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Forests in Colombia fall victim to illegal coca plantations

  • In Colombia, 111 hectares of forest are cleared each day, the country’s Anti-Narcotics Division of the Colombian National Police report.
  • Of the country’s 59 national parks, 16 are affected by forest loss as a result of illicit crops.
  • According to an official with Colombia’s national parks agency, a recent increase in illicit coca crops in national parks is due to “the occupation of settlers, who do not earn an income, [and for that reason] find the parks attractive.”

The illicit cultivation of coca leaf in Colombia grew by 39 percent between 2014 and 2015, from 69,000 to 96,000 hectares. That’s according to the country’s National Forest and Carbon Monitoring System (SMBYC), an environmental information tool created by the Colombian Environment and Sustainable Development Ministry, as well as a recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

According to the UNODC report, coca cultivation increased by 52 percent inside indigenous reserves; it rose from 7,799 hectares in 2014 to 11,837 hectares in 2015. The indigenous reserves in Colombia are territories with limits established by law and occupied by one or more indigenous communities.

Deforestation in Paramillo National Natural Park in Córdoba Department. Photo courtesy of SIMCI / UNODC

Afro-descendant communities are also being affected. The UNODC shows that coca plantations there increased by 51 percent since 2014, from 10,626 to 16,030 hectares.

Causes of deforestation

According to the latest annual report from SMBYC’s parent institution, the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), deforestation in Colombia increased by 16 percent between the years 2013 and 2014. “In the country, there are several factors causing deforestation including illegal mining, the conversion of agricultural areas, forest fires, development of infrastructure projects and illicit crop plantation,” Ederson Cabrera Montenegro, SMBYC’s coordinator, told Mongabay.

For the researcher, the increase in deforestation is directly related to the advance of illicit crops, illegal mining, and new infrastructure.

Ongoing threat to protected natural areas

According to the United Nations’ Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System (SIMCI), data obtained by satellite images show a major increase in deforestation inside several of the country’s 59 protected areas designated as “national natural parks”. “[I]n 2015, 16 of them were affected by the presence of cocaine. The area with coca plantations in national parks represents 0.04% of the total protected area in the country and 6.5% of the total cultivated with coca in 2015,” states the UNODC report.

Deforestation in Nukak National Natural Park in Guaviare and Vaupés departments. Photo courtesy of SIMCI / UNODC

Elsy Morales, adviser to the Directorate-General of the country’s national parks agency, National Natural Parks of Colombia (PNN), explained to Mongabay that the increase in illicit coca crops in the parks is due to “the occupation of settlers, who do not earn an income [and for that reason] find the parks attractive.”

That is why peasants have continued to colonize parks and how this phenomenon has generated a 13 percent increase in the crops at the coca plantation areas registered in 2015 compared to the previous year, from 5,480 to 6,214 hectares according to the recently published Monitoring Report on Affected Territories by Illicit Crops report, published by the UNODC.

According to the UNODC report, “58% of the area under coca is concentrated in just two parks, Sierra de la Macarena and Nukak.” However, the largest increases were recorded in Paramillo park in Cordoba and Catatumbo-Bari park in Norte de Santander. In the latter, the presence of multiple illegal armed groups, the park’s location along the border with Venezuela, and the vulnerability of communities have created the conditions for the development of illegal coca cultivation, according to the report.

Sierra de la Macarena National Natural Park in Meta Department. Photo courtesy SIMCI / UNODC

The impact of coca plantations in the forest

 The coca leaf crops are ravaging important areas of Colombia’s forests, including biodiversity hotspots such as the Colombian Pacific coast. Forty-two percent of all coca plantations in the country are concentrated in such areas, according to the UNODC report, implying an increase in the pollution of soil, water, and air there.

In a span of 15 years, between 1998 and 2012, 608,000 hectares of forest in Colombia were replaced by coca crops. This deforestation slowed the capture of 6 million tons of carbon dioxide and the generation of 5.5 million tons of oxygen, according to a report titled “Coca, pollution and poverty” published by the Anti-Narcotics Division of the Colombian National Police.

This investigation established the daily loss of forest area in the last fourteen years: “111 hectares of forest is lost each day, corresponding to invaluable [seed] banks destined for the implementation of coca crops; in addition to numerous habitats of mammals, fish, and insects.” It also lamented the impact of deforestation on the ecosystem services generated by the country’s forests.

In regions such as the Orinoco and the Amazon, some areas have been devastated by illegal coca and then abandoned. Some time later, these areas have shifted to livestock production, leading to the “savannization” – the process by which savanna replaces degraded tropical forest — of tracts of land that once had forests, such as the Sierra de la Macarena National Natural Park. “Within the National Natural Park, just one patch — what Colombians call a deforested area — can span more than 10,000 hectares,” said IDEAM’s Cabrera. He added that this represents a real threat to Sierra de la Macarena’s conservation.

Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) in Sierra de la Macarena National Natural Park. Photo courtesy of the Tourism Institute of Meta


Fifty-eight percent of the area of is concentrated in just two parks, Sierra de la Macarena and Nukak. Photo courtesy of SIMCI / UNODC

The peasants in the illicit business

Puerto Rico is one of the municipalities in Meta department with the most hectares planted with coca. In 21 villages there, more than 1,000 hectares are cultivated, including inside the Sierra de la Macarena National Nature Park.

Peasant farm collectives grow coca because it often is the only way for them to survive, even if they recognize the damage it causes in the protected area. Considering that the area is not easily accessible, it is much more profitable to grow coca than other products.

Luis Galvis, a member of the Agro Güejar and Cafre peasant farm collective in Puerto Rico, told Mongabay that the group would like to move away from coca, but needs some time to transition.

Members prefer “a gradual and concerted crop substitution to give time for productive projects to replace the cultivation of coca,” Galvis said. “Peasants do not want to live off coca because we know that it is illegal, but we want to reach an agreement with the government.”

For three years, PNN has been developing a strategy with settlers and other communities located in the parks via a local and a national round table dedicated to addressing deforestation drivers such as selective logging, ranching, and the cultivation of illegal coca.

However, in the midst of signing the peace agreement, farmers in Puerto Rico knew they must shift to other activities and are waiting for the government’s proposals. Until that happens, they are working in rural areas waiting for a better opportunity that allows them to halt deforestation of the country’s protected areas.

Areas newly deforested by illegal coca cultivation in the Paramillo National Natural Park in Córdoba department. Photo courtesy of SIMCI / UNODC
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