Twenty workers of palm oil company Aportes San Isidro on the morning of September 8 occupied and planted over one hundred palm oil tree saplings on the Las Pavas farm, only two weeks after the Consejo de Estado, Colombia’s highest administrative court, ruled in favor of the campesinxs of Las Pavas. The court’s decision affirmed the Colombian land institute’s (INCODER) finding that through the process of eminent domain the 3000 hectares of land in dispute belonged to the state. The responsibility now lies in the hands of INCODER’s successor, the Agencia Nacional de Tierras to implement their decision and guarantee the campesinxs’ right to return to their land.
In a recent urgent action, ASOCAB - the campesino association of Buenos Aires to which the farmers of Las Pavas belong - wrote, “once again the evidence shows that whenever there is a decision of the Colombian state unfavourable to their [Aportes San Isidro] interests, they respond with direct and serious harassment that undermines the fundamental rights of the farming community of ASOCAB.” Since the land grab, ASOCAB member Filomena Alvear and her partner Rafael Enrique Perez have had to set up a system of round-the-clock vigilance for fear that the company may plant more palm oil trees or destroy their farm house. “We had to build the roof of our home with tin instead of the native traditional palm [palma de vino] because of the company’s history of torching our homes,” said Perez.
In June, after heavy rains and flooding displaced Jose Isaac Alvear from his plot, company security set fire to the wood that he had stacked for the construction of a new home.
In 2010, a few years after INCODER began the eminent domain process, the national government in an effort to resolve historic land conflicts selected the campesinxs’ dispute as a emblematic case. Between 2011 and 2012 the campesinxs were displaced for the fourth time with over nine farm houses destroyed or burned, yucca plants uprooted, plantain trees chopped down and fences cut. These hostile actions continue to date. Even with national recognition, and in spite of being recognized as victims of the armed conflict, which give ASOCAB a special protective status, any attempt of returning to their land has been met with violent retaliation.
The influence of the palm oil company over local judicial processes and law enforcement has maintained a status quo of inaction in providing the necessary safety guarantees for the campesinxs. As of September 29, twenty days after the military arrived to the Las Pavas farm in response to the aggression of the company, the unit from the Battalion Nariño have yet to visit the affected plot. Late last year, after ASOCAB was granted a project by the Ministry of Agriculture in conjunction with the local mayor’s office of El Peñon, the company retaliated by planting one hundred and fifty new palm oil trees, effectively taking away from the farmers land that they had been guaranteed for food crops. The mayor of the municipality ordered a decree of eviction and uprooting of all trees he has yet to execute. In their urgent action, the campesinxs demand the mayor implement “resolution 022 of January 30, 2017, to evict the company Aportes San Isidro S.A.S from plots of the Las Pavas farm.”
The state’s abandonment of rural Colombia lies at the crux of the campesinxs ability to return and farm safely on their lands. The Consejo de Estado’s ruling exhorts the Agencia Nacional de Tierras to administer lands that have been returned to the state through the process of eminent domain, to make sure that they are not misused, and to take all measures to guarantee ASOCAB’s right of return.
What remains to be seen is whether the state can show up and execute its own decisions and guarantee its citizens - victims of the armed conflict, who have safeguards under the law and under the agrarian reform point of the peace agreement between the FARC-EP and the government - their fundamental rights.
“The company”, says Perez, “knowing fully well that these lands belong to the state planted palm oil.” The legal issue here is not one between the company and the campesinxs but rather the private enterprise illegally occupying land that belongs to state. “If this has anything to do with the national government, and if they [government] want the land returned to the campesinxs, they need to find a way to have the Agencia Nacional de Tierras intervene.”
The question is: is the state willing?