Persecution against rights defenders of the Afro-Ecuadorian commune of Barranquilla de San Javier

by Acción Ecológica & GRAIN | 5 Jun 2023
Oil palm plantations in Esmeraldas province, Ecuador. Photo: Iván Castaneira

After months of judicial criminalisation of four peasants that defend their forest from the expansion of oil palm plantations, on 12 June a new possibility of justice will open up for the judges of the Ecuadorian courts to guarantee the collective rights of the Barranquilla de San Javier Commune and order the restitution of 251 hectares that are currently in the hands of Energy & Palm to the territory of the community.

This comes at the time of the publication of the letter that seven specialised human rights rapporteurs, in accordance with Resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council 44/15, 46/7, 43/4, 50/17, 43/16, 42/20 and 43/36,[1] sent on 29 July 2022 to Energy & Palma and to the government of Ecuador to draw their attention to information received of an “alleged misuse of the judicial system by the palm oil company Energy & Palma, of the Ecuatorian La Fabril Group, founded in 1935, against four Afro-descendant community leaders and human rights defenders of the Barranquilla de San Javier Community, Esmeraldas Province, Ecuador”: the defendants are Antonio Olivero Mina Caicedo, Luis Fernando Quintero Mina, Andrés Humberto Arce Quintero and Néstor Javier Caicedo Caicedo Caicedo “for exercising their right to protest, and the collective defence of their territory and the environment. The letter is only being published now because of the international protection caveat that prevents its publication until several months later.

This group of rapporteurs recounts the case and does not fail to point out that Energy & Palma supplies oil to transnational companies such as PepsiCo, General Mills and Nestlé, as well as being part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Private letters were sent to all these bodies, as well as to the governments of Switzerland and the United States.

Although the letters are very similar, the communication addressed to the government of Ecuador demands that information be provided “on what actions your Excellency's government is taking to protect human rights defenders and whether it has considered legislative reforms to prevent their prosecution in cases of legitimate and peaceful protest”. The letter emphasises that strategic lawsuits against public participation “are an abuse of process and are not a legitimate tool for companies to use to further their own ends”.

The letter to the RSPO requires it to provide information on "how the RSPO ensures that their members respect human rights, including the rights of human rights defenders in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights", and to provide information on “any measures the RSPO has taken, or plans to take, to addess the negative human rights impacts caused by their members activities, including intimidation of human rights defenders”.

The rapporteurs also insist: "We may publicly express our concerns in the near future, as we believe that the information we have received is sufficiently reliable to indicate that there is a matter that warrants immediate attention. We also believe that the public needs to be informed of the potential implications related to the above allegations”.

Although the governments of Ecuador and Switzerland have responded as have Nestlé and Pepsi, it is sure that what will be decided publicly is a function of what the court may determine, but the call made by these rapporteurs, the allegations they express, as stated by Nestlé, need to be taken “very seriously”.

Summary of the case: On September 8, 2021, Judge Fernando Saldarriaga, of the Multicompetent Judicial Unit of the San Lorenzo canton, Esmeraldas province, ordered four land rights defenders from the Afro-Ecuadorian Barranquilla commune to pay US$151,000 to the palm company Energy & Palma part of the La Fabril group. Since 2020, this company was demanding US$320,000 in compensation, alleging that it had lost its palm harvest during a peaceful protest action carried out by the Barranquilla de San Javier de Cachaví community; however, during the trial the defence demonstrated that Energy & Palma had at least four alternative ways to remove the palm fruit from its plantation.

Barranquilla de San Javier was established as a commune in 1997. In 2000 it was granted its communal property title of 1521 hectares, in accordance with the provisions of the Law of Communes and the collective rights recognized in the Constitution and ILO Convention 169. Community members began to defend their ancestral territory from palm oil companies that were deforesting areas of the Chocó forest. The community has been seriously affected because their sources of livelihood, mainly related to the forest, have disappeared following the deforestation caused by the company to replace it with palm monoculture. The Energy & Palma company is owned by La Fabril, which is a member of the RSPO.

Location of Barranquilla de San Javier
In 2006, in the canton of San Lorenzo, the company Palmeras del Pacifico (today Energy & Palma, part of the business group La Fabril), began to buy land in the area, even land that was already included in the property titles of consolidated communes, as in the case of Barranquilla.

The company Energy & Palma managed to register 251 hectares as private property in an apparently fraudulent manner, superimposed on the territory of Barranquilla, despite the fact that the commune has recognition of this territory through community deeds. These lands are used by the company mainly for the monoculture and processing of oil palm.

At the end of 2019, the commune of Barranquilla held peaceful protests with road closures, protected by the Ecuadorian constitution that guarantees the right to resistance to demand that the palm oil company Energy & Palma withdraw from the 251 hectares it had invaded within the commune's territory, return the land, stop polluting its water sources and stop deforesting the Chocó Forest. After the protests, the company filed a legal complaint against the community leaders, but it is necessary to emphasize that the entire commune is a defender of rights and that the prosecution of its ancestral authorities seeks to destroy the entire commune and its forms of organization.

Acción Ecológica considers that the action brought by the oil palm company against the defenders of the commune of Barranquilla is an intimidating action aimed at preventing them from carrying out the claims they have on their territory and the fulfilment of the rights of nature. This case is emblematic in Ecuador as an example of how large agribusiness companies are beginning to use civil law against defenders, if the ruling is confirmed it would set a worrying precedent for defenders throughout the country. Accion Ecológica is supporting the community and calling on international allies to get justice in this case.

If you are interested/ concerned to help this people who defend their forest, you can do it signing the following petition of Savla la Selva:

More information:

[1] 44/15: related to business and human rights, human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, and improving accountability and access to remedy. 46/7: relative to human rights and the environment. 43/4: relative to the freedom of opinion and expression: mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.41/12: related to the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.43/16: relative to the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. 43/36: related to the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance

Author: Acción Ecológica & GRAIN
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