Beneath the Shade of UN Oil Palms

Is the United Nations’ Alternative Development Programme acting as camouflage for the cocaine trade in the Peruvian Amazon? This is the scandalous possibility raised by a documentary which was aired recently on the German TV channel, WestDeutscher RundFunk.

‘Nuestro Hombre en Cocalandia’ (‘Our Man in Coca-Land’) takes us to the coca heartland of Peru, which in recent years has also become one of the principal frontiers for the expansion of oil palm plantations, unearthing the hidden and destructive links between these global industries. By examining the role of a UN official from the Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Hans Jochen Wiese, and the nexus of business dealings revolving around him, it becomes apparent that the official discourse (maintained by the UN, Peruvian authorities and palm oil companies) – that the palm oil industry has developed in the region as an alternative to coca production – is, at best, misleading; at worst, a lie. In fact, it is more accurate to say that palm oil and coca production currently exist in symbiosis; perhaps nowhere is this relationship represented more clearly than in the footage of coca bushes growing beneath the shade of oil palms, in a UN-backed project not far from Tingo María.

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Jochen Wiese with Arturo Hoyos, whom he contracted to run the ÚN-backed OLPESA palm oil processing plant. Hoyos previously worked with the Medellín drugs cartel (Credit: WDR).

The documentary, directed by Wilfried Huismann, notes at the outset that despite there having been more than $100 million invested in the UN Alternative Development Programme over the last 25 years, since 2013 Peru has nevertheless become the world’s number one cocaine producer. As the investigation progresses, further evidence emerges to support the film-makers’ claim that ‘the golden years of coca’ are far from over: in Tocache, we learn that one of Peru’s largest and most successful palm oil processors, RSPO-member OLPESA, is managed by Arturo Hoyos Cárdenas, who was a member of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel prior to accepting Jochen Wiese’s invitation to work with the UN. In 2009, Hoyos’ brother-in-law was detained while using a UN vehicle to transport sulphuric acid for cocaine production; we also learn that the president of the board of directors of OLPASA, another UN-backed processing plant, was handed a  seven-year prison sentence after being discovered with 14kg of cocaine. In a candid interview, following a fly-over in which coca can be spotted growing on the hillsides beside oil palm plantations, Pablo Ramírez Morí, an agricultural engineer who has worked for the Regional Government of Ucayali, affirms that, “In the majority of inspections which are carried out, in the middle of the palms, there is coca. In the middle of the cacao, there is coca…Of course the UN functionaries know about this.”

Furthermore, doubts are raised over the UNODC’s claim to have “improved the social and economic situation of families in targeted coca bush-growing areas”. The film-makers hear from struggling small-scale farmers such as Marcellino Tapullima, who cultivates cacao and coffee beans for the agriculture cooperative Oro Verde, near Tarapoto, earning as little as $150 per month, which is significantly less than the $500 claimed by the UNODC. There is also an interview with Victor Barrales, a smallholder farmer and former president of a palm oil cooperative in Aguaytía, who relates how UNODC officials, organised around Jochen Wiese, effectively gained control of community organisations, wrestling decision-making power over the OLPASA plant from the community itself, selling palm oil on the black market and enriching themselves with the profits.

These allegations are compounded by a further series of irregularities uncovered during the course of the documentary, including the suspiciously high profit margins recorded at the OLPESA plant (around 128% in 2014/15, according to Hoyos Cárdenas), and the fact that members of the UN team, including Jochen Wiese himself, own land, shares and even oil palm plantations, signalling a clear mixture of professional and private interests.

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“Forest-eater denounced”. Businessman Dennis Melka appears alongside a photo showing massive deforestation on the front page of the Al Día newspaper, 5/3/2016 (Credit: T. Younger).

However, it is the final section of the documentary which has made the headlines in Peru. This sequence relates how Jochen Wiese is responsible for having first invited the businessman who would later come to be known locally as ‘el comebosque’ (‘the forest-eater’) to Ucayali, initially to carry out a month-long consultancy. In the years since, the network of agribusiness companies controlled by Dennis Melka, including Plantaciones de Ucayali S.A.C. and Plantaciones de Pucallpa S.A.C., with blatant disregard for Peruvian law, have destroyed at least 13,000 hectares of mainly primary forests in Ucayali and Loreto, causing damages in excess of $117 million and dispossessing the indigenous Shipibo community Santa Clara de Uchunya of their ancestral territory. Nearly all of these deforested areas have since been converted to oil palm and cacao plantations, which apparently remain in operation, in spite of government orders to suspend their activities.

In an alarming illustration of the revolving door between the UNODC and a group of companies accused of human rights violations and environmental crimes, it turns out that Alfredo Rivera, who acts as Melka’s Country Head of Operations, was previously Jochen Wiese’s colleague, as director of the UNODC’s Oil Palm Programme. Furthermore, it is claimed that Rivera was already receiving a wage from Melka while still in his role with the UN.

Following the release of ‘Nuestro Hombre en Cocalandia’, the Peruvian organisation Kené has called upon the Peruvian authorities to launch a full investigation into the alleged offences and cases of corruption uncovered by the film and for the UNODC’s own investigation – initiated after the film-makers contacted the head office in Vienna – into the matter to be made public. In addition, Kené has reiterated the call of indigenous organisations for the new National Plan for Palm Oil to be put on hold until an adequate consultation with indigenous peoples can take place and the aforementioned investigation be concluded. These calls were followed by an open letter and petition directed at the UN by the environmental organisation, Salva la Selva, in which it calls for a halt to the UNODC’s Alternative Development Programme and its promotion of monocultures, such as oil palm, in the Peruvian Amazon.

Jochen Wiese was removed from his position and transferred to another UNODC project – this time with poppy-growers in Myanmar – back in 2013. As he leaves the country where he has come to “feel at home” during the last 30 years, he remarks to the camera: “…the people, deep down, are good-natured…but there is a lot of…mediocrity and a lot of corruption.” Only time – and a thorough-going, official investigation to unearth the activities of Wiese’s network in the Peruvian Amazon – will tell whether he himself is to receive a more generous judgement.

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