David Bacon Stories & Photographs

Latin America

U.S. Embassy Attacks "BLOOD ON THE PALMS" And Afro-Colombian Groups Respond

By David Bacon
Dollars and Sense, July/August 2007)

Embassy Letter

[seal of the U.S. gov.]
Embassy of the United States of America

Bogotá, D.C., August 14, 2007

Ms. Amy Gluckman
Magazine Co-Editor
29 Winter St.
Boston, MA 02108

Dear Ms. Gluckman:

Mr. David Bacon’s article “Blood on the Palms: Afro-Colombians fight new planations” is an unfortunate and perpetual mischaracterization of the palm oil industry in Colombia and of the U.S. Government’s related efforts to promote sustainable, legel economic opportunities in Afro-Columbian communities. The article is correct on many fronts—that paramilitary and guerrilla activity has reaked havoc on Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, that the palm oil industry in Colombia has ambitious expansion plans, and that Afro-Colombian communities face development challenges that are unparalleled in the rest of the country. However, Mr. Bacon’s assertions that U.S. Government resources through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are being used to displace Afro-Colombians, to destroy cultural ties to the land, and to further the economic interests of the palm industry just for the sake of doing so are simply inaccurate. During the past five years, as part of the U.S. Government assistance to Plan Colombia, USAID has worked with President Uribe’s administration, municipal governments, elected Afro-Colombian councils and representatives, farmer associations, and the private sector to develop models that meet the needs of the communities. Indeed, only one USAID-supported African Palm investment is in an Afro-Colombian community, and almost all other USAID African Palm activities are designed as alliances. These alliances are structured whereby large processors are linked to small, privately-held or community-held African Palm farms and the processors provide seed funding, common infrastructure (roads, bridges, irrigation), social investments, and technical assistance to small farmers and communities. Further, USAID assists the small farmers and communities to become more capable of negotiating competitive forward contracts for their product. Unfortunately, most of Colombia’s agricultural sector has had experience with the issues that Mr. Bacon cites as palm-specific, and of course there remains a lot of work to do relating to African Palm cultivation and Afro-Colombian communities. The Colombian and U.S. Governments and the robust private sector in Colombia will continue to be change agents in the agriculture sector, and USAID will continue to assist Afro-Colombian communities to identify opportunities for economic development, to strengthen representative councils and decision-makers with their ability to represent their communities’ interests, and to protect their ties to the land and their cultural values in the face of very difficult developmental challenges.

Sincerely yours,


Mark Wentworth,
Counselor for Public Affairs


Afro-Colombian Response

Having read the article “Blood in the palms: Afro-Colombians Fight Against the New Plantations,” by David Bacon as well as the letter by Mark Wentworth from the US Embassy in Colombia, we wanted to contribute to a debate that has deep implications for our lives and rights.

Mr. Bacon’s article is an accurate description of the impact that the monocultural production of palm oil has had not only here in Colombia, but in other parts of the world. The potentially valuable contributions by the United States cannot be effective when their support, in the case of the palm oil and of the process of formulation and support of the Forest Law, to mention just two examples, is guided by what they are told by Colombia’s government and business class, and are so contrary to the ethnic and cultural production practices of Colombians of African descent, as well as to the ecological and conservation practices stipulated in the Collective Titles with the Colombian State (Law 70 from 1993 and Law 21 of 1991).

Contrary to the arguments of Mr. Wentworth, activities are being promoted that are both environmentally and financially unsustainable for Afro-Colombian communities. A clear demonstration of this is that the communities have been forced to make “strategic alliances” with the large palm oil companies with unfavorable terms of credit, [the lack of] social security for the small palm-oil producers, fixed prices for products and transport, all resulting in a disadvantageous terms for the small producers due in part to their lack of decision-making power. Similarly, and as far as environmental sustainability is concerned, there are many studies that show the incompatibility between monocultural production like that used for palm oil and the complex, and at the same time fragile and delicate ecosystem of the Territory of the Pacific Bio-geographic region.

The ambitious plans for expansion of palm oil in Colombia ignore the very serious environmental, cultural, social, and economic impacts, in both the medium and long-term, on these communities. The unparalleled development challenges that we must face, both among Afro-Colombians and within Colombian society as a whole, require an enormous societal effort to promote effective remedies for the inherited consequences of enslavement and the disproportionate impact of the internal armed conflict that our communities face.

Such measures must not only respect the ethnic and cultural diversity recognized in the Colombian legal system, but must also respect the right of Afro-Colombians to develop economically in a way that is consistent with our own cultural aspirations. If we fail to accept that racism and racial discrimination are problems that we need to overcome, and if we fail to respect and support the proposals from the communities themselves, we will continue reproducing the conditions that maintain the racial inequality that our communities suffer, including massacres, displacement, loss of land, culture, acculturation, racism, invasion, dispossession, murder, persecution of our leaders, etc. Is there any difference between that scenario and the dawn of trafficking and enslavement that resulted in the dispersion of the African diaspora in the Territory of the Pacific Bio-geographic region?

The progress of the palm oil industry is currently one of the most serious, complex, and systematic violations of rights against the Black communities of Colombia. Despite this, and with the support of USAID in Tumaco (Colombian South Pacific), there has been a growth of “strategic alliances,” depriving the local Community Councils in the areas where palm cultivation has been expanding of their right to prior consultation. These so-called "Associated Business" promoted to advance the palm oil industry, divide communities and are both legally and culturally ignorant of the mechanisms established for the administration and management of collective territories, mechanisms which should be respected by the state, business, and international actors. Since 2006 those "associated businesses" started to repay their loans. Today there are many drawbacks and many people are facing serious difficulty repaying their loans as a result of an infestation, fumigation with glyphosate, the difficulty of adapting to the technical demands of monocultivation, and on top of it all, a sharp drop in prices from 490,000 pesos per ton to only 80,000 pesos per ton today.

In areas where communities use collective land titles we face other challenges. Banks do not recognize communally held titles and will not issue either a mortgage or allow them to be used as credit guarantees. However, credit has been issued through the “strategic alliances” for palm oil trees that have already been planted. The normal life of a palm oil tree is between 30 to 40 years. When the accumulated interest charges are factored in, these loans now represent a grave risk to local landowners.

Further north in the area of Guapi and Charco, one of the growing palm oil regions, communities are being subjected to repeated processes of displacement. Local leaders who have voiced concerns have received threats. We published a public advertisement asking for a presidential order to force Afrocolombians and business people until they reach an agreement has not been answered. The megaproject "fill the tanks, empty the lands" of biological and cultural diversity, is incompatible with the life experience that we have accumulated for nearly 500 years in the Territory of the Pacific Region Biogeographic, recognized as the second most biologically diverse zone in the world.

Born out of our own knowledge of this land where we have been reborn, our communities have different approaches to palm oil than simple monoculture, although the government has refused to listen or support them. These methods are consistent with our way of life, are responsible towards the future, are respectful of our desire to remain in these territories, and are loyal to the ways of our elders. We remain firm in our affirmation of life, happiness, and freedom.


Bajo Mira and Frontera Community Council, Community Council of the Rio Grande del Patía, sus Brazos and the Ensenada ACAPA - Palenque Regional Kurrulao, Coroporación Ancestros (Caucana, Pacific Coast); Palenque Regional El Congal, Asociación Popular de Negros Unidos del Río Yurumanguí (APONURY), AFROLIBERTARIOS of the Río Grande De La Magdalena, Association of Community Councils Timbiquí - Cauca, Proceso de Comunidades Negras en Colombia (PCN).

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