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A stand of plantain trees in northern Colombia, where returning refugees say they are being displaced by a paramilitary-backed banana ‘invasion.’

Chiquita Republic

United Fruit’s heir has again been linked to paramilitary abuses in Colombia.

BY James Bargent

Residents involved in land restitution say that they live with constant threats, and that abduction, torture and murder remain common fates. Death lists are widely circulated.

In the late 1990s, in one of many chapters in the Colombian government’s decades-old dirty war with leftist guerrillas, more than 15,000 people in the northern region of Curvaradó were forced from their land. First came the army, they recall. And they told us to leave. ‘Don’t be afraid of us,’ the soldiers said. ‘Be afraid of those that follow us.’

Those that followed were las mocha cabezas—the beheaders—paramilitary death squads fighting as the military’s proxies. Thousands fled their massacres, bombardments and executions.

Behind the beheaders came the agribusinesses, which converted the territory into African palm plantations and cattle ranches under paramilitary protection. The cozy relationship between the corporations and paramilitaries became known as the para-economy.

Fifteen years later, the displaced people who have returned to Curvaradó say they are again engaged in a land struggle with a para-economy. But the businesses encroaching on their land are no longer palm and cattle ranchers, but rather plaintain farms run through proxy growers, mostly at the direction of a Colombia-based, multi-national banana company called Banacol. However, the returnees refer to the company by a more familiar name: “We call it Chiquita Brands,” says Germán, a leader of the restitution fight.

Elsewhere in Colombia, the name Chiquita has long been long synonymous with the para-economy. The Charlotte, N.C.-based agribusiness is the latest incarnation of United Fruit, the outfit that put the “banana” in “banana republic” with hugely exploitative practices in countries such as Honduras at the turn of the 20th century. But Chiquita’s meddling has continued into the 21st. In 2003, revelations emerged that for years Chiquita had been making payments to the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC)—and before that, to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—in order to operate in Urabá, a region north of Curvaradó. The Justice Department opened an investigation into Chiquita’s AUC ties, and in 2007 the company pleaded guilty but, claiming to be a victim of extortion, received only a $25 million fine. Banana workers and former paramilitary combatants tell another story, however—of a cooperative arrangement with Chiquita in which paramilitaries routinely beat, tortured and executed workers identified as troublemakers or guerrilla sympathizers.

As the scandal broke, Chiquita distanced itself from its Colombian operations, selling off its Colombian subsidiary, Banadex, which had provided the company with approximately 11 million crates of bananas every year. The company also partnered with Rainforest Alliance, which certified that all of Chiquita’s farms had fair health, labor and environmental practices.

But the residents of Curvaradó have excellent reason to believe that Chiquita kept a foothold in Colombia under a different name. In 2011, Banacol was Chiquita’s largest global supplier, accounting for 10 percent of Chiquita’s banana purchases, according to Chiquita’s annual statement to shareholders. The relationship dates back to the 2004 sale of Banadex, which was bought by Invesmar, the British Virgin Islands-registered conglomerate that is the holding company of Banacol. The $51.5 million deal included an agreement that Banacol would supply Chiquita with 11 million crates of bananas every year through 2012.

The ties between Chiquita and Banacol do not end there, according to a legal complaint filed in a U.S. court against Chiquita in March 2011 on behalf of victims of the AUC. The complaint claims that the former Banadex management now runs Banacol, that workers continued under Banadex contracts as late as 2009 and that the farms sold to Banacol—which make up over 70 percent of Banacol’s Colombian land—continue to supply Chiquita. “Banacol has acted as [Chiquita’s] alter ego since 2004,” the complaint concludes.

Chiquita Brands declined to comment on the nature of its relationship with Banacol for this article. Banacol sent a written statement to In These Times, which said it was “totally false” that Banacol was the “representative of Chiquita in Colombia.” However, it did not respond to questions about whether the former Banadex management works for Banacol and whether former Chiquita farms continue to supply Chiquita.

Rainforest Alliance confirmed to In These Times that it certifies Chiquita suppliers as environmentally and socially responsible, and that it certifies Banacol farms in the Urabá region, where Chiquita was once enmeshed in the para-economy. However, the Rainforest Alliance says it does not certify Banacol farms in the Curvaradó region, where the new accusations of a Chiquita-Banacol para-economy have arisen.

Sown with blood

When the displaced communities first began to return to Curvaradó in 2002, they found a desert of African-palm plantations and cattle ranches in place of the small farms that once dotted their land, most of which had been collectively owned Afro-Colombian territories. “When we saw it, we said, ‘This palm and these ranches are sown and fertilized with the blood of our loved ones,’ ” says Germán.

The businesses made no secret of their paramilitary backing, so the returnees sought protection by establishing Humanitarian Zones: communities legally recognized as neutral zones, which prohibit the entry of all armed groups, legal or illegal. “We want a peaceful territory to work like we did before,” said Enrique Petro, on whose land the first zone was built. “We don’t want violence – that is why we live in the Humanitarian Zones.”

The Humanitarian Zones were later complemented by “Biodiversity Zones,” collectively owned territories divided into areas for conservation, sustainable agriculture and temporary recuperation from the agribusiness invasion.

Since returning, the communities have been involved in a legal struggle for the restitution of their lands. The government land registry office has so far identified more than 61,000 acres illegally usurped by the cattle ranchers and palm companies, and the census to determine who can claim the land is now in its final stage.

Most of the palm crops are now dead—killed by a mysterious fungal plague—and a number of the businessmen involved in colluding with the paramilitaries are in prison, under investigation or on the run. However, as the palm trees have withered, the banana companies have advanced.

In 2009, Banacol announced plans for a government-backed $6.4 million project planting 2,470 acres of plantain in Curvaradó for sale on international markets. The project stalled after the Humanitarian Zone communities complained to the authorities that they had not consented to the project—a constitutional right for Afro-Colombian communities living in collective territories. It also fell afoul of restrictions on land use put in place by the Constitutional Court, which banned the development of commercial projects on the land while the restitution process is in progress.

However, a year later, more than 700 acres of land in Biodiversity Zones had been taken over by people claiming to be growing plantain for Banacol, according to public complaints by the Lower Councils of Curvaradó and the Humanitarian Zones.

When members of the community confronted the “invaders,” they found poor, unemployed and displaced people from outside the area who said they had answered advertisements promising land, seeds, fertilizers, start-up money and a guarantee that Banacol would purchase what they grew. The communities have reported seeing Banacol representatives meeting with the farmers and inspecting the sites.

In its statement to In These Times, Banacol said it was providing start-up equipment, technical expertise and access to international markets for Afro- Colombian families “from the communities [and] with roots in the zone” as part of a project to “generate work opportunities and development” for the region’s Afro-Colombian population.

The statement did not mention a prohibition on new development projects by the Constitutional Court, which ruled: “Such transactions are to be considered illegal.”

Banacol added that it had been invited into the region by the Curvarado` Upper Council. However, the Upper Council and its leader, Germán Marmolejo, were cut out of the process by the Constitutional Court in 2010 due to electoral irregularities. 

The communities and their supporters believe he was brought to Curvarado and elected for his willingness to support paramilitary-backed businesses. “He was sponsored by the businesses, among them Banacol,” said Emilio Peña from the Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace—a human rights NGO that has accompanied the communities since they returned to the zone.

Confident the Banacol-backed “invaders” had no legal claim to the land, the communities denounced the occupations to the local police and the mayor’s office but received no response. They then took the case to the national authorities, and after a lengthy struggle, managed to secure an eviction notice for one of the invasions believed to be growing plantain for Banacol.

The police and army removed a number of the “invaders” from the occupied lands in June of 2011 and tore down their shacks. Within days, however, the squatters began to return, some claiming official support.

“We count on the support of the businessmen, and the police said that we could return after they tear down the huts, to continue harvesting and looking after the crops,” said one, quoted in a report by the Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace.

Six months later, say community members, they decided to take matters into their own hands and cut down the invaders’ crops. In response, they say, the invaders fought back with machetes, clubs and rocks. They called both the police and the army but received no response, despite the presence of an army checkpoint a mere 10 minutes’ walk from the zone. After 45 minutes, the army finally arrived—“when they calculated that they had already killed us,” says Josefina, whose family managed the occupied Biodiversity Zone.

Land rights and death lists

As the farms continue to expand, the “invaders” not only claim the backing of the Upper Council, the police and Banacol, but also of the paramilitaries, who continue to operate in the zone under a new name—Águilas Negras (Black Eagles). Evidence collected for Justice and Peace’s regular reports on the region suggests that Águilas Negras has overseen Banacol’s land grab. At the beginning of the process, according to Justice and Peace witnesses, known paramilitaries called a meeting to organize the partition of the lands, announcing that those who occupied plots would have the backing of Banacol and the chance to legalize their ownership or sell the land. “You have to struggle for the land, you have to want it,” a local paramilitary known as “El Llanta” (the Tire) told the crowd.

The reports also describe the paramilitaries patrolling the occupied farms and even supervising as farmers load boxes of Banacol plantains onto boats. The Humanitarian Zone residents are convinced the company continues paying the paramilitaries for their protection. “[Banacol] pay them the ‘vaccine’ [protection money] so they stay in the territories defending their economic interests,” says Germán.

Community leaders and residents involved in land restitution say that they live with constant threats, and that abduction, torture and murder remain common fates. Death lists are widely circulated. On them appear the names of those who have publicly denounced Banacol and the invaders.

Sometimes the threats are delivered personally. Josefina says that after she and her family traveled to Bogotá to file a complaint with the government about the invasion, a member of the local paramilitaries told her brother, “Keep quiet or something will happen.” He now cannot leave the area around where he lives unaccompanied. However, he remains defiant. “This is the struggle, and the struggle is not easy,” he said.

Allegations of Banacol’s ties to the paramilitaries date back to the same deal Chiquita struck with the AUC in the mid-nineties. However, while Chiquita’s payments to the AUC ended with the 2003 scandal, Banacol continued paying security companies that were used to launder payments to the paramilitaries until at least 2007, according to details from a Colombia Prosecutors Office investigation of Chiquita, Banadex and Banacol, which was leaked to the press in 2009.

In its statement to In These Times, Banacol did not respond to questions about the recent allegations of paramilitary collusion, but in the past it has firmly denied any links.

A 2007 statement signed by Banacol and two other companies said, “Our policy toward illegal organizations such as guerrillas, self-defense groups and common criminal organizations has been one of not succumbing to their demands…. We acted within legal norms.”

In March of 2012, prosecutors in Colombia closed the investigation into the past crimes of Chiquita, Banadex and Banacol. They accepted that the three corporations acted in good faith in paying the paramilitary-front security companies, as well as the corporations's claims they were victims of extortion. However, in December the case was reopened by Colombia’s Attorney General, who said: “How can it be explained that for so many years they made such high payments and received nothing in return? The only possible answer is that they really knew where the money was going.”  

The now imprisoned paramilitary chiefs behind the deal have always maintained the relationship was voluntary and mutually beneficial. “[The banana companies] are more responsible than us because they had only one goal, which was money,” said Ever Veloza García, the former head of the AUC’s “Banana Bloc,” in a 2009 interview with Al Jazeera. “Thousands murdered. Thousands orphaned, widowed. An area desolated. It was a war. A total war … They have to be put on trial as we are.”

For the people of the Humanitarian Zones in Curvaradó, that war is not yet over. The land restitution process is now reaching a critical moment and violence and threats are again on the rise. Tensions increased earlier this year when Manuel Ruiz, a land rights campaigner involved in the restitution process, was abducted, tortured and murdered, along with his 15-year-old son Samir.

“I believe that the violence is coming back again—and even worse than before,” says Petro, whose land was converted into the first Humanitarian Zone. Petro has already survived multiple attempts on his life and seen two of his sons murdered by paramilitaries. “The moment has arrived when they are going to take away our lands.”

Since the sale of its assets to Banacol, Chiquita has distanced itself from this war, but its profits continue to be tainted by the para-economy alliance that is its legacy in Colombia.

Update: This piece has been updated to include statements from the Rainforest Alliance.

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Medellin. He has reported on Colombia and Latin America for the Miami Herald, the Toronto Star, Sky News, InSight Crime, the Times Education Supplement, Colombia Reports, AlterNet, Toward Freedom, Upside Down World and Green Left Weekly.

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