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One cow per hectare: deforestation in Colombia after FARC’s exit

A cow in Colombia's Valle de Cocora National Park. Photo by Tim Snell via Flickr.

A cow in Colombia's Valle de Cocora National Park. Photo by Tim Snell via Flickr.

  • Caquetá was one of the epicenters of the war against FARC. The exit of FARC, at the end of last year, coincided with an increase in deforestation in the region.
  • In 2015, only 7,000 hectares were destined for coca crops in Caquetá, and more than 1.5 million for livestock.
  • To combat deforestation, the government – with the collaboration of other environmental entities – formed the programs “bubble against deforestation” (‘Burbuja contra la deforestación’ in Spanish) and ‘Visión Amazonia.’
  • Experts fear that without additional investment, deforestation will be allowed to continue unchecked.

(This article is a collaboration between Mongabay-Latam and Colombia’s Semana Sostenible)

One cow per hectare. This equivalence summarizes Caquetá’s cattle ranching model, but at the same time defines the dynamics of the destruction of the Amazon in southern Colombia.

Rafael Orjuela is a communal leader who lives in Remolinos del Caguán, a village located eight hours by river from the capital of Cartagena del Chairá, a municipality that, according to 2015 official figures, was first among in deforested areas of Colombia. Of the 23,812 hectares of forest cleared in Caquetá —20 percent of the total deforested in Colombia— 10,822 were lost mainly due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier.

“Here in Remolinos, all the problems started with coca,” Orjuela said. He arrived at Remolinos del Caguán in the early eighties and recalls that the guerrillas — who at the time ruled the forests that connect the eastern cordillera with the Amazonian savannas — told everyone that coca crops were drastically decreasing, so they had to clear more land.

Rafael Orjuela is a communal leader at Remolinos del Caguán, a village of Cartagena del Chairá, Colombia’s most deforested municipality in 2015. Photo by Diana Rey Melo / Revista Semana

According to Orjuela, that premonition was fulfilled in 2004 when aerial fumigations with glyphosate herbicide wilted the last coca leaves in Remolinos del Caguán “and so, people began to raise cattle for survival.” In 2015, only 7,000 hectares were destined for coca crops in Caquetá, while for livestock more than 1.5 million.

Luis Francisco Vargas, mayor of Cartagena del Chairá, confirmed Orjuela’s version of events.

“People cultivated coca and when they sold it, the first thing they did was clear 50 hectares of forest so they would prepare for when there was no more coca left,” Vargas said. “This is how it worked: plant coca, clear land and when there is no more left, we were already prepared.”

But since then, the border has continued to grow.

Mario Barón, director of Corpoamazonia, explained that those lands are suitable for forestry; instead, they are being used for agriculture. That, added to the fact that there has never been public investment in these areas, has made livestock production a necessary economic activity, although a not very profitable one.

According to experts, to make money there is a necessary to own many cows, which can only be achieved at the expense of the forest as cows occupy a lot of space.

People believe it’s necessary to have a cow per hectare for profitable business. Photo by Diana Rey Melo / Revista Semana

“Since there are no refrigerators, most of the milk is turned into cheese,” Orjuela said. “To produce 11.5 kg of cheese, it takes 100 liters and is worth approximately $20. But a cow in this region produces on average of only three liters, and to be productive, you have to give a cow one hectare. So now calculate how many cows and how much land you would need to have to make a decent living out of this business.”

Aside from this, deforestation in Caquetá cannot be understood without taking into consideration the cultural factor associated with the inexhaustible sense of abundance experienced by those who live on the border of an immense rainforest like the one in the Amazon.

“People always saw these lands as an opportunity to clear the mountains, open paddocks and lay pastures for cattle,” Vargas said.

Luis Francisco Vargas is the mayor of Cartagena del Chairá. Photo by Diana Rey Melo / Revista Semana

The problem changes hands

Although deforestation in Caquetá has been a long-term problem, just late last year the Colombian government decided to prioritize deforestation control plans. This region was one of the epicenters of the war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). An area of 42,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles) was freed from the state presence during the failed peace process lead by former president Andrés Pastrana Arango. In consequence, a large percentage of their territories were under the control of guerrillas until the end of last year.

During those years the destruction of forests was constant, but paradoxically FARC exercised an environmental authority that prevented further damage. Orjuela noted that, “In times of the guerrilla, at the initiative of the communities, we created a manual of coexistence that had 16 environmental norms; for example, we prohibited the clearing of river banks when they wanted to enter the reserve areas that we had instituted.”

Vargas said that the manual stated that every owner had the right to clear up to 50 percent of forest for pasture, 25 percent was used to harvest wood and hunting, and the remaining 25 percent could be progressively used to grow crops for daily consumption of families.

The exit of FARC at the end of last year coincided with an increase in deforestation in the region. Official figures are not yet known, but leaders in the region estimate that thousands of hectares were lost in three months. Photo courtesy of the Air Force.
Rafael Orjuela estimates 20,000 hectares of forest were cleared only in Cartagena del Chairá after FARC’s departure. Photo courtesy of the Air Force

As reported by Mongabay-Latam two months ago, the concentration of guerrillas in the disarmament zones at the end of last year coincided with increased deforestation in Caquetá. Official deforestation figures will not be known until the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (also known by its acronym in Spanish, IDEAM) presents the 2016 report in mid-2017. Meanwhile, Rafael Orjuela estimates there are 20,000 hectares of forest cleared only in Cartagena del Chairá after FARC’s departure.

There has been a similar situation in San Vicente del Caguán (Caquetá), the most deforested municipality in 2014 and the second in 2015. Nicolás Velásquez, president of the Action Board of Paraísos del Yarí, said that after FARC’s departure from the region many people opted to invade a reserve area that was protected from deforestation for years.

Velásquez explained that there are many reasons why the reserve was invaded.

“This is a mishmash of people who have land and who have taken advantage to expand the border, but also of poor people who have always been day laborers, butlers or women who are household heads who really need it,” Velásquez said. “Likewise, we have known of landowners with money coming from other municipalities to sponsor massive clearings of 100 and 200 hectares to appropriate the land and sell them later.”

Nicolás Velásquez is the leader of Paraísos del Yarí, a village in San Vicente del Caguán, the most deforested municipality in 2014 and the second in 2015. Photo by Diana Rey Melo / Revista Semana

Given the magnitude of the phenomenon, the first response of the government was to form the “bubble against deforestation” (‘Burbuja contra la deforestación’ in Spanish), an inter-institutional strategy led by the government of Caquetá, where the military forces, police, public prosecutor, Ministry of Environment and Corpoamazonia participate. According to Álvaro Pacheco, mayor of Caquetá, since its creation last December, 47 people have been captured for crimes against the environment. And although everyone is now free, “People are seeing that we are acting and we will continue to do so.”

General César Parra, commander of the army’s 12 Brigade (with jurisdiction in Caquetá), says that the “bubble against deforestation” has also made it possible to carry out aerial reconnaissance of particular sites, reach isolated areas to put out fires, the training of 1,600 men of the armed forces in matters of environmental control, and the delivery of more than 100,000 flyers. Also, community radio stations are informing the public about crimes against the environment and the penal sanctions that exist.

Álvaro Pacheco, the mayor of Caqueta, has been leading the “Bubble against deforestation” since December of last year, an inter-institutional strategy to assume authority in the region and face the deforestation after FARC left. Photo by Diana Rey Melo / Revista Semana
Deforested land in Caquetá. Photo by Revista Semana

These measures of territorial control seek to attack a part of the problem, which according to Pacheco originates with “some people taking advantage of the situation and taking land from our mountains and selling them with some kind of private document.” The contribution of extensive cattle ranching in the disappearance of forests shows that deforestation is a social and cultural problem in Caquetá.

That is why the government’s second option for tackling deforestation is a structural solution called Visión Amazonia. It is a program of the Ministry of Environment financed with international resources to contribute to the mitigation of climate change through the protection of Amazonian ecosystems. In the words of its coordinator, José Yunis, “it all revolves in the sense that this region should be prosperous and competitive but respectful of the forest, without clearing forests to put half a cow per hectare.”

During Visión Amazonia’s roundtable meetings in Remolinos del Caguán, which started in January, environmental engineers Ariadna Polo and Fanny Otaya were able to learn the complex relationship of these communities with the forest. Polo and Otaya are the first state officials, aside from military personnel, who have reached these areas in half a century. Due to that long abandonment, they had to face the distrust and skepticism of community members.

“We showed people IDEAM’s deforestation maps and they were not surprised,” Polo said. “They are aware that they are getting rid of the forests, but they always tell us that they have needs and ask us about the solutions offered by the government?”

In 2015, only 7,000 hectares were destined for coca plantations in Caquetá, while for livestock more than 1,5 million. Photo by Diana Rey Melo / Revista Semana

Many, however, were skeptical when Polo and Otaya explained that the idea is to establish agroforestry projects to take advantage of forest products and not only depend on livestock production.

“People know that it is wrong to cut down trees, but they also have no idea how they can gain profit from them,” Otaya said. “That’s why they always insist that the only solution is with cattle ranching because the mountain has no value, it does not provide us with food.”

However, both agree that the population is willing to change their way of thinking, but it is necessary that they see the investments in the territory.

“Until recently, we were worried about deforestation. In this region, there was never a clear policy of land use and that is what we are trying to change in this administration,” Vargas said. Although according to their figures, 80 percent of the municipality’s economy depends on livestock, they have established mechanisms so that the incentive of the activity does not mean the expansion of the agricultural frontier.

“We set up a credit system for small producers in which the mayor’s office signs the guarantee before the bank, in exchange for the owner’s commitment not to deforest. In addition, the municipal council has approved an agreement to make discounts on the property tax according to the percentage of natural forests that the person has and keep on his farm,” continued the mayor.

Besides that, the president agrees with the Visión Amazonia’s proposals on the sustainable use of the forest and says that he is ready to implement it in Cartagena del Chairá. “I tell the producers that I only see money when it’s for the environment and that is why they have to prepare to change how they manage their farms.”

“I’m going to sit down with all the environmental institutions to ensure that the money materializes in benefits for the people. For example, we need to give peasants açaí palms so that they learn to take advantage of those seeds; they need to raise chickens and have an Amazonian farm so they can eat and not have to cut down the trees,” Vargas explained.

The biggest cause of deforestation is cattle ranching. Photo by Diana Rey Melo / Revista Semana

The government’s turn

Beyond the area lost during the transition of power between FARC and the State of Caquetá, it should be noted that for the first time deforestation occupies a prominent place in the agenda of both national and local institutions. The change has not been easy. To understand this, we must take into consideration that in just six months the fight against deforestation became more urgent than that fight against FARC for the army commanded by General Parra in Caquetá.

“It’s a problem that comes from a while ago, and so far we’re giving it the importance it deserves. The concern for deforestation is going to become a state policy that requires the participation of all institutions,” General Parra stated.

As the director of Corpoamazonia, Mario Barón says that things are changing. “For a long time we were the only entity working in such a big problem,” Barón said. “We are now working with all the responsible entities and with the people to put a stop to the destruction of the forests.”

Mario Barón is the director of Corpoamazonia in Caquetá. He says it is the first time in history that other entities are working alongside him in the fight against deforestation. Photo by Diana Rey Melo / Revista Semana

The results remain to be seen. According to José Yunis, the coordinator of Visión Amazonia, this year they will invest 24 million dollars in the first agroforestry projects in Caquetá and Guaviare.

Meanwhile, there is distrust, expectation and urgency in the communities.

For Rafael Orjuela the relations between the communal leaders and the government hang on a thread because they are the ones who are convincing the population that it is necessary to give an opportunity to the process. “Most people tell me that if by the end of the year, when the summer comes, they have not started the projects, they are going to start clearing the forest again.”

People warned Corpoamazonía’s engineers of something similar.

“People have been very receptive to our message, but they always tell us that if investments do not arrive soon, it will be the end of it and they will continue to deforest,” said Polo.

The fight against deforestation has become the ultimate test for the government and the experts who have developed the strategy are aware of it. Fanny Otaya believes that if the Visión Amazonia program is well-executed, it may be “a historic opportunity for the state to regain the trust of these forgotten populations.”

Banner image: A cow in Colombia’s Valle de Cocora National Park. Photo by Tim Snell via Flickr.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on May 2, 2017.

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