Saturday, June 14, 2008

Where palm helped the poor... for a while

[In a few hours I'm off to get on my cargo boat. It's been quite a rush this week, as the boat is leaving three days earlier than the original schedule. (When you sign up for a trip, it is made clear that this might happen.) I'll be writing more on this story when at sea, and I may get to post it if the Dominican Republic stop is in the day and I have enough time to go swimming too. Back in UK around 27th June.]

I have been chasing a story for the comic book my organisation is creating about Colombia. We hope it'll be like the brilliant Joe Sacco's Palestine and will explain the history and issues of this country in a readable and digestible way. Chapters will be about stuff like the murder of Coca Cola worker Isidro Gil, and the social effects of the cocaine trade.

Obviously there is a bit of a bias towards stories about people getting killed by the state and paramilitaries, as that does tend to happen a lot here. So I was hoping to find a feel-good story for a section on agrofuels.

I heard about a case where an afro-colombian community had won 2900 hectares of their land back from two palm companies. The person who first told me about it didn't know what the current situation was: whether the community was going to keep the valuable palm on their land and sell the companies the fruit, or whether they would uproot it. The next person I went to for details didn't know either, and said I would have to ask them.

So I travelled south on a two-day bus journey, to Tumaco in Nariño. It took a little while to warm to the bloke from the community which had won the land. I found it quite difficult to extract information from him, especially the details needed to bring a story to life. He was not a man for detail. When he took us from Tumaco town to a village on his community's land, and I asked him “Who are we seeing next?” he replied, “A colleague.” Really not an ideal interview candidate.

Luckily, all the people who gathered round us in the cafe in that village were easier to engage.

There has been oil palm in that area for the last 25 years so the five farmers we met were second generation palm growers. They are still in debt though, as they had to replace the original palm trees. Palm had been good to them until recently. They were probably the first campensinos I had met who were putting their children through university. I was struck by how much on this trip I heard people talk about how their basic needs are not being met. Drinking water. Healthcare. Education. But for these farmers, the income generated by oil palm had made a big difference to their standard of living and quality of life.

Until recently. But here in Tumaco I saw first hand the way that monocultures are vulnerable to disease. Bud rot is decimating the oil palm population. I saw large areas where affected palm had been felled. I was told the yellow leaves on much of the palm that remained, meant those trees were also dying.

This is devastating to the campesinos who grow palm. All those we met were affected. Mostly with 100% of their palm dead or dying. They will have no income until the first harvest of whatever crop they next plant. In the meantime they will have to take their children out of university. And do lots of worrying about their debts.

When I was in Regidor being taken around the countryside to interview people about palm, I felt good that my guide, president of the Movement of Landless Campesinos, could also use my trips to network and build up his organisation.

My guide this time had just been to a seminar about 'piñon' the next agrofuels monoculture idea which could replace the dead palm. These farmers were desperate to know what they can do next. One is planting a bit of cocoa. Another said it was not worth the hassle as the crop is so easy to steal. Growing food crops is just not profitable enough due to transport costs. Yes, it leads to greater food sovereignty. But as someone told me, you still have to buy salt. (And pay for your children's school fees. And healthcare. Clothes are also useful.)

The new agrofuels idea appears to be one of the few choices they have which will meet their basic needs. The other being a supposedly bud rot resistant new variety of palm which costs three times more than the last variety did.

In Colombia I’ve heard mention of ‘planes de vida’ (‘life plans’) a fair bit. This is distinct from the more familiar term ‘local development plans’ as they reflect the fact that people here are questioning what is meant by ‘development’. ‘Planes de vida’ involve planning with local communities what changes they want which better reflect their values. This afro-colombian community is one of those which use the term, and yet they are stuck within an economic system where choices seem limited and leave them vulnerable to crop diseases and to fluctuations in international commodity prices.

No comments: