by Rhodri C. Williams
For an example of the entrenched problems facing incoming Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ land restitution bill and some of the forces that may nevertheless give it legs, its hard to beat the following story, brought to my attention recently by Samir Elhawary at ODI.
One of the subtexts in discussions about the restitution bill has been the question of whether its passage and implementation will be resisted by vested interests that may, in many cases, have supported Santos’ candidacy. While this gives rise to concern that the bill may be weakened through a bit of friendly fire by the new governing coalition in Parliament, it also gives rise to a certain ‘Nixon goes to China’-type hope. If Santos is capable of forcing concessions on government-friendly landed interests, and is seen to do so by the opposition, this would represent an unprecedented opportunity to transcend what has been a depressingly polarized debate about victims’ reparations issues.
However, as I pointed out in an addendum to my earlier post on Colombia, the bill faces some really extraordinary problems. One of the thorniest is presented by cases of concessions and mono-culture plantations. An IDMC report on palm oil plantations a few years back gave a very good sense of the intractability of this problem. On one hand, the report found patent usurpation of land recognized by law as irreplaceable to its highly vulnerable inhabitants, providing an incredibly compelling case for restitution in integrum. On the other hand, the land has been irretrievably transformed and is churning out cash for a product that world public opinion would otherwise cherish as bio-fuel or a viable coca-substitute or … hand soap?
As it turns out, one of the key ingredients in many cosmetics produced by the Body Shop is palm oil, and until recently much of that had been sourced in Colombia from a firm called Daabon Organics. All this began to change last July, when a Daabon subsidiary called in riot police to evict 123 peasant farmers and their families from a ranch they claimed to have bought for palm oil production. However, the farmers had a claim – they had already returned after being ejected by paramilitaries in 2006 and met legal criteria for acquisitive prescription – and in this globalized world, the local NGO that backed them up was tied to an international NGO – Christian Aid – with the savvy to figure out who was buying from Daabon and the luck to have that turn out to be the Body Shop.
The Body Shop is known for pioneering ecologically friendly sourcing and production, and makes no bones about their concern for small farmers on their website. In terms of sourcing, wood and palm oil are given as key areas of concern:
The devastating environmental effect of palm-oil plantations on deforested land has been well documented. That’s why, as members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), we’ve worked to create new standards designed to help protect natural biodiversity and workers’ rights. We are proud to say that all of our 7.5m soaps sold annually are now produced using palm oil sourced from a plantation that is successfully audited in line with RSPO regulations.
On one hand, it is hard to imagine any other major buyers of palm soap out there that would be as responsive to allegations such as those brought by the ousted farmers as the Body Shop. On the other hand, it is hard not to see this as a precedent. If the Body Shop is willing to drop a major supplier over what was, by Colombian standards, a relatively civilized forced eviction of ordinary peasants, it should be possible to bring pressure to bear on less squeamish companies by presenting them with the violations against constitutionally protected indigenous and Afro-Colombian minority groups that IDMC has documented.
At the end of the day, the restitution bill is all about enforcing existing law through new procedures. While such procedures may turn out to be effective against individuals who have usurped land, corporations could be a tougher nut. From this perspective, the Body Shop’s decision represents an important non-legal push against some formidable non-legal factors that threaten the proposed restitution law.
For the record, I’ve pasted in the complete press release from the Body Shop, just below:
The Body Shop
Statement about Las Pavas
In late 2009 The Body Shop was made aware of a local land rights issue in Colombia, involving a Consortium linked to our supplier Daabon. The dispute in Colombia centred on a piece of land purchased by the El Labrador Consortium in 2007, in the area of Las Pavas, Colombia. The Body Shop has no trading relationship with the El Labrador Consortium, however Daabon is associated with it.
Whilst The Body Shop has never sourced any ingredient from the land in question, The Body Shop and Christian Aid jointly commissioned an independent report into the dispute, in order to establish the facts of the case. The independent report was published in July 2010 and clearly highlights the complexity of the case on-the-ground. The local community in Las Pavas claim the land was rightfully theirs, while the Consortium maintains that they acted in good faith when purchasing the land.
Following receipt of the independent report, The Body Shop provided Daabon with details of specific areas where cooperation and engagement by the Consortium could help positively resolve some of the difficulties. Having provided Daabon with sufficient time to put these steps in-place, The Body Shop has reviewed progress to-date and, whilst we understand that they are making efforts in a complex situation, since a systemic and long-lasting solution is no nearer to being reached despite our engagement, The Body Shop has formally terminated its trading relationship with Daabon.
Jan Buckingham, The Body Shop International Values Director says:
“Following receipt of the independent review, we provided Daabon with a series of recommendations to reach a systematic solution for the benefit of Las Pavas community and all parties involved in the dispute. We acknowledge that Daabon have changed their processes for future developments but we are disappointed that the situation in Las Pavas remains unresolved. Having made all efforts to exert our influence to improve the situation, we have decided that the best course of action is to terminate our relationship Daabon”