Conservation news

Colombia expands indigenous reserves near key deforestation hotspot

  • The Puerto Sabalo – Los Monos and Monochoa indigenous reserves are both located in the province of Caquetá, which has the highest rate of forest loss in Colombia.
  • The expansion of the two reserves connects Chiribiquete with Predio Putumayo, the country’s largest indigenous reserve, creating a conservation corridor slightly larger than the entire country of Honduras.
  • A recent report by the Mapping the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) shows that cattle ranching and agricultural development have opened a new deforestation hotspot in Caquetá province’s Amazon rainforests — and that deforestation is expanding towards Chiribiquete National Park.

The Colombian government announced yesterday the expansion of two indigenous reserves in the buffer zone of Serrania de Chiribiquete, the South American country’s largest national park.

The Puerto Sabalo – Los Monos and Monochoa indigenous reserves are both located in the province of Caquetá, which has the highest rate of forest loss in Colombia. Puerto Sabalo – Los Monos will be expanded from 211,480 to 624,580 hectares (522,578 to 1.54 million acres), while Monochoa will increase from 263,093 to 417,883 hectares (650,116 to a little over one million acres).

The expansion of the two reserves connects Chiribiquete with Predio Putumayo, the country’s largest indigenous reserve, creating a conservation corridor slightly larger than the entire country of Honduras.

The move is part of the Colombian government’s overall strategy of adaptation to climate change, per the announcement. The creation of connectivity corridors between protected areas and indigenous territories will also allow for the movement of wildlife and the healthy functioning of ecosystems. “In addition, it specifies the titling of lands to indigenous communities as one of the most important strategies to reduce deforestation, forest degradation and ensure the protection of their fundamental rights,” the announcement states (translated from Spanish).

“The expansion of these two areas adds a large area of pristine rain forest — over half million hectares, for protection and management by indigenous peoples, and fulfills a peace process commitment by President Santos,” Enrique Ortiz, program director for the Washington, D.C.-based Andes Amazon Fund, told Mongabay. “The expansion area is contiguous to a rapidly changing part of Colombia, and closes a gap between previously existing indigenous lands and protected areas, forming a strategic connectivity corridor, perhaps one of the largest in the Amazon. It also protects uncontacted indigenous people, a highly important human rights responsibility for Colombia.”

According to Virginia-based NGO the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), which worked with the government of Colombia and local communities to create the conservation corridor, expansion of the reserves will empower the indigenous peoples of the region, the Murui Muina (Witoto), “composed of more than 40 clans that survived the atrocities of the rubber boom,” while also safeguarding the rights of isolated indigenous tribes that are currently threatened by deforestation and other impacts of development in the region.

Map courtesy of the Amazon Conservation Team.

“In Colombia, the annual deforestation rates inside tenure-secure indigenous forestlands were 2 times lower than those on similar land without security,” ACT noted in a statement issued in response to the expansion of the reserves.

A recent report by the Mapping the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) shows that cattle ranching and agricultural development have opened a new deforestation hotspot in Caquetá province’s Amazon rainforests. MAAP director Matt Finer told Mongabay that this deforestation hotspot is expanding deeper into primary forest, towards Chiribiquete National Park.

“The deforestation data indicates settlement patterns expanding outward from the Caguán River into more remote and intact areas, including those closer to Chiribiquete National Park,” the report states. “High-resolution imagery from 2017 shows extensive deforestation since 2011. The major cause of deforestation appears to be gradually expanding cattle ranching and agricultural plots.”

This map of 2001-2015 tree cover loss shows how the area MAAP zooms in on was intact forest landscape (IFL) in 2000. The area shown lost about 3,500 ha of IFL tree cover (2001-2015); MAAP’s analysis shows conversion is encroaching further into surrounding IFLs.

The Colombian Amazon covers approximately 119 million acres, just over six percent of the total Amazon biome, much of which has remained intact in large part due to the civil conflict that has been waged in the country since the 1960s. According to the MAAP report, Colombia already has an extensive system of protected areas and indigenous reserves, as well, covering nearly three-fourths of the Colombian Amazon.

But now that the Colombian conflict is coming to an end, deforestation is on the rise. “In the Colombian Amazon alone, an estimated 70,000 hectares were deforested in 2016, an almost 25% percentage increase from 2015,” ACT’s Isidoro Hazbun told Mongabay in an email. “This is a region that has received significant development investments in recent years for cattle ranching and cash crop enterprises, which require large areas of land and are water-intensive, as well as for infrastructure, such as the $1 billion USD Marginal de la Selva highway project.”

Hazbun adds that the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has shown a commitment to protecting Colombia’s forests, as exemplified by its pledges, made as part of the Paris Climate Agreement, to achieve zero net deforestation in the Amazon by 2020 and reduce emissions 20 percent below business-as-usual projections by 2030.

Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom have collectively supplied $300 million to help Colombia reach its ambitious goals to halt deforestation. “For the first time in history, three donor countries joined hands with a large tropical forest country to provide funding based on verified emission reductions from deforestation,” Hazbun said.

Despite these efforts, Hazbun notes that there is every indication that Colombia’s deforestation targets will not be met. “That being said, transparent publication of deforestation figures demonstrates not only the willingness of the Colombian government to confront the issue, but also that national monitoring systems are functioning,” he said. “Today decision-makers and the public at large understand the magnitude of the challenge, something that previously was unclear to most. At present, Colombia is at a crucial historical turning point, where if it perpetuates unsustainable conceptions of national development, it will suffer great losses to its natural heritage.”

The Andes Amazon Fund’s Ortiz said that he is hopeful that the newly expanded conservation corridor in Caquetá province will help slow the rate of forest destruction. “I do firmly believe this indigenous reserve expansion is a great move towards ensuring otherwise imminent degradation of forests, as can be observed in other areas further to the northwest,” he said. “These newly added areas will prevent new land use concessions. Their inhabitants and institutions will need further support to repel or discourage invasions and unsustainable land use activities.”

Map courtesy of MAAP.

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