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Direct trade with communities as enabler of security for land and environmental defenders

Ana Zbona, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Peace community San Jose de Apartado sign (Credit: PBI)

We sat down with the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó from Colombia, LUSH Cosmetics and Peace Brigades Int'l UK to explore how direct trade supports protection of defenders.

Rural communities and indigenous populations living and relying on land are being forced out by governments, companies and paramilitaries, and are subject to campaigns of harassment and violently forced from their homes. Leaders and representatives of these communities are the most common targets of attacks: 2nd anniversary of Berta Cáceres' death this week is a poignant example of that. In our database and according to Global Witness’ research, agribusiness was the sector most connected to killings of land and environmental human rights defenders in 2017. Direct trade with communities has a big role to play in supporting rural and indigenous communities economically, and therefore helping increase their leaders’ safety, by giving communities means of staying on their land. One of the best examples of this is the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó: a collective of over 500 peasant farmers in the Urabá region of North-West Colombia. This community has faced threats, stigmatization, and killings because of its members' choice to resist displacement and declare themselves neutral in the middle of a civil war. Orders from LUSH Cosmetics, which buys 50 tonnes of cocoa from them each year, are one of the best income sources that support the families in the community, and have been an important factor in preventing displacement. LUSH's support is also political and moral; together with the support of Peace Brigades International and other accompanying organizations, they influence the security of the community and its members. Community's representatives hope that these actors will continue maintaining trade links and providing political support.

Resource Centre: German, Roviro and Morelis, what is the current security situation in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó and what is the role companies are playing?

Community (German Graciano Posso, José Roviro Lopez Rivera & Morelis Arteaga Guerra)In the past 20 years, the threats have been continuous. But in the past two years, the threats have again escalated to a similar level that they were at when the Peace community first started, in 1997: then and again now we couldn’t safely go to our fields to cultivate them, we had to go in groups, for safety.

After the demobilization of FARC, paramilitaries took control, they walk around with arms in our community and are recruiting youth.

Peace Community: Threats to leaders of the Peace community have gone up. 70 million pesos were stolen and they announced that they would kill our leaders.

On the 21st and 22nd of December 2017, Gildardo Tuberquia, community elder, one of the leaders of our Community Council, and his family, were threatened by the paramilitaries, and he had to leave the community in fear for his life. On the same day, the paramilitaries said they were going to kill me [German speaking], but that they would make it look like a robbery. We held an assembly about it to discuss how to prevent it.

On the 29th of December, they attempted to carry out an assassination. They ambushed Roviro and I [German speaking] when we went to the storage space where we store cocoa, they were hidden all around. They held a gun to Roviro’s stomach, then to his head. I told them that they’d have to kill both of us. His daughter, my daughter and some others were around when this was happening, luckily they ran back to the centre of the community and told others, and the whole community, along with the international observers then ran down to where we were, which we think is what saved us. The paramilitaries know that if they killed “gringos” [foreign white people], there would be trouble. It’s a miracle we’re alive. 

PBI UK (Susi Bascon, Director & Adam Lunn, Advocacy officer): There is constant political pressure being put on the Fiscalia, Ministries, the UN, IACHR, but threats are ongoing.

Representatives of the Peace Community

Community: Police is stationed nearby where this was happening. They heard the paramilitaries making threats and plans to kill us, but they don’t do anything. Now the paramilitaries are even threatening to put fire to the 25 tonnes of cocoa that is meant to be shipped to LUSH. We feel a lot of  fear again, same as when we started in 1997: if there wasn’t 24/7 PBI’s protective accompaniment and other international observers, we’d already be displaced. Now CCTV will be put up. 

LUSH (Gabbi Loedolff,  Head of Raw Materials and Safe Synthetics): How do you feel about that?

Community: It’s not what we wanted. It’s like being prisoners in our own homes...On the role of companies in threats and attacks on defenders [in Colombia more broadly]:

Peace Community: Companies and government enter into agreements and companies pay them for the land. Once this is done, the government has to deliver, has to guarantee what was promised. Paramilitaries do the killing to clear the land, not companies. So when companies come in, they say they just came to exploit the land, that they had nothing to do with the killings. 

When we speak to politicians abroad, we try to explain that what’s bad is not the production of commodities necessarily, what’s bad is that there is no consultation, there is a law about it, but it’s not put in practice. Third parties are used to displace people, the way they go about it is bad, that’s what we try to explain. Politicians often don’t seem to be interested in that or in exploring which companies are going to exploit coal, oil and grow palm trees.

At the Forum on Business & Human Rights in Geneva, for example, what we noticed was that there wasn’t really talk about human rights, that it was ultimately about economic interests. Some mining companies active in Colombia for example said at the Forum that they were complying with rules, that they were contributing to schools and health of the communities. But when you go [to the affected communities], river is dead, people are dying, women are more likely to miscarry because there is metal in their bodies, there’s hardship. Investigators should come and investigate. With the little knowledge we have, hearing this, we felt [that at the Forum] business came before human rights.

What we see in Colombia is that paramilitaries are obeying this principle, these interests, they want to enable exploitation of natural resources. 

Peace Community: With the “peace process” and demobilisation of FARC, the door for exploitation is open, the murders of defenders have gone up, no one can talk about land rights or the agrarian reform – they continue assassinating leaders, we are at a very worrying point. 

The government wants to create an National Land Agency and want to start a pilot project in Uraba [the region where the Peace community is in]. We have some land titles, but they want to change the law to make it so that we wouldn’t even be able to obtain further ones, that only the Catholic church could own more than 4 or 5 plots of land communally and do collective farming. In Cordoba, this is already starting - we think this is because they want to enable construction of Urrá II hydroelectric dam, this is why the paramilitaries are trying to clear people off the land so quickly.

If they kill our leaders in our community, it will be hard to continue what we’re doing. Palm plantations are already coming closer to our village, they are already only 50 kilometres away.

Resource Centre: In this strained security situation, what can companies do to help security of defenders? Is the connection with LUSH helping alleviate some of your security and economic concerns?

Community:  We want more companies to consult with communities: we are not saying they are all bad, it’s the way in which is done that is bad, because there is no consultation.

Peace Community: What would be really valuable is if every company did the kind of consultation LUSH does, if they asked us what we wanted. Especially in regions where we don’t have help from the government. 

We don’t see LUSH as just another company, we saw them as people that have become part of our community, them buying from us is one of the biggest sources of support we have, it’s helping to create a new society to live in, one that respects nature and humans. What they buy from us are organic cocoa beans, they are clean, free of chemicals, it’s not just good for us, but also for the consumers.

Resource Centre: Do you think that because of this relationship, the government is taking you more seriously?

Community: We think having their support, and having our cocoa sold in international markets, has made the government and the paramilitaries respect the community more. Last year, 70 million pesos were stolen from the community by the paramilitaries. They were threatening to burn the cocoa we produced, but they know we worked with an international company, with LUSH, and that we have organic certification - we think that’s why they didn’t do it in the end.

Peace Community: International attention and presence is the main reason why we haven’t been killed yet. But still, pressures are increasing: paramilitaries are increasing their threats, and economically, more and more cocoa production is being privatized, and most international buyers don’t buy directly from communities, but rather from private companies. 

We also buy cocoa from other, smaller communities, and sell it to another international buyer in Italy.

Resource Centre: Gabbi, from your perspective, how did this cooperation happen and is the political element of it difficult?

LUSH: In 2010, a colleague of mine met someone that was connected to the community and told us about them. We were thinking to ourselves: how can we support them, beyond charitable giving? We did our research and found out they grew cocoa, which they found hard to sell - as a company that uses a lot cocoa butter, we thought we could help the most by sourcing from them directly. Trade can be a powerful vehicle for good. When we started working with them, we helped them get certified and we got them to help us determine prices, asking them: “What’s minimum price that will allow you to be self-sufficient?” Even if fair trade price falls below that, we committed to paying at least that. Cocoa is very important for our business, but we never bought beans directly and had it processed before that, so this was a change for us.

As a privately owned company, we might have a bit  more flexibility. We are not just driven by the bottom line. We are currently thinking how can we move from “just” sustainable to restorative: how to contribute to restoring vital systems? So we are always trying to find people that see it similarly, and it’s not always easy – the Peace community was the right partner for us.

Cocoa LUSH products

Resource Centre: This cooperation is not just economic, it also means supporting a political idea. Was being overtly political hard for LUSH?

LUSH: We are not afraid of being political if it’s in support of something we believe in: we want to provide platform for campaigners. We can and want to provide a platform for these messages and reach a wider audience. 

We don’t just have a team of people who care, our consumers can get involved as well - we are trying to create a network.

Resource Centre: LUSH says it’s an activist company – how do you see this role in the current fraught political climate worldwide and how does it connect back to the work with the Peace community?

LUSH: Fighting animal testing has always been one of our core values.  We’re a company of campaigners! But often this was done quietly, behind the scenes.  About 15 years ago, we recognised the need  to be prepared to take a stance publicly, run public campaigns, even when not everyone agrees. We have faced challenges over this. We have had campaigns about Guantanamo, fox hunting, badger culling, etc. We don’t just take on ”fluffy” topics that are easy to discuss. Supporting the Peace community is an example of taking on an issue that’s difficult, complex to explain. It’s about supporting a community that’s facing a very challenging situation and showing a different way to live. We learn a lot from them, there’s a sense of unity.

Resource Centre: Speaking of unity, is there a sense of unity with other companies, are there like-minded companies that you can work together with on these topics, Gabbi?

LUSH: Historically, we have worked more with NGOs or campaigners as opposed to other companies but I believe we are open to finding likeminded companies to work with on topics like these.  

Every company has an end consumer, one way or another, even those that sell to other companies. In many instances, I believe that if consumers understood the back-story to the goods they buy, they’d be outraged. Governments as regulators also have a role to play. But it’s also about consumers asking more questions. For example, issues around palm oil are now clearer because NGO reports brought them to light and consumers started asking more questions.

PBI UK: The link between palm oil and displacement has been well documented and denounced by local HRDs accompanied by PBI. Do you have palm oil in your products? What’s your take on this?

LUSH: This is a big topic. We’ve removed palm oil from our products whenever possible, but we are still working on removing palm derivatives from a few of the ingredients we use. We travelled to Sumatra and saw the problems first-hand. Everywhere where people take the monoculture approach, it’s unsustainable. Palm oil has to be grown with other crops, so that there’s less pressure on the land. We are raising awareness about the problematic, especially about Indonesia, for example on our panel during LUSH Summit 2018, we had a panel made up of different experts to talk about it.

LUSH: There’s a growing awareness that people are being displaced  because of large scale monocultures like palm. Before the focus was more just on the environmental aspects, but now there’s also discussion on the social aspects. When people are displaced, livelihoods and culture are being lost.

Resource Centre: Lives are also being lost: Global Witness’ and our findings show that killings of defenders have grown in the agriculture sector. Do you see enough discussion on this in the industry?

LUSH: This is not being discussed enough yet. Our approach is working with smallholders where we can: not just going for the land-grab. Of course it’s more complex, logistically, to work with 7 communities than it would be to have one port of call – but it’s a no-brainer for us. 

LUSH: The key is to be working with people that are already there, already producing. By being in unity with them, we hope that this relieves pressure.

PBI UK: You work with many communities around the world, not just this one. Can LUSH play a role in setting an example for other companies? Is there a way of making the positive side effects of engaging with communities more visible?

LUSH: Yes, I think it’s something we can do more of. A lot of our communication to date has focused on environmental aspects and growing practices, but we also look to capture the social impacts.  We are using our channels to provide a platform for these communities to tell their own stories where we can, rather than us speaking on their behalf. You don’t have to displace people or focus only on the bottom line to be profitable. Business has gone so far down this route of quick bottom line already, but we are trying to show it’s possible. We are also transparent about the challenges of this approach though, otherwise it’s hard for others to relate.

PBI UK: Narrative needs to be changed: what we are talking about here is an example of a company and a community having a similar approach to development, but as a company you are in a position to popularize it because of the political and financial power you have.

Resource Centre: German, Roviro and Morelis, what are some of your reflections on this?

Community: We think that companies can truly support communities and human rights, and not just take away: we are seeing positive examples and that another way is possible, so it’s not fair that despite of that, so many are dying because of exploitation, that so many lives are being destroyed in the name of it. Pursuing this different way is about changing the world: even though it’s happening in a small community, like ours, it can change society.

Peace Community: It’s not just about the buying and selling of cocoa, it’s political, it’s about offering the idea of a different world to the society. It’s about showing that it’s possible to do business differently, not just destroy. 

LUSH: We can only do things differently because we find people to do that with, people that are building alternatives, like this community does. It’s about finding the right people – we can’t just go to a country and say “let’s do this”: it takes time and finding the right partners. But there are some things all companies can do right away, such as consider people before profit. It’s about a mind-shift.

PBI UK: Is LUSH considering taking on more overt advocacy, especially on land rights and protection of defenders, which could impact on how others do business?

LUSH: There’s always more that can be done. Alongside campaigns and using our channels to raise awareness, we are looking to build strong networks, connecting people we work with (activists, suppliers, charities and more) to each other.  We don’t often find ourselves working in groups with others, because there are conflicts over ethics. But we are keen to continue to play a role in advocacy: we just had a summit attended by 2500 people, many of whom were activists. We want to continue creating networks.

Resource Centre: Apparel sector is coming together to confront urgent situations jointly – is cosmetics industry, or more broadly agribusiness, coming together, too?

LUSH: Cosmetics industry comes together around specific materials: for example, mica mining and the issue of child labour. Companies only came together on this in 2017, but LUSH started thinking about it already in 2014. We try to build knowledge by doing our own investigations on the ground, to identify problems early. We think transparency is crucial. We find that others often don’t do that to the same extent: we find often companies only start acting and coming together to when problems are already uncovered, to avoid reputational damage.

Resource Centre: UN Working Group on Business & Human Rights, as well as our organization with partners, are working on a guidance for business on protection of civic freedoms and defenders: do you think more awareness given to this topic will get other businesses on board?

LUSH: Awareness is a part of it, but accountability, regulation and government action is also important. Sometimes laws are already in place, but there is an implementation gap. It has to go hand in hand. We also shouldn’t forget the power of individual consumers. Consumers can ask governments to do things better. We ran the Peace pioneers campaign with PBI in 2014 about the Constitutional Order 164 (2012) in Colombia, to protect the community: in one week, we got 25000 signatures from LUSH consumers from 44 countries.  We did a public event at the House of Lords where the founder of LUSH handed the signed petition over to the Embassy of Colombia. It reached the highest levels of government. We want to repeat this campaign this year, as the situation of the community is not improving. For us, these are not just suppliers, they are our partners - attacks on them feel personal. 

LUSH:  We want to follow-up on our first campaign, and remind the government of what we asked for the first time around, and maybe raise the importance of land titles.

Further information:

PBI - Where we work: Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó

LUSH - Peace pioneers