European business is embroiled in a Colombian guerrilla war
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    European business is embroiled in a Colombian guerrilla war

    BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
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    European business is embroiled in a Colombian guerrilla war

    The next time you peel open a banana, you may want to check where exactly in the world it has come from.

    Following the 2016 peace agreement between Colombia’s former President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), many had believed that a ceasefire would prevail, putting an end to long-held disputes over territory, social justice and citizens’ rights, amid an underground economy bloodied by the drug trade.


    BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


    Santos was lauded at the time for having brought theoretical peace to a country that had been engaged in a 50-year-long conflict, which has left nearly 220,000 people dead and 5.7 million displaced. They gave him the Nobel peace prize.

    Colombia’s incumbent President, Iván Duque, had always been suspicious of the agreement, and reforms introduced under the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic are now being seen as a way of invoking open conflict between FARC and the Colombian forces.

    Laura Gil, Colombian political analyst and editor of the website La Línea del Medio, wrote recently in The Washington Post that calls from the Duque regime to exclude former FARC members from politics – a condition under which peace talks were originally conducted, as well as the killings of demobilized combatants and activists, will only serve to further sever the path to peace that had been charted by Santos.

    “Meanwhile, plans to restart fumigation of illicit crops, discouraged by the deal, are moving forward, and money allocated to peace programs is being used to promote the president,” Gil notes.

    In this context, concerns have recently arisen as to the presence of European companies across battle-scarred regions of Colombia.

    Earlier this year, the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective submitted a private report to Colombia’s Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition, which has been tasked with exposing human rights abuses committed as part of Colombia’s half-century conflict.

    The report, titled The Role of Companies in Armed Conflict and Sociopolitical Violence, points the finger at several firms that have played a part in exacerbating the clashes.

    One such claim was against the Italian palm oil company, Poligrow, which operates out of Mapiripán, Meta. Along with the regions of Bajo Atrato (Chocó) and Putumayo, Meta is a protected territory, meaning that entry to the areas are restricted in order to protect indigenous populations. Mapiripán also achieved infamy as part of a 1997 massacre carried out in the town by the right-wing United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia.

    Working out of Mapiripán, Poligrow has been accused of the forced displacement of indigenous communities, dispossessing land and property held by peasant and ethnic minority communities.

    In response to the accusations, Poligrow has said that “the Colombian justice system has never issued any rulings or judicial decisions from which it can be inferred that Poligrow has incurred in any illegal or criminal activity.”

    But the accusations against the company stretch back to 2015, following an investigation by Colombian NGO Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace, and the US-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency, who alleged that Poligrow had been involved in issuing “death threats to indigenous peoples and local leaders opposing palm plantations.” 

    For those in Brussels watching the continuing conflict in Colombia alongside the presence of European businesses in areas notorious for human rights abuses, the signs are worrying.

    “Poligrow is not the only one, there are other companies operating in regions such as Bajo Atrato and Putumayo,” Miguel Urbán, co-founder of Spain’s Podemos party and GUE MEP, told me.

    “There is a general context of connivance between the Colombian ruling class, paramilitarism, drug trafficking and transnational companies, to seize land from peasants and destroy the agrarian, environmental and human rights social movements opposing them.”

    But for Urbán, the most evident European crossover with the ongoing turmoil in Colombia, revolves around the operation of the trans-Atlantic banana trade.

    He drew attention the case of Unibán, one of Colombia’s premier banana producers, that has a European market representing 75% of its exports, according to a 2018 report.

    Earlier this year, Colombia’s Specialized Chamber for Land Restitution of the Superior Court of Antioquia requested the initiation of an investigation into Unibán, as well as Banacol and Bananeras de Uraba SA, for alleged “criminal association and voluntary financing of paramilitary groups” according to El Spectator.

    Not only that, but the trans-Atlantic banana trade has also been intimately linked to global drug trafficking flows, including cases in Spain and Portugal where vast amounts of cocaine have been discovered within banana shipments, all emanating from areas in Colombia which have a track-record in armed conflict and paramilitary violence.

    “That these regions in Colombia have a great presence of paramilitary groups and impunity should ring serious alarm bells. That armed forces, mercenaries and police corps are supporting transnational interests should be a red line to stop exporting these products,” Urbán said.

    “European countries have a very significant and troubling stake in this. It is deplorable that these products are still making their way, ignoring the claims from the local communities, and neglecting the connivance I mentioned before, which undoubtedly has in the EU and in the Member states a very obvious and blatant accomplice.”

    For their part, in response to a declaration from the National Liberation Army in April that the ceasefire was over, the EU delegation to Colombia came out with a strong message in early May, insisting “on the immediate suspension of hostile and violent actions so that humanitarian assistance can reach the most remote places and those who need it most.”  

    The statement itself seems to have fallen flat on its face – with little reaction from Bogotá and no follow up from Brussels.

    European compliance with violent paramilitary conflict thousands of miles away may seem like an illusionary claim, but the consumer habits and choices of those embedded in a hyper-globalised market economy become decisive when analysing how such groups engaged in the conflict receive financial support.

    “Civil society, human rights defenders, local communities, they are raising their voices, which we join and support, to denounce the non-compliance with the Peace Agreement, the persistence of paramilitaries, the killings of human rights defenders, the land grabbing, and the forced displacement of peasants, indigenous and Afro-descendant populations,” Urbán said.

    “We have to challenge all this in light of the activities of European big companies and hold European countries accountable for their compliance.”


    BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.