Of the oil palm and mining. A brief analysis of the legal and illegal extractivist system in the north of Esmeraldas

Of the oil palm and mining. A brief analysis of the legal and illegal extractivist system in the north of Esmeraldas

By Iván Roa

In the last five years there are three problems that converge in the north of Esmeraldas. It cannot be said that these factors are closely related, that would be a lack of analytical criteria, on the contrary, we are talking about very different issues, but that they are related in a social space that has unfavorable characteristics in the face of these three problems.

To see the social panorama that is developing in the north of Esmeraldas, from the implementation of oil palm in the region, it is necessary to see that this process has accompanied this process, that as well as other extractivist promises is harming the population in different levels. The north of Esmeraldas has lived off the economic prosperity brought by the banana, cocoa, wood and now the oil palm. The region would be expected to have considerable development, since the province of Esmeraldas exploits oil palm in more than 60% of the territory (1). The north of Esmeraldas has 25% of the planted territory and this represents a considerable income to Ecuador in terms of exports that the country has of palm oil. These figures place Ecuador as the 5th palm oil exporting country in the world, we are talking about considerable monetary revenues that such export brings, but apparently these revenues benefit the private sector to a greater extent and the State and the regions to a lesser extent. oil palm cultivators.

The cultivation of palm in the northern region of Esmeraldas, in Esmeraldas and in general in Ecuador has had a pronounced growth, as shown by ANCUPA in the following graphs:

Source: ANCUPA

The province of Esmeraldas shows the following oil palm surface figures for 2010, taking into account that this growth comes from 2006:

Source: ANCUPA

The province of Esmeraldas has been one of the key points for the expansion of palm oil cultivation. This has to do with the fact that Colombia is one of the main buyers of palm oil produced in Ecuador:

Colombia sources its African palm oil mainly from Ecuador. In 2008, Colombia imported a CIF value of USD 23,836,069 of refined African palm oil from Ecuador, corresponding to 23 tons and approximately 99% of the total imports of this product that had as final destination the area of ​​influence of Colombia. (…) Of the total refined African palm oil that entered Colombia's AI, 77% is destined for the Department of Nariño, followed by Valle de Cauca with 23%. 100% of imports from Ecuador are made by land through the Rumichaca border crossing in the city of Ipiales. (2)

Therefore, the province of Esmeraldas is the one that produces the most palm oil exports to its neighboring department of Nariño, in Colombia. For this reason, the importance that exists in the IIRSA to enable the Mataje crossing, since with the opening of the four-lane Mataje bridge, the way is opened to the export of palm oil directly through Esmeraldas and no longer necessarily through Tulcán- Ipiales. Hence, it is understood the constant growth of oil palm in Esmeraldas and, above all, in the north of Esmeraldas where in a period of five years the cultivation of palm increased from a little more than 3,128 hectares in 2000 to 18,266 in 2005 and in 2012, to date, we can speak of about 40,000 hectares in the region.

So, is this increase in oil palm production in Ecuador and in the north of Esmeraldas frowned upon? When the palm arrived in the northern region of Esmeraldas it did so as a promise of employment for the inhabitants and as a search for greater development for the region, but if we contrast that idea of ​​growth of the crop and benefit in structural terms for the overcoming of poverty, we see that this promise has not been fulfilled. It cannot be said that this or that is to blame, the structural conditions in the north of Esmeraldas simply do not improve and, on the contrary, have worsened in environmental terms.

Thus, to see the situation in the north of Esmeraldas in a more complex way, it is necessary to take into account the structural poverty that exists in the region.

In the map made by the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar we can locate the north of Esmeraldas and see that there is a poverty of 60 to 93% in the different parishes of the region. These data show the years from 2001 to 2006, the same years in which the great growth of the palm occurred, it remains to be established whether to date that growth has shown its fruits in the region. It is worth mentioning that, despite the job promise, housing conditions in the region have not changed to date, for example, in the San Lorenzo canton only 64% of the homes have a water supply for public network and in Eloy Alfaro only 31% of the homes have this water service. Here, it is important to bear in mind that the geography of the region does not contribute to the establishment of a structure of public services that satisfies the entire population.

Despite the geographical conditions of the region, oil palm continues to grow even above ancestral territories. Of the hectares of growth that correspond to recent years, at least 5,000 are located within the Río Santiago-cayapas commune (3), apparently the growth is occurring at the cost of buying land from community members. But what to do if money from the sale of land is one of the visible resources in the region? At this point, I do not justify the growth of the palm, I only put into consideration the idea that the palm appears as the only form of economic solution to the social conditions experienced by the inhabitants of the region who see the land as the way to access to products and services or the way to seek a closer profitability. Thus, said growth of the crop can be understood, since there are no economic guarantees in the region, therefore, the palm appears as the only form of sustenance at different levels, either by working on the plantation or by selling the land so that said crop grow. The conditions of structural poverty in the region are not only leading to the sale of land, it is also causing the inhabitants to enter the world of the illegal economy through mining, drop-by-drop loans, hit men, fuel smuggling, trafficking people and money laundering.

Violence in the northern region of Esmeraldas has increased in recent years, as of 2007 it can be said that violence began to become more systematic in the region and this can be seen for two reasons: one is the establishment in the region of the Águilas Negras group, and, the other, the increase in homicides that has occurred in recent years due to the dangerous merger that occurred between Colombian paramilitaries and Ecuadorian hitmen, which had been forging since the beginning of this century. It goes without saying that this merger sought to strengthen the drug trafficking networks in Ecuador and thus consolidate the Pacific routes.

But what does this have to do with the palm? It has nothing to do directly, but there is evidence that the fact that the inhabitants of the region resort to loans drop by drop, some integrate these drug trafficking networks, either with money laundering, through illegal gold mining , leaves between seeing that the legal and illegal economy share the region and this leaves as a result fear in the inhabitants and an environmental problem. In 2011, a study by SENAGUA and PUCESE (4) of Esmeraldas showed tumors in shrimp and in some crustaceans that were part of the mangrove that reigns in the lower part of the northern region of Esmeraldas and is precisely there in the lower part where the aluminum, mercury and agrochemicals that are used both in mining and in palm plantations end.

In some rivers the concentration of aluminum is alarming:

When analyzing the aluminum content in fish, it reaches very high values ​​such as in the Valle de la Virgen sector (2895 mg / Kg) and San Javier de Cachaví (2095 mg / Kg) both in Guañas, without existing regulations for aluminum in Fish for At the moment, but if we consider that consuming food is similar to water for human consumption, the norm of 0.2 mg / Kg is exceeded more than 10,000 times in both places, a situation of great concern since scythes are consumed regularly. (5)

This study established that the water in some estuaries is already undrinkable, due to the high presence of aluminum and mercury, which are harmful to health. Faced with this situation, some residents decide to face illegal mining and take the main roads of the canton with the argument that the waters of the region are highly polluted. This becomes an important problem when we see that today (according to the last census) the water that comes from the river feeds 38.91% of the homes in the Eloy Alfaro canton, while in San Lorenzo 15.42% of the homes depend on the rivers to obtain water. And the problem is exacerbated if we take into account that the fish in these rivers are the main source of food for many households in the region.

At this point, we can already talk about the fusion between environmental damage and violence, since for no one it is a lie that the promoters of the defense of water and some parish presidents who declared themselves as defenders of it are threatened by local hitmen, hitmen gangs that today are organized in a mixed manner with Colombian hitmen and / or paramilitaries, which has resulted in the homicide rate in the province of Esmeraldas in 2010 being equivalent to 11% of homicides at the national level. The homicide rate in 2010 per 100,000 inhabitants was 61.6, a rate that has been increasing since 2005 (6).

The Ecuadorian State in 2011 tried to confront illegal mining and the illegal economy that circulates in the region at the hands of hitmen, with a joint military action where it destroyed almost 200 backhoes that were in the illegal mining fronts, but this It did not stop mining extraction, it only changed the extraction hours since it began to be carried out at night. The problem, in itself, is not to put an end to illegal mining, to end drug trafficking or the hired killers, the population of the north of Esmeraldas simply does not have the favorable structural conditions to face poverty and, on the contrary They are forced to make a living from mining, work for drug trafficking, sell their land and search for a way to live.

Therefore, structural violence in the region lends itself to extractive capital and the accumulation system reproducing itself in different ways. Mining appears as an extractivist accumulation system, but if we see violence as a structural system that permeates the economic forms of the region, it will allow us to understand that the palm extractivist capital accumulation system is somehow comfortable within structural violence. and the poverty of the region. Hence, we understand why it is possible to speak in the region of a dispossessive accumulation that is reflected in the purchase of lands and community territories without anyone saying anything and that silence reigns in the region. Likewise, the implementation of “legal” mining in the region appears as a result of that accumulative dispossessive system that illegal mining has, for which this “legal” mining results from the same accumulation pattern and, therefore, will reproduce the same consequences in environmental and social terms. For this reason, the promise of "development" and "progress" for the region will continue to be postponed and in the next few years we will see how the accumulation system will offer a new promise that will result in oil exploitation in the region.

Ivan Roa - Bachelor of Social Sciences, researcher and master candidate in integration from UASB Ecuador, and in sociology from FLACSO Ecuador.

Published in The line of fire


1. Source of ESPAC

2. IIRSA, Analysis of the Potential for Productive Integration and Development of Value Added Logistics Services of IIRSA Projects (IPrLg), March 2010, p. 96

3. The Santiago-Cayapas river commune is an Afro-ancestral communal territory which is located in the Eloy Alfaro and San Lorenzo cantons and has an area of ​​40,000 hectares.

4. PUCESE, Analysis of the impacts and conflicts arising from the gold activity in the northern part of the Esmeraldas province for the construction of peace in the affected communities. Esmeraldas Province, Ecuador, 2011

5. Ibid, p. 138

6. Victor Llugsha, Governance of citizen security on the northern border of Ecuador. In: Carrion and Espín. Border relations: encounters and conflicts, Ecuador, FLACSO, 2011, p. 147

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