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Rebel road expansion brings deforestation to remote Colombian Amazon

  • The 138-kilometer road was carved illegally through rainforest and used by the FARC rebel group to transport coca, from which cocaine is produced.
  • Officials from city governments have begun a project to widen and pave the road, saying it will help communities transport agricultural goods to markets.
  • Conservationists decry the move, citing research finding road expansion opens “a Pandora’s box of environmental evils” that includes land-grabbing, illegal road development and accelerated deforestation.
  • A Colombian governmental agency recently ordered all construction on the road stop until further environmental studies could be performed and greater restrictions applied. However, an official said construction activity has not ceased.

MIRAFLORES, Colombia – “We can’t move like we used to,” said Joaquin Dajada, a twenty-something displaced member of the Nukak indigenous community, the last contacted nomadic group in Colombia. “The colonists won’t let us on their land to hunt or fish. We don’t have enough to eat.”

Anthropologists believe the Nukak community is facing extinction. In addition to diseases introduced by settlers, Dajada explains that the community is threatened by the loss of their “sacred territories” where they used to hunt and fish. Road construction in the region also worries Dajada, who says that building more roads will bring “more invaders looking for land to knock down more forests… it’s the colonists’ fault we are here… they have left us nothing.”

Anthropologists estimate the Nukak originally numbered around 2,000. But by 2012, they had declined to less than 600. Photo by Taran Volckhausen for Mongabay

Members of the nomadic Nukak first emerged from the jungle in 1988, claiming they were chased off their land by encroaching colonists and armed groups. They arrived in Calamar, which is the last stop on a paved road that pushes southeast to the Colombian Amazon department of Guaviare.

However, cutting 138 kilometers deeper into the thick, virgin rainforest from Calamar, there is another unofficial road. This road connects Miraflores, a poverty-stricken rural municipality of around 10,000 settlers and indigenous peoples, to the rest of the country.

Road vs. rainforest

Encouraged by the Colombian peace process promising infrastructure advancement across the country, local citizens and municipal governments of Miraflores and Guaviare have started construction to expand the road to Miraflores. But critics worry this road expansion will result in environmental damage by increasing deforestation along the road.

Depending on whom you ask, the road that connects Miraflores to the rest of the country was illegally built either by rubber workers or by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s oldest and largest rebel group. Until recently, the road was primarily used to transport coca-related shipments to and from Miraflores. Coca is the notorious precursor of cocaine; its dried leaves are also chewed to relieve pain, hunger, thirst and fatigue.

The road, maintained by the FARC to transport coca, was until recently invisible from the air above. Photo credit: CDA

Security conditions along the road remain poor to this day. Earlier this month, a Colombian delegate of the United Nations’ monitoring and verification mission was kidnapped, allegedly by the FARC’s 1st Front dissident group, along the road in the hamlet of Barranquillita after meeting with locals to promote a coca crop substitution program. As of publication, efforts to locate and rescue the delegate have been unsuccessful.

Colombia is currently in the midst of a peace process with the FARC. Praised as the end of the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict, 7,000 members of the FARC have already arrived in 26 transition zones where they are expected to soon lay down their weapons. However, six of the FARC’s approximately 50 units – the 1st Front among them – have rejected the peace process in order to maintain control over criminal operations such as illegal gold mining, coca cultivation and drug trafficking.

The road sits on a somewhat-protected forest reserve located between two highly protected areas: Nukak Natural Reserve and Serrania de Chiribiquete Natural National Park. Alerted to the situation in March 2017 by satellite images and a leaked video that showed local officials touting the benefits of coming road construction, environmental government agency Corporation for Sustainable Development of the North-East Amazon (CDA) ordered all construction on the road to be ceased until further environmental studies could be performed and greater restrictions applied.

Despite the order to halt construction, however, CDA Director César Meléndez said deforestation along the stretch of roadway has not slowed, construction contracts are still pending and expectations for road expansion remain as high as ever.

“They haven’t stopped widening the road, which is being expanded from a small track for mules and four-wheelers into a 40- to 50-meter-wide roadway,” Meléndez said. “More unsettling from an environmental standpoint, however, is that capitalist land speculators, who know development is coming, are buying up land from the local campesinos, cutting down the jungle, and planting pastures.”

Despite an order to halt construction, the road development process continues, according to the CDA. Photo was taken in March by the CDA.

Lax laws in a dangerous place

According to Wilfredo Pachón, local CDA Director in San Jose de Guaviare, much of the clearing of rainforest along the road to Miraflores is happening because the landowners believe “at some point they will be able to formalize their holdings.”

The laws protecting the forest reserve, in Pachon’s opinion, are too flexible; they lack the restrictions necessary to stop landowners from clearing the forest. He said the municipality needs stronger environmental land use laws to establish the end of the agricultural frontier. He even suggested expanding Chiribiquete Natural National Park to protect the forest along the road.

“People who live in the national parks know they can’t have property, because the law doesn’t allow for it,” Pachon said.

Furthermore, he said the area around the road, which is nearly completely controlled by the FARC’s 1st Front , lacks the formal institutional and state security presence necessary to enforce the law and prosecute those violating it.

“The law surrounding forest reserves is more flexible than national parks,” Pachón said. “In the reserve, speculators buy the land informally by going to a notary, making up some public documents and taking possession… however, there is little transparency nor a public registry, which means it’s impossible to open investigations and find out who is clearing the rainforest for financial gain.”

According to Pachón, land cleared for grazing is worth three times more than when it was forested. Furthermore, he said many landowners have paid extortion fees to local armed groups such as the 1st Front, which provide them protection from the area’s de facto authority. This means that even investigating cases of deforestation can be a dangerous endeavor.

Connecting Calamar to Miraflores, the road skirts intact forest landscapes, which are areas of primary forest large and unconnected enough to still retain their original wildlife communities.
Satellite imagery from Planet Labs captured in September 2016 shows a section of the road (indicated by a red rectangle in the map above) surrounded by plots of cleared land.
Imagery from March 2017 indicates more land was deforested in the preceding six months.
Illegal deforestation of a plot of land adjacent to the road. Photo courtesy of CDA

On April 9, the CDA went out on an operative with police and military escort to identify various deforestation focal points in a region of the department known as “Panguana.” On the way back, on a stretch of road between San Jose and Calamar, the caravan was hit by a roadside explosive. No CDA officials were hurt in the attack, but the bomb killed one soldier and wounded four others. Authorities from the military said the attack was likely carried out by dissident members of the FARC rebel group.

Miraflores, the former ‘world capital’ of coca cultivation

The town of Miraflores was established on the banks of the Vaupés River in the 1930s by campesino settlers who came to the area to tap trees for rubber and trap wildlife for fur. In the 1970s, lured by rumors of easy money, settlers began pouring into the municipality to take part in the region’s growing marijuana cultivation industry. Although coca would replace marijuana within a few years, the Amazonian frontier municipality became dependent on an illicit economy that would eventually be overtaken by the FARC and other illegal armed groups.

At one point in the 1990s, coca cultivation became so prevalent in Miraflores that it was declared “the world capital of coca,” according to CDA’s César Meléndez. This prompted the U.S.-backed anti-narcotics Plan Colombia, which relied heavily on aerial spraying of potentially carcinogenic glyphosate herbicides on coca fields, to take aim at Miraflores. While Colombia’s High Court recently ruled the program led to the devastation of local campesino and indigenous communities, it succeeded in pushing coca cultivation out of the region. Today, as a result, there are fewer coca cultivators and residents in the area than there used to be; many of the shops are shuttered, and the majority of the inhabitants live in poverty.

Along with much of the rest of the country, coca cultivation is picking back up in the municipality. Miraflores locals complain there are no viable options for them economically other than coca cultivation, partly because of a lack of reliable transportation infrastructure to bring their agricultural products to market.

 The mayor of Miraflores, Jhonibar Cumbe, argues that the road to Miraflores “already exists” and the municipality has the right to maintain it. He said the roadway becomes necessary during the summer months when the water level lowers in the Vaupes River, making cargo transportation by water impossible.

Photo courtesy of CDA

“This road already exists… it’s part of a multi-modal transportation network that also includes river and air,” Cumbe said in an interview. “Without a good roadway, Miraflores is not going to make it.”

While Cumbe said that Miraflores was only “maintaining” the road directly outside of the municipality and that they didn’t “destroy any trees,” the mayor’s office development plan shows that Miraflores aims to work with the state of Guaviare to “construct, maintain and pave” the entire 150-kilometer roadway leading to the town, as well as the network of roads to hamlets in surrounding municipalities.

Guaviare’s Director of Planning, Hector Solano, also argued that the government in the region has a responsibility to its citizens to improve road networks in order to expand the local economy and address the high costs of bringing agricultural products to market. Agriculture, particularly cattle ranching, has been an increasingly important sector of the local economy in recent years.

“We are an agricultural department, which the countryside [needs] to be productive,” Solano said. “The only way we’re going to pull off rural development in the region is through roadways.”

Roadway expansion means more deforestation

Bill Laurance, a distinguished research professor and Australian Laureate at James Cook University in Australia, has been studying the deforestation effects of road development and infrastructure projects in tropical rainforests for the past 35 years. In his view, building roads in the tropics, while providing undeniable economic benefits, opens “a Pandora’s box of environmental evils” that includes land-grabbing, illegal road development and accelerated deforestation.

According to a 2014 study that Laurance coauthored, 95 percent of all forest destruction in the Amazon occurs within five kilometers of a road. The problem, Laurance and his colleagues wrote, is that one road generally turns into more roads, like the ribs coming off the spine of a fish, causing even greater deforestation over wider swaths of land. As evidence of the heavy impacts roads can have on the rainforest, Laurance points to the 1970s construction of the first paved highway through the Amazon that left behind a “400-kilometer-wide swath of forest destruction today.”

Paving may make things even worse. Laurance referenced a 1992 study examining deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon he conducted that indicated paving roads can induce five times more deforestation than unpaved ones. In the study, highway proximity emerged as the single most important predictor of deforestation, precisely for the same reason the local economy supports them: they promote efficient, year-round access to forested regions.

The sad news is that roads—especially paved roads—are the enemies of forests,” Laurance said. “While we can’t blow up all the roads that have already been built, by far the best thing is not to build them in the first place—at least not if you want to conserve the forest and its wildlife.”

During 2015 the Paris Climate Summit, Colombia reiterated its pledge to bring the Amazon deforestation rate down to zero by 2020. If left unchecked, however, Laurance told Mongabay that expanding the Miraflores road will make Colombia’s pledge to the global community virtually impossible to fulfill.

“The only way to limit deforestation would be for government to closely monitor and control all the illegal logging, deforestation, mining, hunting, land speculation, fires, land grabbing, drug production, and illegal building of secondary roads,” Laurance said. “Controlling activities along the entire paved road would require an incredible sum of government money and effort, and I simply don’t believe that would happen.

“It would be like trying to pay off an enormous debt, and it would have to be paid again and again, every year.”

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