A century of neglect, drug trafficking, and civil wars had made the “wild-east” Colombian department of Vichada a publicly designated “wasteland”. By the 1990’s, however, reduced hostilities allowed the government to open it up in specially regulated parcels for poor landless peasants. With Colombia as the second most unequal land distribution in the hemisphere, the redistribution scheme seemed to address the reasons that have sparked the civil war. Courageous legislative measures, such as Article 72 of Law 160 in 1994, allowed these groundbreaking changes. Furthermore they specifically prohibit one person or entity from owning multiple agricultural family units in this territory.
This didn’t hold back an alliance of the traditional oligarchy with transnational corporations such as Cargill. Through new and ongoing investigations, Cargill has been accused of an intentional scheme touse at least 36 cover companies to sidestep laws and gobble up land parcels soon after they were dealt out. Individually, each small land grab does not breech the legal limit, but in total amounts to at least 130,000 acres – about the size of Guam. Adding to the legitimacy of the sales, investigations show that they were purchased from willing farmers at acceptable rates, for as much as $500,000.
By 2010 however, Cargill began to purchase and liquidize these cover companies at fractions of their original prices. One lot originally purchased for $180,000 was resold to Cargill for only $700 a year later. Instead of being used for subsistence and diverse crops, the land is now being turned into a monoculture of cereals, pulses, and the infamously devastating palm oil plantations. A doubling in price between 2003 and 2008 made these materials all the more lucrative on the world market.
The scandal erupted further when it was uncovered that a single and well-known law firm, Birgard &Urrutia, guided Cargill’s land transactions for the cover companies. The main shareholder for the firm was Carlos Urrutia, a close friend of President Juan Manuel Santos and a financier of his presidential campaign. In a surprise 2011 appointment, Urrutia suspiciously became Colombia’s ambassador in Washington. He sold his shares only a year later while already in Washington, adding another potential conflict of interest charge. Amidst calls for his resignation by members of congress, on July 27 Carlos Urrutia resigned from his post as ambassador. Yet, the political fallout and devastating effects continue.
These findings come from a recent Oxfam-funded study presented last month by Paula Alvarez on the heels of the first anniversary of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CTPA). Even before its implementation, Oxfam made dire predictions that 1.8 million small farmers would see their net agricultural income fall by an average 16% and another 400,000 small farmers displaced8. These would join the five million Colombians (more than 10% of the population) in the largest internal displacement crisis in the world. Those displaced by these polices are furthermore likely to turn to the drug trade or even take up arms, exacerbating the conflict that has been the subject of negotiations in Havana since last October.
While not the only corporation or player in this illegal trade and conflict, Cargill is certainly the most powerful, problematic, and discreet. The Minnesota-based private company has yearly revenues of $119 billion (pdf), making the McMillian-Cargill family perhaps the single richest family in the United States (exact wealth is kept secret as the world’s largest privately held corporation). With control of 25% of the palm oil trade globally, its reach stretches into the nation’s largest food companies, including General Mills, Kraft, and Nestlé. Operating in 66 countries, the family’s integrity is questioned as it pours millions into international lobbying, while concurrently exploiting low-wage workers. There is documentation of forced labor on palm oil plantations in Indonesia.
In Colombia, Cargill has worked hard to gain the trust and support of the government and business elite alike. As leader of the wealthy and influential Santos family and president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos belongs to both. Since obtaining office in 2010, he’s pushed hard to relax and eliminate regulations to allow for agribusiness dominance10. Thus far unsuccessful, he has nevertheless not enforced land reform laws. His agriculture minister defends this inaction as necessary so as not to scare away the international investors being courted through the CTPA.
As observers both on the ground within devastated rural communities and at home with allies in business and government, we in FOR hope these new revelations don’t scare away the international community, but instead advance dialogue into the true causes of the ongoing violence, which damages the trade, goods, and lives of so many.
Jake Jenzen is a new member of the FOR team in Colombia, coming from five years of work experience in Latin America, including human rights accompaniment in Guatemala.