Mongabay Series: Forest Trackers
- In 2017, the first year following the disarmament of thecccc, deforestation in the Colombian Amazon region exploded, more than doubling from 70,074 hectares (173,000 acres) the year before to 144,147 hectares (356,000 acres), according to climate monitoring agency IDEAM.
- The rampaging devastation shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Satellite data show nearly 267,000 deforestation alerts were recorded in the departments of Caquetá, Guaviare and Meta in a single week in February.
- Absent the threat of the FARC, land values have skyrocketed by as much as 300 percent in San Vicente del Caguán since the peace deal was signed. The capital infusion has helped to improve the economy, which is based primarily on cattle ranching for milk and cheese production, but has created a booming speculative market that rewards land grabbing. Colonizers are also displacing indigenous groups from their ancestral land.
- While Colombian authorities have targeted small farmers in and around national parks, large-scale deforesters have yet to face serious consequences.
Rafael Orjuela, a community leader in Cartagena de Chairá, Colombia, moved to the Amazonian department of Caquetá in 1979 to escape severe economic hardship in the interior Andes region. At the time, Orjuela encountered Amazonian lands covered with dense, virgin rainforest where “exquisite, supremely abundant” wildlife roamed freely between the rivers, mountains and plains.
“There was no ‘deforestation’ problem at that time. In fact, the state told us that if we didn’t knock down 70 percent of the forest on a piece of property, it wasn’t ours,” Orjuela said. “Sadly, today we’re paying for the errors of that mind-set.”
For decades, the rebel FARC group exercised nearly complete political control in the Caquetá’s rural areas. But that all changed when Colombia’s largest rebel army reached a historic peace agreement with the government and laid down its weapons in 2016.
“Our lives are no longer disrupted by daily bombardments, harassment, restrictions and fear,” community leader Arvey Albear told Mongabay while sitting in the central square of the town of San Vicente del Caguán as a tropical rainstorm cleared, inviting a chorus of songbirds. With peace, he said San Vicente del Caguán “breathes a different air.”
But as the gunfire died down, another sound grew louder: chainsaws.
In 2017, the first year following the FARC’s demobilization, deforestation in the Colombian Amazon region exploded, more than doubling from 70,074 hectares (173,000 acres) the year before to 144,147 hectares (356,000 acres), according to climate monitoring agency IDEAM.
Between October and December 2018, IDEAM reported that the Amazon accounted for 75 percent of deforestation alerts, and that close to 43,000 hectares (106,300 acres) of rainforest were lost over three months in the three contiguous departments of Caquetá, Guaviare and Meta in the northwestern Amazon region.
The rampaging devastation shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Satellite data collected by the University of Maryland and visualized on the online monitoring platform Global Forest Watch show large swaths of pink deforestation alerts pushing further into primary rainforest. While forest loss appears to slowed somewhat with the onset of the rainy season in April, 2019 appears to be surpassing 2018 when it comes to deforestation – in one week alone, nearly 267,000 alerts were recorded in Caquetá, Guaviare and Meta.
“The peace agreement negotiated between the FARC and the government was meant to end the armed conflict,” Orjuela said. “But when the FARC left, the government was not prepared to manage the situation … everyone felt the right to act without god or law, and deforestation shot up immediately in an exaggerated way.”
Colonizers, rebels and drug trafficking
Orjuela said that the deforestation is driven by ongoing colonization and land grabbing, mostly dedicated to extensive cattle ranching. He said both poor subsistence farmers, called campesinos, and rich landholders are responsible for the advancing agricultural frontier, which cuts deeper into Colombia’s Amazon basin with each passing year.
“There is a great, very old problem that we have here in Colombia, which is the campesinos’ lack of access to the land. What happens here is that people who want to make their own farms go out into the forest, clear out a few hectares and then it’s respected as theirs,” Orjuela said. “At the same time, wealthy landholders, who always want more and more, are a force behind the campesinos, financing them to clear the forest, buying small farms to put together extensive holdings.”
Separated from the rest of Colombia by an eastern mountain chain, Caquetá has been subject to several waves of colonization since the early 20th century. The original settlers were rubber planters who exploited indigenous labor, setting up a reign of terror that killed more than 80,000 natives. By the middle of the century, a violent civil war between Colombia’s powerful Liberal and Conservative political parties led to another wave of colonization.
The most potent draw to colonize Colombia’s Amazon came during the 1970s, with the illegal cultivation of coca and marijuana, providing a powerful economic incentive for landless farmers in what became known as the bonanza cocalera.
The FARC, which had arrived sometime in the late 1960s to early 1970s, quickly became the only authority for social order in the region, replacing a largely non-existent state presence. The guerrillas organized the coca growers, imposing taxes to help fund their armed insurrection against the state.
Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel entered the Amazon by the 1980s, establishing Tranquilandia, once the largest processing center for cocaine in the world. In 1984, Colombia’s special police force, with help from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, destroyed Tranquilandia, taking down nine cocaine laboratories, eight clandestine airstrips, and 13.8 tons of cocaine valued at $1.2 billion.
A failed peace process led by then-president Andrés Pastrana from 1999 to 2002 declared the region a demilitarized zone under FARC control. While both the guerrillas and the army consolidated their forces, the years that followed unleashed the most brutal chapter of the armed conflict under the government of Pastrana’s successor, Álvaro Uribe, who was supported by the U.S.-backed anti-narcotics program Plan Colombia.
A centerpiece of Plan Colombia, which counted more than $10 billion dollars of mostly military aid, was aerial spraying of coca fields with glyphosate, better known as Roundup, a herbicide produced by agrochemical company Monsanto and classified by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen.
“Life during Plan Colombia, known here locally as Plan Patriota, was very hard. The planes would come in and destroy crops, leaving us with nothing to eat, no money to live on,” said Orjuela. “In one of the nearby communities, the planes flew over an elementary school dropping the poisonous chemicals over the children who were in class at the time.”
The military actions combined with a drop in the value of coca pushed many campesinos to shift from illicit cultivations to cattle rearing. But the FARC maintained control on the ground, and Orjuela said that there was far less deforestation because the guerrillas helped the communities to enforce social norms, including caring for the forests.
FARC as stewards of the forest
While the FARC committed widespread human rights abuses against the campesinos during the half century of armed conflict, the rebels considered themselves to be a campesino movement, working closely with the local community councils and associations to maintain a sense of moral authority and territorial control, helping to solve local problems such as road development and enforcement of social codes.
“Before the FARC left, there was deforestation but it was regulated. There were rules, created by campesino communities and associations, that the guerrillas helped us to enforce. For example, we would say you could only cut for example a few hectares per year or you had to leave a large portion of the property forested,” Orjuela said. “When the FARC left, so did the rules, and deforestation shot off right away.”
Further complicating matters, residents now report that dissident groups, splintered off from the FARC since demobilization, maintain a strong presence in remote parts of the territory. The dissident groups have reportedly promoted, or have at least been complicit in, the current wave of deforestation, possibly as a method to draw themselves closer to the campesinos and encourage friction with the government.
Albear, the community leader, said that land values have skyrocketed by as much as 300 percent in San Vicente del Caguán since the peace deal was signed. The capital infusion has helped to improve the economy, which is based primarily on cattle ranching for milk and cheese production, but has created a booming speculative market that rewards land grabbing.
Additionally, the peace deal has opened up the doors for extractive projects. According to a 2012 study, the Caguán–Putumayo basin has potential oil reserves estimated at 6 billion barrels, mostly heavy crude. National oil company Ecopetrol paid $35 million to add pavement and improvements to a road leading toward the Amazon border where deforestation is surging in Cartagena del Chairá.
Incoherence with court orders, international agreements
One year ago, Colombia’s Supreme Court declared the Amazon an entity “subject to rights,” following a lawsuit brought by 25 Colombian children and young people, represented by the director of the Center for the Study of Rights, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia). The court order called on the government to lower the net rate of deforestation to zero by 2020.
The court order found 60 percent of deforestation in Colombia was caused by illegal land grabs, 20 percent by illicit crop cultivation and 8 percent by illegal mining, while agro-industrial crops and illegal logging also contributed to the problem.
“The Colombian State has not efficiently faced the problem of deforestation in the Amazon, despite having signed numerous international commitments and the existence in the country of sufficient regulations and jurisprudence on the subject,” the court order said, decrying “imminent and serious damage to children, adolescents and adults.”
In 2016, Norway, the United Kingdom and Germany pledged $100 million aimed at halting deforestation in the Colombian Amazon by 2020. The funds have gone to a Ministry of Environment program known as Vision Amazonia, which supports silvopastoralism and agroforestry projects, education campaigns, forest monitoring, and work with indigenous communities.
Based on the pay-for-results scheme, the international aid budget for Vision Amazonia was cut back to $85 million because of the increasing rate of deforestation since 2016.
Already under former president Juan Manuel Santos, the Environment Ministry had backed off the zero deforestation by 2020 goal. But the newly elected president, Iván Duque, has backtracked even further, maintaining deforestation at 220,000 hectares (543,600 acres) per year for a potential total of 880,000 hectares (2.18 million acres) during the government’s next four years in office.
Environmental NGO Ambiente y Sociedad investigator Angelica Beltrán follows Colombia’s policies in relationship to international agreements and the fight against climate change.
“With the latest National Development Plan, the government doesn’t have a goal to reduce deforestation, rather to level it off after four years,” she said. “This is incongruent with international agreements and the country’s international pledge to combat climate change.”
One of the easiest, fastest ways to clear forest is to burn it. Forest fires, which are closely associated with deforestation in the Amazon basin, shot up 800 percent in biodiversity hotspots in three national parks — La Macarena, Picachos, and Tinigua — the year following the FARC’s demobilization, according to a study led by landscape ecologist Dolors Armenteras at Universidad Nacional.
“The northwest region of the Amazon is the wettest part of the Amazon basin and so it was surprising to see this dramatic increase in fires,” Armenteras said. “The increased fires and deforestation end up creating a feedback loop where the forests become fragmented and lose humidity, which makes them more susceptible to the next fires that are set during every dry season.”
The northwestern Amazon and Andes piedmont region, where deforestation has shot up, is a global biodiversity hotspot that connects three of Colombia’s biomes: the Andes mountains, Amazon rainforest, and tropical savanna. The region is home to several vulnerable species of flora and fauna, such as the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris), the largest South American mammal, and the oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) and jaguar (Panthera onca), which use the nature reserves as migratory corridors.
“[The] burning going on within the national parks is extremely grim … the last connections between the Amazon and the Andes is through these parks,” Armenteras said. “In the protected areas, every hectare lost represents more lost biomass, biodiversity, carbon stores in ecosystems that were previously conserved.”
La Macarena National Park is home to the Caño Cristales River, known as the “river of five colors.” From June to November, the Caño Cristales bursts into a living rainbow of gold, olive green, blue, black and red that dance together beneath the water’s crystalline surface.
The deforestation has come close to, and even entered, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chiribiquete National Natural Park, a mythical place where 1.7-billion-year-old rock formations, painted with 20,000-year-old art, rise out of a seemingly endless rainforest expanse, and uncontacted peoples are believed to maintain a nomadic way of life in voluntary isolation.
Recent biological surveys carried out by a collection of universities, private foundations and public institutions registered 1,676 species, including eight endemic, 28 possibly new to science, and 29 classified as threatened by the IUCN, in and around Chiribiquete Natural National Park.
Before leaving office in 2018, President Juan Manuel Santos expanded Chiribiquete to 4.3 million hectares (10.6 million acres), making it the world’s largest national park in a tropical rainforest, with support from private foundations and international conservation organizations such as the WWF, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Backlash against militarized conservation
Campesino cattle rancher Jose Alvarado* arrived in Los Llanos de Yarí in western San Vicente del Caguán, fleeing for his life after losing his brother and cousin to politically motivated violence in the 1980s. Alvarado was part of a left-wing political party, Union Patriotica, that was systematically exterminated by paramilitary groups working in tandem with elements of the military and government in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Paramilitarism went after all the political leaders on the left at that time. Out of 40 comrades, only four of us survived. Just because we had a different political ideology, they wanted us all dead,” Alvarado said. “I escaped with my life to the Llanos of Yari where there was only one armed group operating at the time, the FARC.”
With the armed conflict and human rights abuses committed by the armed forces fresh in the minds of residents of San Vicente del Caguán, there is a lack of trust between the campesinos and the state.
“The state has never been there to help the campesinos. The state only appears in the territories with the military forces to impose their will, pushing the campesinos out of the way and off their land,” said Alvarado.
On April 29, President Duque launched an offensive against deforestation called “Artemisa,” in cooperation with military, police, public prosecutors and accompanied by the Ministry of Environment and National Natural Parks of Colombia. Nicacio Martínez Espinel, Colombia’s top army commander, said 10 percent of the army’s resources would be redeployed to target environmental crimes, particularly deforestation.
On April 25, anti-narcotics police unit reportedly arrested 11 campesinos, including four children, who were settled within the boundary of the recently expanded Chiribiquete Natural National Park. Human rights activists decried the operation after photos surfaced showing that the campesino families’ houses were burned by the police.
Luz Mery Panche, a member of the indigenous council in San Vicente del Caguán, was concerned about repressive measures against campesinos living within the national parks’ boundaries, some of whom she said had settled there before the parks were created or expanded.
“The authorities are going into parks inhabited by campesinos, forcefully evicting them and burning their dwellings,” Panche said. “It’s a critical situation because the institutions have not coordinated with the habitants in an adequate manner, coming up with solutions rather than trampling over the campesinos and making them feel like they’re illegal.”
Large-scale environmental crimes aren’t punished
While Colombian authorities have targeted campesinos in and around national parks, large-scale deforesters have yet to face serious consequences. An investigation by local media Zona Franca and El Espectador reported that the governor of Guaviare department, Nebio Echeverry, and his business associates have been denounced for forced displacement of campesinos, illegal road development and illegal oil palm cultivation in an Amazon forest reserve.
“With an enormous quantity of [large-scale land holdings], there is an expulsion of campesinos who leave for more remote zones to start deforestation over again,” Angélica Rojas, a local expert in territorial development from conservation the NGO FCDS, told El Espectador.
There are rumors that the large landholders, known as latifundios, promoting deforestation in Caquetá are from Bogotá, but it is impossible to know with certainty as they rarely appear in the territory, Alvarado said.
“The problem stems from the sector of the countryside managed by the latifunidos. They only appear here in helicopters surrounded by private bodyguards and sometimes even protection by the army,” Alvarado said. “But this same group of people has people inside the Congress, so of course nothing happens to them.”
Ole Reidar Bergum, who works as a climate and forest councilor for the Norwegian Embassy in Colombia, said the military operations against deforestation would have limited success unless the powerful financiers of these large-scale deforestation events are brought to justice.
“To simply detain the day laborers holding a chainsaw only deals with the symptoms without addressing the root cause. It’s only when the urban bosses of the criminal land-grabbing mafias, operating in collaboration with illegal armed groups and corrupt officials, are put behind bars that things will really start to change,” Bergum said.
Reaching for a livable future?
Alvarado said he recognized the changes that deforestation and climate change are bringing to the Llanos of Yari; the dry season lasts longer with each passing year, and once-plentiful water supplies are becoming scarcer.
“Ten years ago we [had] incredible water sources in the territory, but these days the water is disappearing,” Alvarado said. “The world is concerned about the effects of global warming. [Campesinos] are also affected, we are also concerned.”
On the border of Chiribiquete sits a multicultural indigenous reserve called Yaguara II, composed of three ethnic groups: the Pijao, Tucano and Piratapuyos. In 2004, the FARC displaced 80 percent of the reserve members after disappearing the governor. In 2016, following the demobilization of the FARC, the native communities saw an opportunity to return to the reserve. But it had been filled with colonizers from the outside.
In Guaviare, a similar process of colonization by large-scale cattle ranchers and smaller-scale coca growers is happening on the indigenous Nukak Maku reserve, inhibiting the return of the traditionally nomadic tribe to their rainforest territory. The Nukak community is facing cultural extinction after emerging from the Amazon rainforest in 1988, chased off their lands by illegal armed groups.
FCDS director Rodrigo Botero, who has accompanied the native communities of the Nukak and Yaguara II reserves, said the gradual colonization of the reserves by outsiders has shot up in the past two years. While the Yaguara II community has won a land restitution claim in court, the lack of state institutional presence means that the order has failed to yield results on the ground.
A member of the Yaguara II reserve, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, said the indigenous community’s relationship with the forest and the planet is based on respect, gratitude and spirituality.
“The campesinos and the indigenous people in the Amazon are similar in that we both cultivate the land, but the campesinos have a culture strongly [associated with] cattle ranching that implicates clearing large extensions of forest,” the native Colombian said.
To stop deforestation in the Llanos of Yari, the indigenous community member suggested establishing a firm agricultural frontier, formalizing titles for campesino farmers in the region, providing education and training to change destructive practices, offering health and education guarantees, and working with campesino associations to reforest and recruit them for environmental control.
At the same time, he said, investigating and prosecuting the large landholders and land grabbers would be necessary to stop the pressure on his people’s lands.
“It is clear we must not abuse the earth because it is very important in the balance of life,” he said. “If we do nothing to conserve [nature], the survival of future generations will be uncertain, because without her, there is no life.”
*Name changed to protect the identity of the person interviewed.
Banner image: Cattle in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá. Photo by Taran Volckhausen for Mongabay.
Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.
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