Tony Allen-Mills, New York
HE survived decades of Colombia's murderous guerrilla uprisings. He
lived through paramilitary purges and steered well clear of the
cocaine overlords who swarmed across his rural region. It was
something completely different that killed Innocence Dias. He died
because the world is turning green.
The global quest for alternative sources of environmentally friendly
energy has attracted high-profile support from American politicians,
including President George W Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the
governor of California. Celebrities such as Daryl Hannah, the actress,
and Willie Nelson, the country singer, are leading a campaign to
promote green fuels.
Yet the trend has already had disastrous consequences for tens of
thousands of peasants in rural Colombia. A surge in demand for
biofuels derived from agricultural products has unleashed a chaotic
land grab by a new breed of gangster entrepreneurs hoping to cash in
on the world's thirst for palm oil and related bioproducts.
Vast areas of Colombia's tropical forest are being cleared for palm
tree plantations. Charities working with local peasants claim that
paramilitary forces in league with biofuel conglomerates – some of
them financed by US government subsidies – are forcing families off
their land with death threats and bogus purchase offers.
"The paramilitaries are not subtle when it comes to taking land," said
Dominic Nutt, a British specialist with Christian Aid who recently
visited Colombia. "They simply visit a community and tell landowners,
'If you don't sell to us, we will negotiate with your widow'."
Dias was one of several landowners around the remote settlement of
Llano Rico who decided not to abandon his property when the
paramilitaries first moved into the area. "My father felt protected
because he had a local government position," said his daughter, Milvia
Even when paramilitaries warned the villagers that if they stayed they
would be considered left-wing guerrilla sympathisers, Dias refused to
be bullied. "He had cattle and land and one day, after all this
happened, he went out to fix a hole in one of the farm's fences," his
daughter said. He never came back. A search party found him with his
throat cut and seven stab wounds in his torso.
"We held the funeral at 5pm the same day and we ran away the next
morning," said Dias. The land is now covered in palm trees owned by
Urapalma, a Colombian enterprise that has repeatedly been accused in
court proceedings of improperly invading private property.
Nutt said last week that he had heard stories of paramilitaries
cutting off the arms of illiterate peasants and applying their
fingerprints to land sale documents. In many cases, Nutt added, the
land is collectively owned by indigenous people or Afro-Colombians and
protected by federal laws that courts seem unable or unwilling to
There is no reliable estimate of how many thousand acres have been
appropriated, or how many of the 3m Colombians who have lost their
homes since 1985 were forced out by the palm oil business.
Washington has been struggling for years to persuade Colombian farmers
to turn their backs on coca leaf production in favour of other crops.
Desperate to find energy alternatives to expensive and politically
volatile sources of Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil, Bush is also
advocating a global increase in biofuel production.
Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia, has urged local palm oil
producers to more than double the land they have under cultivation
within four years. Uribe's critics complain that he has effectively
given a green light to paramilitaries.
At a congressional hearing on Colombia last week, Luis Gilberto
Murillo-Urrutia, the former governor of Choco province, told a House
foreign affairs subcommittee that US trade policy was likely to
"generate an expansion of palm oil cultivation in Afro-Colombian
territories . . . there is evidence that palm oil companies, taking
advantage of the vulnerability of Afro- Colombian people, have been
taking over lands illegally".
For Don Enrique Petro, 67, formerly a wealthy landowner from
Curvarado, growing international awareness of the human cost of a
green conscience has come several years too late.
"I arrived in Curvarado 39 years ago with my wife and five sons," he
said last week. He bought a patch of jungle and slowly transformed it
into a 30-acre spread with 110 cows, 20 bulls and 10 horses.
He lost two sons and a brother to the guerrilla wars and in the early
1990s fled his land for five years. When he returned, he found a
right-wing paramilitary group in control. "They said they wanted my
land to fight the guerrillas," Petro said. "They were lying. It was so
they could grow palm on it and make money." Petro refused to sell up.
He claims he was eventually taken prisoner by the paramilitaries and,
when released, found his land had been planted with palm trees
belonging to Urapalma. The company has denied that it is cooperating
with paramilitaries or acquiring land illegally.
The world's demand for alternative fuels is unlikely to diminish, but
Nutt argued that biofuel consumers should put pressure on Colombia to
return stolen land.
Celebrities such as Hannah are beginning to distinguish between palm
oil and less controversial biofuels such as ethanol, which is derived
mainly from corn.
"I want biofuels that are grown and produced in a sustainable manner,"
said Hannah, who leads a pressure group which is lobbying for US
government standards on green fuel production. "I would not buy
biodiesel made from palm oil."