Biofuels fuel Colombia’s conflict

An article published recently in the New York Times celebrated the cultivation of oil palm, used to make biofuel, as a promising alternative to drug cultivation in Colombia.

At first glance, the article is both convincing and uplifting. Other alternative crop programs have failed due to the volatility of commodity prices. Many prefer to get a good deal for coca, whose prices are relatively stable, than to deal with the unpredictable ups and downs of coffee or cocoa. Oil palm is different because demand is partly dictated by the Colombian government, which in 2007 mandated that diesel blends consist of at least 10% biofuels. This kind of government intervention at home and abroad will help buttress demand and keep prices fairly stable.

For the poor farmers quoted in the article, oil palm production has literally been a lifesaver. When they grew coca for FARC guerrillas, they had to deal with constant violence and were isolated from the outside world. This isolation partly offset the financial benefits of growing lucrative illicit crops. Basic goods like sodas were several times more expensive in some coca-growing areas than in other Colombian towns. Now, it would seem, they are making good money, helping to save the environment and ridding Colombia of its thirty-year drug problem.

There’s only one problem: none of this is totally true. For one, decades of evidence suggests that supply-side anti-drug efforts, ranging from crop substitution to dismantling drug cartels, have had little to no effect on the broader drug trade. There’s no reason to believe that oil palm cultivation will be any different. Sure, many farmers may have switched over from coca to oil palm because they make a good living without having to deal with cops, soldiers or guerrillas. But in the long run, supply and demand will drive coca prices up high enough to attract growers again.

In theory, this would still be a good thing. Higher prices paid to Colombian peasants would likely mean that consumers from New York to Madrid would have to pay more for blow, too. So long as high prices drove down cocaine demand, this would be a small victory in the war on drugs. Some farmers would still be growing coca, but the global consumer base would shrink, and with it the whole international drug trade. But the problem with supply-side efforts is that demand for cocaine is fairly robust. Even significant price increases – say, 10% or 15% – have a minimal effect on consumption. Besides, cocaine prices today are much, much lower than in the 1980s, when the drug enjoyed a kind of cultural heyday. It would take a whole lot of Colombian palm trees to make today’s coke lovers pay as much as people thirty years ago, and that’s assuming that coca growers in Peru and Bolivia wouldn’t pick up the slack.

The article also makes the common mistake of forgetting about the other actors in Colombia’s devastating armed conflict. Anything that cuts into the FARC’s drug business sounds good, but if the authors had done their research, they would have realized that the oil palm boom has fueled the re-emergence of right-wing drug gangs. In many parts of Colombia, contrary to what the New York Times reported, the rise of the oil palm has been accompanied by massacres, targeted assassinations of community leaders and mass displacements.

When President Alvaro Uribe began promoting palm oil cultivation in 2007, he heralded it as a way to give jobs to demobilized paramilitaries. Sure enough, many former paramilitaries got into the trade, but not always to grow the plant. Indeed, just one year later, INCODER – a government rural development agency – said that 93 percent of the land under cultivation by some of the country’s largest oil palm companies was illegally located the territory that belongs to black communities. These companies had seized the land with the help of gangs comprised of former paramilitaries.

In other words, for thousands of peasants that the Times failed to interview, the oil palm has been, like coca, both a blessing and a curse. Both crops are lucrative, but both have drawn the attention of big businessmen and the death squads that accompany them. I have personally heard dozens of stories of peasants from the Pacific Coast who were driven off their land by members of the army, who said they were going to use the land temporarily to fight the guerrillas. When peasants refused to leave their land, the soldiers warned them that paramilitaries were not too far away. The farmers who had the courage to return to their land discovered that their homes had been replaced by massive oil palm plantations guarded by men with machine guns.

It is not hard to see why the Times missed so many crucial facts. It is certainly tempting to believe that eco-friendly biofuels could at once free peasants from the brutal grip of the FARC, reduce drug production and help reduce global dependence on petroleum. But the authors’ optimism about alternative energy and Colombia’s progress in the war against guerrillas blinded them from a much more complicated reality. As things are now, oil palm cultivation in Colombia is not going to win the war on drugs, nor is it going to save poor farmers from poverty and violence. So far, it has actually made these problems worse.

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