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Open destruction in the Colombian Amazon after FARC’s exit

  • In 2015, 24,142 hectares of forest were lost, which is almost 20 percent of Colombia’s total forested area in that year.
  • The main driving forces of the deforestation are the expansion of the agricultural industry to make room for cattle, along with the commercialization of wood, illicit crops, and illegal mining, according to General Parra.

CAQUETÁ DEPARTMENT, Colombia — The Amazon is one of the first victims of peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As predicted, the process of disarmament has caused the disappearance of hundreds of hectares of forest in the area where the anti-government guerrilla group historically practiced environmental “authority.” In La Novia, a town in the San Vicente del Caguán area, residents know very well what that entails.

Jorge Suárez*, a farm manager from the region who is accustomed to passing through the area, estimates that at least 4,000 hectares of primary forest have been cut down since last October. “The system that they have is simple: the people enter, mark out a plot of 200 hectares, and start to knock down [trees]. There are people who have gone into the jungle six hours past the limit they’ve established in order to open up new lands,” says Suárez.

Jorge Suárez, a farm manager from the area, estimates that between November and January at least 4,000 hectares of forest have been cut down. The army, however, says that the number is 1,200. In April, the official numbers will be known. Photo by Jorge Suárez.

La Novia belongs to the municipality of Campohermoso, a vast jungle located in the eastern side of San Vicente del Caguán, which serves as a buffer zone and an entrance point into Chiribiquete National Natural Park, Colombia’s conservation “gem” that it can show off to the world. In January 2017, the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) put out 29 early alerts for deforestation in Campohermoso.

Satellite maps of the area show that between November 2016 and January 2017, at least three deforested areas have opened up inside the jungle in this part of the country. On the ground, Suárez confirms what can be seen in the images: “Here the people allocate the land by name, because a person can say: ‘these 200 hectares for me, these for my child, these for my spouse,’ and so on.”

Mario Barón, director of the corporation Corpoamazonia in Colombia’s Caquetá Department, recognizes that in this part of San Vicente del Caguán, the FARC’s entrance has facilitated the indiscriminate tree cutting “in areas that used to be restricted for them.” He clarifies, however, that deforestation is a chronic problem in Caquetá Department. In 2015, 24,142 hectares of forest were lost, which is almost 20 percent of the country’s total forested area in that year. The difference is that before, the destruction was largely because of the armed coercion of the FARC.

Forest damage in the town of La Novia, a vast jungle to the east of San Vicente del Caguán, in the Caquetá Department. Photo by Jorge Suárez.

“When the [FARC] was here, they managed to take care of 20 percent of all the ranches and keep them within the mountains, and there was a law passed by the FARC that permitted them to cut down a maximum of five hectares. The people who didn’t comply were sanctioned, but now, because there isn’t any control over these areas, more places are ending up with the 20 percent,” explains Suárez.

The process of demobilizing the guerrilla group brought with it the dissolution of control that they exercised in those territories. And before the late arrival of the state to occupy those spaces of authority, the people took leadership into their own hands. Despite it not being a secret to anyone that one of the principal environmental challenges post-conflict would be to immediately fill the positions of power left by the FARC, the state’s response was only made on December 13, 2016. That day, “the bubble against deforestation” was formed in Caquetá Department. It is an alliance between the government, the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Corpoamazonia, National Parks, the Office of the Inspector General of Colombia, and the Armed Forces that was designed to confront this phenomenon.

After cutting down hundreds of trees, workers start fires to more easily clean the land and prepare it to grow crops. Photo by Jorge Suárez.

The strategy is being coordinated by General César Parra, Commander of the Tenth Second Brigade of the Army and has involved many days of training for the Armed Forces and the communities about the importance of preventing deforestation. “It has been complicated because we were prepared for other things, and we had to learn about wood and wild animals in order to confiscate them from the operations,” says Parra.

With the information from the IDEAM early alerts, the Colombian Air Force has conducted flyovers in San Vicente del Caguán, and has discovered the loss of at least 1,200 hectares of forest. However, this is an estimate. Only when the IDEAM submits its formal report about the rate of deforestation will we know the actual magnitude of the destruction.

According to General Parra, the main driving forces of the deforestation are the expansion of the agricultural industry to make room for cattle, along with the commercialization of wood, illicit crops, and illegal mining. Since it sprang into action, “the Bubble against Deforestation” has been able to confiscate 193,689 cubic meters of cut wood and 127 packages of charcoal, as well as the capture of a person and the destruction of five water pumps.

All in all, the authorities are conscious of the fact that behind deforestation lies a complex social problem. Even if there are mafias and powerful actors who are propelling the cutting of trees to make money, in areas like La Novia, there are many people without land who are not prepared to wait for the promise of an uncertain nation.

Two illegal loggers clear a path in order to pass through using a jungle vehicle. Photo by Jorge Suárez.

According to Suárez, the popular voice is that of large farmers who hire groups of people and tell them to “mark about 200 or 300 hectares, cut down ten or 20, and work them. We’ll pay you $10,000 for that, but when the government legalizes the land, come back and pass it to us.”

The other method, he explains, is that of the people who have never had land and who see this situation as a possible way to obtain some. “There are people who tell me: ‘we don’t want to do this, but if the government doesn’t give us a project in which we can locate ourselves differently or have a different way of life than to always be journeying, it makes us have to keep going in this direction, cutting down the forests.’”

General Parra claims that they are working on identifying the people who promote deforestation in Caquetá Department, and that in the coming days they will have concrete results to that respect. However, he says that there are also “cultural factors” that explain the problem and that because of this, “there have to be projects and investments brought into the communities so that they don’t have to do this out of necessity.”

The director of Corpoamazonia agrees with Parra’s explanation, and he hopes that with the Amazon Vision plan the current government outlined to eliminate the deforestation in the region, resources will arrive in order to deal with the phenomenon in a comprehensive way. Suárez thinks that it’s important to be patient and see what happens with the peacemaking process. “Just as we’ve waited our whole lives, we’ll wait a little more,” he says to his neighbors. Will the country be able to avoid another announced tragedy?

Note: *Name changed for security reasons.

This article was a collaboration between Mongabay Latam and Semana Sostenible of Colombia.

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