groups of Afro-Colombians, mixed race people, and indigenous people. We used to have farms in this territory. The land supported our families, and we also sold bananas to the United States


Then, in October of 1996, an operation called Operation Genesis came in, led by the General Commander Rito Alejo Del Rio. 


This military operation was in conjunction with a paramilitary group called AUC.


This military group came in and asked the peasants to move out. They said, "Move out, or people will come after us to kill people, to take your heads."


In the same year, 1996, in a place called Brisas, they killed 6 people. They killed them and threw them into the river.  That year half of the people who lived in the area left. The other half stayed, and we stayed resisting the displacement. But the incursions from the military and paramilitaries continued. They tied the peasants down. When the paramilitaries or military would get people, they would cut off their fingers, their ears, and their private parts. And they killed them with chainsaws. They would cut right through their chest cavity and take out their internal organs. In our river basin they killed 113 people just that way. 


Then in 1997, the incursions from the military and paramilitaries increased. The military and paramilitary alliance came and said to us that we needed to leave, all of us. They threatened saying that if we didn’t leave, they could not respond for their actions. They said that the reason we needed to leave is that they would be bombing that territory to take the guerrillas out. A lot of people left then. One part of the peasants left toward the hills, and other people fled to other places in Colombia.


In the year 2000, a group from the police collected signatures from members of paramilitaries and some peasants left in the area. They said they were collecting the signatures to get [permission to build] three military bases in the area, and they claimed that this was so peasants could return to their land. This was not the case. These signatures were used by businesses to take over the land and implement the planting of African palm plantations in the collectively-titled territory.  They used them to prove that peasants were in agreement with the planting of the palm, but the peasants were actually outside the territory, fled to the hills.


In this year 2000, we realized that their goal was not to take the guerrilla out of our land, but to take our land from us, to take our communities, and to implement in our territory the monoculture of palm oil and cattle ranches. In that same year they sent some commissioners to different parts where there were still peasants living on big farms. They told us that we should sell to them, and that if we didn’t want to sell to them, our widows would sell cheaper. Through those tactics of intimidation they acquired parts of the territory, because people were afraid to lose their lives.


Also they would say that we had to sell, that the land was needed by the bosses. It is dangerous to say this because our lives are under threat, but I feel that I must: the bosses were Carlos Castano, "the German," Mancuso—these are all names of paramilitaries. 


Then, in 2003, the communities that had fled to those mountains came together to create humanitarian zones in the Curvaradó river basin. From these humanitarian zones we hope to denounce all of the crimes of the Colombian government. For asking that what is ours is given back to us the following people are under threat: Ligia Maria Chavela, Legal Representative of Curvaradó; Manual Denis of Jiguamiandó, Enrique Petro, the Oyo Brothers, Marta Martinez, and myself.


They said that we are guerrillas, or from the guerrillas. But we are peasants with families. Ligia Maria, the legal representative, is the mother of nine. She is sixty-eight years old and has thirty-three grandchildren. I myself am the father of 9 children and 2 grandchildren who are under my care. It’s impossible for us to be guerrilla commanders! But these are strategies and tactics of the Colombian government in conjunction with paramilitary groups, in order to avoid recognizing the damage that has been done to us and to avoid giving the land back to us.


They are hurting our forests that were natural reserves in our territory. They are polluting our waters with chemicals. The chemicals get in the water we drink and cause stomach problems and skin diseases. They use chemicals to capture butterflies. 


This is why we the people of the communities are not in accord with this monoculture in the Chocó county, because this is a land of a lot of oxygen.


We also want to testify to the government of the United States that even though the Colombian government has said that they have given us our land back, this is false, because the lands continue to be in the hands of businesspeople who took it away from us at the hand of a gun. The government has also said that they have demobilized the paramilitary groups—but this is a lie, because they [the paramilitaries] continue to arm themselves in an organization called the Black Eagles. They work with the Convivir, they work as police inspectors, and they walk hand in hand with the police and the army as they used to before. What we say is that the paramilitaries are now legalized. 


We would also like to ask the US government to not sign the bilateral free trade agreement with Colombia, because this territory, our land, continues to be in the hands of business people, when the real owners—ourselves—don’t have anything. We also do not want the use of genetically-modified organism seeds in our land, because our ancestral lands were cultivated with natural seed. We also ask of the US government that they come to our land to witness with their own eyes who has the land at this time, to see that even the cemeteries, where our loved ones are buried, have been destroyed with bulldozers, and to witness themselves what has happened to us throughout this period of displacement.


Two months ago, I lost a son. I didn’t have financial resources. I had received threats that if I were seen in my town, I would be killed. So I had to let my child die without being able to do anything for him. The child died from parasites, from digestive parasites. And this is how many peasants live. They can’t leave their homes because of threats placed upon their heads. 


I ask organizations of good faith that are represented here with us to reach into their own hearts and to help us, to come to our land, to really see and witness what’s happening there, and to then bring that message back here to tell others. Thank you very much.




ML/JH: In your talks you often discuss humanitarian zones. Could you define exactly what a humanitarian zone is?


POLO: The Inter-American Court of Human Rights provisionally established a certain amount of restricted space. It’s a place exclusively for the protection of the civilian population. It’s a place for the civilian people whose lives are in danger from armed actors. We ask that no one who is armed enter this place. International observers and Justicia y Paz (a Mennonite organization in Colombia that works with displaced people) accompany people in the Zones.


ML/JH: How many families lived in your community before Operation Genesis and the displacement, and how many families live there now?


POLO: Well, before the displacement, we were more than 700 families. Now, we are approximately 400 families. But, the children of those who left now have families of their own, which is to say that there are now more than 300 displaced families from Chocó.


ML/JH: Where are the palm oil companies that are occupying your land from, and how do they treat their workers?


POLO: What we have clear is that the companies inside the territory—the collective territory—whose names are Palma SAA, Palma Curvaradó, etc.—they have international support from the US and Holland. What they’ve told us is this is a fight between an egg and a stone, meaning that there’s a lot of support from foreign companies which have investment in these companies. There are Colombians in these companies as well.


They lie to the workers; they bring them in from other parts of the country, saying they’ll give them good salaries. Bu when the workers arrive at the place they’re supposed to work, the companies don’t pay them in the amount they had promised. They just give them credit to buy food at company-owned stores; they don’t give the workers cash. 


The companies have workers have sign papers that ask for new palm projects to be established; sometimes they’re collected without people’s knowledge, they’re done surreptitiously. They say things like, "sign here to get a pay stub," but they use the signatures for another purpose.  They need these signatures because the lands are collectively owned, so the collective signatures are used to advance the interests of palm oil companies. In order to get backing for new projects, the companies need collective permission.


What the companies often do is they take these signatures from workers and pass them off as peasant signatures, take them to banks and use them to take out loans from the banks, in order to get backing for the new projects. When the money is given to the companies, the companies usually fire the workers who signed, just leaving them stranded. Because the workers are from other parts of the country, they are left with nothing. 


ML/JH: Is this a continuous process? Are they bringing in and then firing workers because they want to generate more and more signatures, in order to keep on expanding the palm plantations? What’s the logic here?


POLO: Not everyone gets fired, so many people who are brought to work on the big plantations remain there as workers. What happens is, when they have people sign documents asking for loans from the banks in order to expand the palm project, they get the money from the banks and the company signs those people who signed those documents. Those people who signed the documents have a debt load set upon them, because they said it was their project. So these people who are fired and left with nothing are actually left with a huge debt that is used to expand the palm plantation. The bank takes out loans in the name of peasants. But they don’t do this to everybody; it’s not like they continuously empty the population. 


The contracts the workers follow are basically forced labor. Workers are asked to be ready to leave at the cars that are taking them to their job at five in the morning, so they have to get up at three. Most workers work until three or four, some even until five, and if they don’t comply, they’re basically fired. So if they can’t meet these requirements, they’re just thrown out.


ML/JH: You’re opposed to the presence of the palm oil companies, and you know they treat their workers poorly. Are there any attempts to organize and unite workers on the palm oil plantations with the people living in the humanitarian zones?    


POLO: The way we know about the conditions of labor at the palm companies is that two peasants from my community who once found themselves without work actually went to work for the palm companies, and they came back and told us about the conditions. Now, many of the workers that are there, who are peasants from other regions, don’t dare denounce their employers because they are under threat from the companies. They fear for their lives. 


In my humanitarian zone, there is no attempt to ally ourselves with palm workers, because they come from other regions, and we don’t know where they’re coming from; we don’t know what their past is in terms of violence, in terms of who they’re allied to in other ways, so forming those alliances would be very hard in terms of trust.


ML/JH: How do you think the US-Colombian free trade agreement would impact the situation in your community?


 POLO: The first way it would impact us is that the businessmen have our land. The scale of the palm projects will continue to grow, and this will touch on the ecosystem in the Chocó region. As they continue to have palm monoculture, they will cut down trees and take down river basins. The exchange of commodities that will happen through the free trade agreement will bring in genetically-modified seeds and affect the ancestral seeds in our regions.


One of the things that happen is that sterile seeds, which will come with the FTA, improve the size of the produce. They can only be used once or twice, but because the product is much larger, what is produced with ancestral seeds can’t compete with the other project. Consider chickens. As poor people, we have to buy chickens that are mass produced, because they’re cheaper. After forty-five days, a chicken that is raised in a factory can be eaten; but a chicken raised the natural way requires four months. We have to end up buying the chemically-induced chicken. It will also be difficult for us to compete with goods imported from the US.


All the crops that produce bio fuels, these things affect us. This leads businessman to exploit the land because they want bigger projects. There’s such a demand for bio fuel in the world, the FTA is opening the possibility of the US buying fuel from Colombia and selling it to the rest of the word. 


Let’s say I cultivate a hectare of plantains, but because there are no chemicals on them, the companies say they are sick. They’ve done that to a lot of peasants. So peasants need to associate with a company; those who are not affiliated with a specific company, their products are not sellable.   


ML/JH: It sounds like, according to your view, the FTA would leave peasants with the choice of using genetically modified seeds or working with one of the multinational companies, because they won’t be able to survive in the new order.


POLO: Basically, yes. What they’re trying to do is get rid of the ancestral seeds. What’s happening is they trick the peasants by saying, well, "you’ll have this great production with this seed," so they trick them into buying them.


ML/JH: Have the situation in your community or the difficulties facing your community changed at all during President Uribe’s tenure?


POLO: Yes, it has changed, from good to bad. Uribe has increased the war operations, and this has led to further displacement. His excuse is that he is taking the guerrillas out of the land. But under his government, all of these issues [of the guerrillas] haven’t changed. For us, the peasants, things haven’t changed. Under Uribe, a lot of freedoms have been curtailed. Before, people could walk around at any time in the evening. Now there’s a curfew. 


ML/JH: There’s a common perception in the United States that Uribe has the overwhelming support of the Colombian public. It’s commonly said, for example, that over 70% of people support him. Do you think Uribe actually has that much support among the people?


POLO: This is not true. The Autodefensa, a paramilitary group, forced peasants to vote for Uribe. In many places, they stopped people from voting by not giving them access to transportation they needed get to the voting centers. The other thing that they did was buy votes, and businessmen put a lot of pressure on people to vote for Uribe. One of the ways the paramilitaries made sure that the votes came for Uribe is that they would go into a community and they would say, ‘there are a hundred people here so there should be a hundred votes for Uribe, and if not, we know what’s going on’ (meaning, we will infer that there are guerrillas here), so that forced people to vote for Uribe. What I’ve heard from other peasants is that in Uribe’s ranch in Cordoba, the marks that his cattle have are the same marks that some cattle in paramilitary ranches have in our Chocó region. This is a scary thing to talk about because they say that if someone speaks about these things they will get killed.


[Note: The following questions are about the 17th Brigade, a section of the Colombian National Army that operates in the Chocó region and that, under the command of General Rito Alejo del Rio, participated in Operation Genesis in 1997. Due to the brigade's widely- publicized human rights abuses, the US claims it no longer funds it. But the 17th Brigade it is part of the Seventh Division of the Colombian army, whose command staff receives direct support from the United States. Officers and soldiers also move between brigades, so many soldiers in officially unfunded units have likely received US training.]


ML/JH: We have a question about a section of the military that operates in Chocó called the 17th Brigade. Our understanding is that the 17th Brigade was involved in Operation Genesis.


POLO: Yes, they were involved in Operation Genesis. 


ML/JH: Do the people who were involved with this operation still work with the 17th Brigade?


POLO: Some people still work there but they keep changing the people, taking them to other places, sending them away.


ML/JH: What is the relationship now of the 17th Brigade to the people in Chocó and do they still have the same training, or policies, for the officers who participated in Genesis? Do they use the same tactics?


POLO: They take care of the investments of businessmen. They continue to use the tactics of terror and intimidation to communities that they used before, in Operation Genesis. I don’t know anything about the training, but all I know is that they continue to be with the army. They are with the army. A person in the paramilitary will talk to a military person and will tell them about a certain community and they will leave that (paramilitary) person in the community as a detective to find out what’s going on.   They work together in groups from the Convivir, and in the group called the Black Eagles. They are all together. Those people who were involved in Genesis continue to be in the communities. They are still in the communities and they continue to walk around with impunity.


ML/JH: You said that the 17th Brigade continues to use tactics of intimidation and so forth—Could you give an example of such tactics from your community or somewhere else?


POLO: In March of last year, about a year ago, businessmen sent people to repopulate the area, the stolen land in Chocó. These were workers who work at the palm companies who were sent to start a community right across from where our community was. A man named Andrés Moreno brought them there and left ten people. He then came back with two people who had army uniforms and he took two workers away. So they left eight settlers and two army people. Two days later, as we were coming back from the Anda Lucia humanitarian zone, we came through [the community called] Brisas, and Andrés Moreno was with the army. We came by some land, as we were going through the road, in a hill close to the community, two people in army uniform came up to meet us, asking us why we were running away, and asking us why we had sent the guerrillas on the settlers. They said those two settlers had left because we sent guerrillas after them, even though we hadn’t even spoken to the settlers. We were speaking to the legal representative of the river basin about their entrance into our land. So we hadn’t spoken to the settlers, we had gone to the legal representative and denounced that the companies had sent settlers to our land. The two military men who met us asked why we hadn’t negotiated with the settlers themselves and let them stay and work for the company. We said no, because the territory is collectively owned and it belongs to the black communities and to the people who have lived there for a long time. Then, when I told the military men that I had spoken to lawyers in Bogotá denouncing the company and the settlers, they said, "Let it be noted that we have not done anything to mistreat you." So when we said that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights might be involved in this, the military was afraid. And they let us go, once we said that. But this is how we know that they put pressure on people. 


ML/JH: Are there are international observers in the humanitarian zones right now?


POLO: Yes, when I left there were some people from Canada and from Witness for Peace, and also some from Spain and Peace Brigades International. Peace Brigades has connections with Witness for Peace, and they work together to protect the communities inside the Humanitarian Zones. 


ML/JH: Have things changed because of the international presence there? Have international volunteers made any sort of perceptible difference in the situation?


POLO: When international accompaniment came, there were changes. There was more respect for us as campesinos. They didn’t want to do violence or damage in front of the internationals, because the gringos and white people denounce the violence. But they say that when the gringos leave, they will attack or kill us. So that’s the reason we want more internationals to come.


ML/JH: Aside from direct accompaniment in the communities, what sorts of international solidarity work would be most helpful for you?


POLO: Aside from constant accompaniment, you can also go to the communities to make recordings of testimonies from the communities, take pictures of where we used to live, and bring it over here. This is of huge importance.


ML/JH: If people can’t go there, what can they do here?


POLO: We need help, we need humanitarian help, in money, in order to buy things like a tank to collect water, and money to mobilize ourselves to denounce these things even more. All of that helps. Also, you need to keep denouncing it over here (in the United States) too, to the government, to help us fight, and to help the displaced communities. Over there [in Chocó] we need some machines to cut materials needed to make houses, things like that. It could be money given to Justicia y Paz, and they help us over there. 

Margaree Little is a Colombia and Palestine solidarity organizer based at Brown University. She welcomes feedback at Margaree.Little(a) Jake Hess is a graduate student at Brown; most of his activism focuses on Colombia and Palestine solidarity. He can be reached at JakeRHess(a) 

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