Community vs. company: A tiny town in Ecuador battles a palm oil giant (Mongabay)

WIMBI, ECUADOR – When Yessenia Padilla heard that her community crops were being destroyed, she and about 70 of her neighbors rushed out to intervene. They grabbed large boards, rocks, the machetes they use to harvest their fields, and took off yelling. She said that when they arrived, they saw workers from the oil palm company Energy & Palma ripping out their harvests with an excavator, with around 30 police officers protecting them.

“It was a lot. Like 30 [police], a car and two trucks,” Padilla told Mongabay, recounting the events in November of 2016 between the community of Wimbi and the Ecuadorian company Energy & Palma.

“As we were arriving, we were yelling, and then we put boards and rocks on the road so that the car couldn’t pass. They couldn’t get out. Then we said, ´It would be good that you left and don’t come back’.”

The workers and police did quickly leave, but they left behind the excavator, which the community then took back to town with them. The small town of some 400 people held the machine hostage for more than nine months to send the oil palm company a message: we’ll give it back if you fix the damages on our land and promise never to return. They returned the excavator after Energy & Palma filed a lawsuit against them for property theft.

Padilla said she felt rage when she saw her cacao crops being destroyed, what has long been the only form of income for her and her family.

“You have your work, or your home, and they just take it all away. How do you feel? Rage. It makes you want to cry,” she said. “It seems like we here in Ecuador don’t have rights. We’ve been here for years. My grandfather and my great-grandfather both lived here.”

According to Energy & Palma, one of the largest oil palm companies in the country, they bought the land back in 2000 from an intermediary and have the documentation to prove it. Legally, it belongs to them.

This conflict between Wimbi and Energy & Palma is only one part of a long ongoing legal battle between company and community.

But it highlights the complicated dynamics between the oil palm industry and the largely Afro-Ecuadorian population in Ecuador’s northern province of Esmeraldas – particularly in the district of San Lorenzo, where Wimbi is located.

Oil palm and Esmeraldas

Palm oil – the ubiquitous vegetable oil used in everything from food, makeup and even certain fabrics – has long been an important part of Ecuador’s agricultural economy. The country is the second largest oil palm producer in Latin America, and fifth largest in the world.

The region of Esmeraldas, a coastal province on the border with Colombia, recently became the most productive oil palm region in the country. According to 2017 oil palm census data released this year, Esmeraldas accounts for 45 percent of all oil palm production in Ecuador.

The majority of this growth has been around the southern city of Quininde, close to La Concordia, which has long been a production hot spot. The northern districts of San Lorenzo and Eloy Alfaro rank second and third, respectively, and both have seen major spikes in production since 2005, according to census data. As of the most recent palm oil census in 2017, San Lorenzo was devoting 22,641 hectares to oil palm cultivation, making it the second most productive area in the country.

“It’s the most important industry here,” said Wilson Aleivan Diaz, an oil palm specialist with the Environmental Management Unit in the municipality of San Lorenzo, adding that it provides at least 40 percent of all jobs in the region.

Flavio Paredes Ortega, the general manager of Energy & Palma, told Mongabay that they alone employ some 950 people in the northern Esmeraldas, most of whom come from 13 local communities. This job creation also means that thousands of people are now eligible for social security, he added.

But researchers have questioned these economic benefits, since the region still has some of the highest poverty rates in the country. In the district of San Lorenzo alone, 85 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the 2010 population census. This is well above the provincial and national numbers, which are 51 percent and 60 percent respectively.

Residents say San Lorenzo is also lacking in government investment, resulting in a dearth of infrastructure, schools and healthcare. According to the same census, 15 percent of all adults in the region of San Lorenzo were illiterate as of 2010 (compared to 6.8 percent nationally) and only 23 percent of households have basic services, which includes electricity, water, toilets, and garbage collection.

Ivan Ernesto Roa Ovalle, Sociology and Regional Integration Professor at the District University of Bogota, Colombia, says that the very jobs the palm oil industry provides communities also keep those communities in poverty. According to Roa, few other jobs are available since palm oil has long been the largest industry in the region.

“It’s structural,” Roa told Mongabay. “If people are looking for work, it’s given on the basis of exploitation. The oil palm companies report the numbers, that they are employing so many thousands of workers, but there are no figures of how much they are paying, or how they are paying it.”

Another major concern for Roa and other researchers is how the palm oil companies have been accumulating so much territory. Roa said that in many cases, they’re developing on ancestral lands.

The Afro-Ecuadorian struggle

Ecuadorians of African heritage make up around 7 percent of the country’s population, according to census data, and the vast majority of these communities live in Esmeraldas, particularly in the north of the province. In the district of San Lorenzo, over 70 percent of the population is Afro-Ecuadorian and have long been fighting for their rights.

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(Feature Photo Credit: JONATAN ROSAS)

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