San Javier de Cachaví, a small village in Ecuador, is being choked by oil palm trees, and now the courts want them to pay the plantation owners thousands for protesting the damage.

San Javier de Cachaví is small, only about 120 families in a little community along a river. The land around them was supposed to belong to them, but a legal loophole allowed Energy and Palma, an oil palm company, to put palm plantations there. Now, the village is entirely surrounded by palm plantations, their only way in and out along an easement across one.

According to San Javier de Cachaví residents, the plantations have destroyed the river, which was their primary source of bathing and drinking.

“When the company moved in, the contamination arrived with them,” said José Mina, the leader of San Javier de Cachaví. “We used to drink the river’s water and nothing happened. Now the children bathe and get pimples and their bodies itch. The fish arrive here dead.”

The game that fed the village is also all but gone, its habitat all cleared for palm trees.

In 2019, community residents organized a three-month protest, setting up sents and making camp along the main access road to the closest oil plantation surrounding them.

“We wanted to be a bit more visible,” said Néstor Caicedo, the leader of the nearby Barranquilla community. “Their plantations are in our territories, meaning they have to pass through, so we put ourselves there so that the company could see us.”

The protesters weren’t demanding that the plantations leave; they only wanted recognition that the land was disputed, to stop polluting their water sources, and that local communities be compensated for the damage by contributing to infrastructure projects.

Instead, Energy and Palma first tried to bribe community leaders, then sued the villages when that failed. The $151,000 judgment is more than the combined income of San Javier de Cachaví’s residents for a decade, and may result in them having to sell the disputed land outright to Energy and Palma.

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