In April 2016, indigenous leaders travelled from Colombia, Indonesia, Liberia, and Peru to Europe, calling for action on human rights violations and land grabbing associated with the expansion of oil palm plantations in their countries.
They visited London, where the delegates from Peru had a specific demand for the financial regulatory bodies: remove AIM-listed United Cacao Ltd SEZC from trading on the London Stock Exchange. Their demand was backed by more than 60 Peruvian organisations.
The Peruvian government accuses United Cacao of illegal deforestation over an area of 11,100 hectares.
“We are demanding that the London Stock Exchange immediately halt trading services and cancel registration of companies that act outside of the law.” said Robert Guimaraes Vasquez, member of the Shipibo-Conibo indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon, and president of their representative organisation FECONAU.
United Cacao is registered in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands. The company’s CEO, Dennis Melka, is involved in a web of related palm oil companies in Peru that receive funding from United Cacao. Melka is the owner of only one of 25 Peruvian companies in the Melka Group, but he has the right to make legal and commercial decisions for all the others.
The Environmental Investigation Agency has been documenting in detail the impact of the Melka Group’s activities on people and forests in Peru. Julia Urrunaga, EIA’s Programme Director in Peru said in a statement:
“The illegalities, abuses, and forest destruction perpetrated by Dennis Melka’s companies in the Peruvian Amazon have been public for years now. In spite of the Peruvian government having ordered the companies to stop operations and comply with the law, they continue to systematically violate Peruvian laws and ignore the Peruvian authorities. A model of illegal forest destruction, violation of indigenous rights and disrespect for the national authorities is not the kind of investment that Peru needs or wants.”
The community of Santa Clara de Uchunya in the Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon, has produced a video (available in Spanish here) documenting the impact of the Melka Group’s plantations on their forests and livelihoods:
Surprisingly, given this record, Plantaciones de Pucallpa, part of the Melka Group, is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. In December 2015, communities issued a formal complaint to the RSPO about Plantaciones de Pucallpa and in April 2016, the RSPO ordered the company to stop work.
In November 2015, Washington Bolivar, who appears in the Santa Clara de Uchunya film, received a series of anonymous handwritten notes:
“WASHINGTON… WE ARE GOING TO KILL YOU IF YOU KEEP ON SCREWING US. THOSE LANDS ARE NOT YOURS… YOU AND YOUR FAMILY WILL NOT LIVE. LET US WORK IF YOU DO NOT WANT ALL OF YOU TO DIE…”
Bolivar responded to the threats:
“I am concerned but won’t remain silent, the world should know what Melka’s companies are doing to our lands. They destroy our forest and our biodiversity. The Government fails to stop this tragedy and then leaves our human rights defenders exposed to death threats and homicides. The company benefits from this environment while our people and the forests suffer.”
Other people have also been threatened. Robert Guimaraes, the president of FECONAU, says that he is in fear of his own life and for the lives of the leaders of Uchunya:
“The threat of death is very strong and smouldering. Residents of the community have literally been told by people in the nearby town of Requena ‘Take care because we are going to kill your leaders and if we do not manage to do your leaders in, then we will kill anyone from Uchunya itself, we have a list’.
“We must have protection from the authorities; we plead for the intervention of international human rights agencies.”
Trash and run
On 23 June 2016, the Jakarta Post published a notice from the Melka Group describing the Group’s plans to sell off its controversial palm oil plantations in Peru. Forest Peoples Programme wrote to the Jakarta Post pointing out that investors interested in buying the Melka Group companies “should be aware that the properties in question are highly controversial and subject to numerous challenges and complaints in the Peruvian courts, at the RSPO and by investment regulators.”
Forest Peoples Programme describes the process as “trash and run”. In a statement, Marcus Colchester, senior policy advisor at Forest Peoples Programme, said,
“The proposed sale of these properties in Peru reflects the dark side of the palm oil sector whereby companies professing to uphold sustainability and business ‘best practice’, in line with RSPO and IFC standards, choose to sell off their properties when they are caught violating the standards or the law. When the International Finance Corporation (IFC) was challenged over its financial support for Wilmar in Indonesia in 2009 and found to be in violation of its own Performance Standards, it promptly divested from all its other palm oil properties in Indonesia. When Jardines was challenged over its palm oil property in Tripa, it sold the company off instead of sorting out the problems on the ground.”
PHOTO Credit: Melka Group oil palm plantations near Pucallpa, April 2014, Rainforest Rescue.