Colombia’s palm oil sector has been among the main beneficiaries of the mass dispossession of land during the country’s armed conflict. Now their former federation chief is in charge of land restitution.
President Ivan Duque reportedly appointed former Fedepalma director Andres Augusto Castro as chief of the Land Restitution Unit, the government agency in charge of returning land to farmers who say their plots were illegally dispossessed.
According to the National Center for Historical Memory, victims who were displaced have requested the restitution of more than 3 million acres of land, an area the size of Belgium, they say was dispossessed by palm oil and banana companies, drug traffickers, guerrillas and ranchers.
Sell me your land or I will buy it off your widow.
When the son of former Bogota Mayor Jaime Castro was the chief of Fedepalma, multiple businessmen he represented were jailed for aligning with death squads and the military to displace farmers and steal their land.
In the Antioquia province, the home of Duque’s political patron Alvaro Uribe, the mass acquisition of land by multiple palm oil companies and ranchers “counted on the support of illegal armed groups,” according to the Supreme Court.
The country may not be satisfied with 200,000 or 300,000 hectares of palm, nor 600,000. You have to have millions.
Former President Alvaro Uribe in 2005
When Castro was leading Fedepalma in 2010, at least 24 palm oil plantation owners were arrested on charges they conspired with the paramilitaries and the 17th Brigade of the National Army to displace farmers and steal their land in the Uraba region.
Several of these palm oil moguls have been sentenced to prison sentences for their alliance with paramilitary group AUC.
The appointment of the former Bogota mayor’s controversial son is the latest blow dealt to Colombia’s war victims, in particular those who were displaced in “the paramilitary project” that promoted the industrialization of agriculture at the expense of other farmers and even entire communities.
Multiple displacement victims who tried to reclaim the land they said was stolen by palm oil companies have been assassinated over the past years.
There is fear, there is concern among human rights defenders, the land claimants and the peasants who are genuinely looking for reparations for the damage the violence has caused them. There are groups that have been threatening them and even murdering them.
Former President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016
Victims rights organizations earlier this year accused one palm oil business owner two other Antioquia agro-industrialists of again conspiring with death squads to assassinate victim representatives in order to prevent land restitution.
Duque’s and his party, the hard-right Democratic Center, have ignored these victims. In fact, they want to amend the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution bill and limit victims’ rights to reclaim land they say was dispossessed.
Thanks to Duque, the government agency in charge of returning land to victims has now fallen in the hands of the man who represented businessmen who conspired to displace the victims in the first place.