Colombian Peasants Are Taking on an Irish Multinational— and Being Met With Violence

Indigenous leaders protesting cardboard packaging giant Smurfit Kappa Group face threats and retaliation.

Tomás Ó’Loingsigh

Indigenous Misak women rest at a Smurfit Kappa forestry plantation in Cajibío, Colombia, in January 2022. Removing the trees’ lower bark makes them unusable to the company, a form of nonviolent resistance. PHOTO BY INDEPENDENT COLOMBIAN PHOTOJOURNALIST WHO WISHES TO STAY ANONYMOUS

There’s a good chance your latest delivery arrived in a box produced by the Irish multinational Smurfit Kappa Group. A leading producer of cardboard packaging globally, Smurfit Kappa owns 68,000 hectares of forestry plantations it intensively cultivates for paper production.

Almost 99% of that land is in Colombia. The company’s Dublin headquarters told In These Times it is committed to restoring a healthy coexistence to the area and the communities,” but locals say the company’s vast landholdings are endangering both. Campesino activist Andrea Sierra (who asked for a pseudonym in fear of retaliation), from Cajibío, tells In These Times that, because of Smurfit Kappa’s presence, local peasants have lost much of the land needed for growing food. Smurfit Kappa’s monocropping and use of agrochemicals has done great environmental damage,” Sierra says. The native forests of my municipality are disappearing, as is the water of the streams.”

Over the past two years, Sierra and other Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and campesino activists have fought to reclaim some of the vast tracts Smurfit Kappa controls in the Cauca and Valle del Cauca provinces. Since mid-2021, local activists have occupied forests where the company operates, demanding it return all the company’s land in Cajibío to local communities.

But resistance of any kind in Colombia is regularly met with violent repression, as Human Rights Watch documented in a study of human rights defenders killed in the country. Sierra, who has been an activist for decades, says she’s experienced significant retaliation since joining the fight against Smurfit Kappa, though the ultimate source of these threats is unclear. For a time, threatening vehicles lingering outside her house forced her to move far from the area with my family because I felt my life was in danger.”

For a time, threatening vehicles lingering outside her house forced her “to move far from the area with my family because I felt my life was in danger.”

Sierra isn’t alone. Four months into the occupation, in October 2021, human rights activists tweeted graphic videos of a man with a serious head wound who they claimed was attacked by employees of Cartón de Colombia, a Smurfit Kappa subsidiary. Smurfit Kappa did not comment on this incident or Sierra’s claims when In These Times inquired.

In July 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Council sent a letter to Smurfit Kappa documenting a series of anonymous threats allegedly made to Pedro Josse Velasco Tumiña, a prominent Indigenous leader in the land reclamation campaign, including a threatening phone call he reportedly received after confronting Smurfit Kappa shareholders at their annual meeting in Dublin. One caller threatened: You already have a tombstone on your chest.” In their response, Smurfit Kappa rejected any connection between the company or its subsidiaries and the threats, and questioned Velasco’s legitimacy as a spokesperson for the Misak community.

The alleged threats aren’t easy to dismiss. Colombian news site El Tiempo reported an investigation into the death of Huber Samir Camayo, 23, allegedly killed by Colombian special forces trying to remove activists occupying Smurfit Kappa land. Smurfit Kappa did not comment on this incident to In These Times, but the company generally acknowledged that, in response to land reclamation efforts, they have asked the relevant authorities to intervene, assist and protect the personal safety of employees and the local community, to ensure that the right to work together with private property rights are not infringed.” The company emphasized that the disputed Cajibío land was legally acquired.”

Several months later, local newspaper Proclama del Cauca reported that hooded attackers raided and shot at an occupation on Smurfit Kappa land in Sotará, killing Kokonuko Indigenous leader Juvencio Cerquera Manquillo and wounding eight others.

Velasco says land reclamation activists claim they have faced intimidation from the army, police and also paramilitaries who make anonymous calls to the leaders to threaten them not to continue.”

Alberth Ochoa, a representative for the campesino organization Coordinador Nacional Agrario, says that, in Colombia, businessmen and paramilitaries have historically been linked — one gives the orders and the other carries them out.” The Chiquita fruit company’s use of paramilitaries to quell community activism is one well-known example, as In These Times has reported.

In March, according to campesino organizations in Cauca, Colombian paramilitary group Autodefensas Gaitanistas circulated a pamphlet announcing its intention to defend private property from land reclamation activists, accusing several of being communists and guerrillas and warning they had 10 days to leave the area. Smurfit Kappa has denied any connection to the pamphlet and filed a lawsuit against Coordinador Nacional Agrario for suggesting that they had one.

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

Smurfit Kappa did not respond to detailed follow-up questions related to this story, including questions about the allegations of anonymous threats to activists and the deaths of Camayo and Cerquera.

Activists like Rodrigo Vargas Becerra of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights say the repression Colombian land activists face is part of a long history of dispossession. Since 1964, Colombian paramilitaries have displaced millions of small farmers through violence and intimidation, as Human Rights Watch has reported, leading to the transfer of 7 million hectares of land to large landowners — including multinationals like Smurfit Kappa. A 2017 Oxfam report found Colombia has the most unequal land distribution in all of Latin America.

Campesino activists like Sierra hope that, ultimately, the occupation will compel Smurfit Kappa to return land to local communities. To recover the land is to recover life,” Sierra says. It is to recover the possibility of living with autonomy.”

For a limited time:

Donate $20 or more to In These Times and we'll send you a copy of Let This Radicalize You.

In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?

We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.