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Opinion: pouring oil on troubled waters? How disaster capitalism blackmails flood victims


By Greg Berger and Ben Wisner

While on assignment in Chiapas recently to cover the story of alleged government sponsored paramilitary activity against indigenous civilian supporters of the Zapatista movement, a video journalist stumbled onto another disturbing story with tremendous consequences for the region.

According to multiple, reliable sources who wish to remain anonymous for fears of their own safety, victims of last year's massive flooding in Chiapas are being offered loans and grants by the Mexican government to resume their farming activities, but with a catch. They need to agree to stop growing corn and beans (their traditional crops) and replace them with African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis, native to West Africa), an important emerging source of biodiesel.

The town of San Juan de Grijalva was completely destroyed last November when a nearby hill collapsed into the Grijalva river, a major waterway. The impact caused a wave of over 50 feet which destroyed every structure in the small town of a few hundred people. The rains which caused the mudslide in Chiapas had also severely inundated the nearby state of Tabasco.

San Juan's residents are being relocated away from the Grijalva river. The information received from numerous anonymous sources is consistent with conversations with other individuals in the state of Chiapas. Farmers in the Palenque and Agua Azul regions of Northern Chiapas said they have recently begun to plant African oil palm as encouraged by the Chiapas State government. Chiapas State congressman Luis Darinel Alvarado, a member of the congressional Agrarian Reform committee, confirmed the policy of encouraging African oil palm. He said the state government is encouraging several new agricultural initiatives, and that African oil palm is one of the most important of these new crops.

Traveling a few weeks ago to Guatemala and Panama to report on other stories, this journalist heard several anecdotes regarding the introduction of African oil palm in both countries. Chiapas is geographically and historically linked with Central America as much if not more than it is to the rest of Mexico. New simultaneous industrial development of Chiapas and Central America is tied together under the controversial Plan Puebla Panama that was introduced under former President Vicente Fox and recently revived under President Felipe Calderon. The initiative includes an overhaul of infrastructure, the establishment of new industries, and a change in agricultural practices to favor new international trade relationships.

Critics say that the push to reactivate the Plan Puebla Panama is a major factor in the rise of reported paramilitary violence against Zapatista supporters in Chiapas. The Zapatistas actively oppose the Plan Puebla Panama, arguing that it will destroy indigenous communities and devastate the delicate ecosystems of Chiapas, which has more biodiversity than any other region of Mexico.

African oil palm has been encouraged as a "substitute crop" by U.S. Government agencies in countries such as Bolivia and Colombia where the State Department has encouraged eradication of coca leaf cultivation. In what could be an eerie resemblance to the future of Chiapas State in Mexico, large African oil palm producers have been linked with paramilitary organizations such as the A.U.C. in Colombia.

All this is happening as experts and world leaders from Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan and the head of the World Food Program and President of Ivory Coast have been speaking out concerning the “perfect storm” of factors leading to a steep rise in food prices. One of the factors identified is the shift of farm land from food crop production to production of bio-fuels. Last year the EU moved to ban bio-fuel imports where it could be shown that their production either caused food prices to rise in the producing country or caused primary forest to be destroyed.

Competition with U.S. industrial corn (maize) producers under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has long been shown to have driven many small Mexican farmers out of business and, even before the current crisis, the maize based staple, tortillas, became more costly. This further step into reliance on bio-fuel production would be sure to cause second thoughts by the displaced flood victims of Chiapas, who traditionally value their ability to grown their own food. Yet they are being blackmailed by the State government: no African oil palm = no recovery assistance.

In 1999, after Hurricane Mitch had battered the banana industry in Honduras the previous year, 30 million kilos (66 million pounds) of African palm oil were exported as it took over as one of the country’s major commercial corps.

Heavy floods are predicted once again this year in Chiapas, and the effort to push San Juan Grijalva's refugees into biodiesel production could serve as an experiment in the use of disaster as an opportunity for the Mexican government to transform the farming practices of the indigenous population.

There are certainly pros and cons to African oil palm production. However, the displaced farmers from San Juan Grijalva should be able to decide themselves whether they want to grow them. Grown on small scale, mixed farms, and marketed cooperatively in an honest way, these farmers may see an advantage in this new crop. But under coercion and in the face of rapidly changing market conditions both for bio-fuel and food, it is likely they fear the worse and are between a rock and a hard place.

The African oil palm is among the most productive oil seed plants in the world. In the current world energy economy millions of hectares of forest in South East Asia have already been converted to these oil plantations. One hectare (about two foot ball fields in size) planted with oil palm may yield 6,000 liters (about 1,600 gallons) of crude oil equivalent. For comparison, soybeans and corn (maize)— other common bio-fuel crops—produce only 446 liters (118 gal.) and 172 liters (45 gal.) per hectare, respectively.

The shift in the U.S. from corn (maize) for human and animal food to ethanol for hundreds of new rural ethanol plants is one of the factors in rising food prices around the world. With U.S. corn (maize) off the market and also with less land devoted by U.S. farmers to soya for edible oil, China and other countries with rising meat and oil consumption have had to buy elsewhere. The knock on effect has combined with high energy prices for food transport and processing, higher fertilizer prices (as it is a by product of natural gas), drought in Australia’s rice growing heart land, and export restrictions by Thailand and Vietnam to fuel food spikes. An inconvenience for the middle class, people living on one or two Dollars a day have been driven into the street in food riots in 33 countries.

Anon (n.d.) “Biodiesel News” .

Associated Press (2007) “At least 16 feared dead in Mexico landslide, floods.”,2933,308467,00.html .

Butler, Rhett A. (2006) “Why is oil palm replacing tropical rainforests? Why are biofuels fueling deforestation?”
April 25, 2006, .

Carson, Nick (2006) “Oiling the Wheels of Change,” August 19, 2006, .

Gunewardena, Nandini & Schuller, Mark, eds. (2008) Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction. Lanham: Alta Mira Press.

Klein, Naomi (2007) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Martinez, Helda (n.d.) “Colombia: Biodiesel Push Blamed for Violations of Rights,”


Aerial view of San Juan de Grijalva covered almost completely in mud
Source: Associated Press (2007),2933,308467,00.html.

African oil Palm in Honduras
Source: Nick Carson, 2006

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  • Publication date 29 Apr 2008

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