“We know that the farmers aren’t doing this because they don’t have the resources to pay for the labor that this implies,” said Mayra Manchola, an environmental expert from the San Vicente del Caguán municipality in Caquetá, which is the most deforested department in the country. “They are paying between [$175 and $350] per hectare. The disagreements of the FARC gave them the green light to deforest, and the landowners are taking advantage of this.”

Manchola’s statements are corroborated by scientist Rodrigo Botero, the director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), who also directed the territorial office of national parks in the Amazon for 10 years.

He claims that a month ago, the individuals from the FARC who did not demobilize after the signing of the peace agreement told him that they were going to continue to parcel and distribute the land in the area of the Tinigua and La Macarena national parks. “Once again, an illegal armed person is the one who is distributing the land; that is the ineffectiveness of this government. There is no office of records; there is no land registry, and nobody recovers anything,” Botero said.

What has been done (and what has not)

Although this phenomenon was foreseeable even before the signing of the peace agreement with the FARC, which dominated the region for decades and imposed guidelines that made the exploitation of Amazonian environmental resources more costly, the sources consulted by Mongabay Latam claim that the government did not sufficiently prepare itself to confront the issue.

The peace agreement also included measures such as the formalization of seven million hectares (about 17.3 million acres) of land, which increased the prospects of land titling, including in protected forests, and has become an incentive to hoard land in the Amazon.

Even so, there is currently no detailed strategy against land hoarding, nor against deforestation in general, according to Valentina Rozo, a researcher from the nonprofit organization Dejusticia. Rozo is also an activist for the rights of the Amazon.

Botero agrees, saying that “deforestation is one thing, and land hoarding is another thing. Land hoarding is a very complicated thing because it means land recuperation.”

The government’s actions have focused on the union and the coordination of the entities that are responsible for controlling deforestation. Within the past year, they created the Intersectoral Commission against Deforestation, which includes representatives from the ministries of the environment, defense, mining, transportation, agriculture, and the High Commissioner for Post-Conflict.

There, officials share information and design strategies to combat deforestation. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of the Environment agreed to define the country’s agricultural border in a written document as, “The limit of rural land that separates the areas where agricultural activities are permitted, protected areas, areas of special ecological importance, and areas where agricultural activities are not allowed by law.”

This designation is crucial because it will allow adequate use of the land to define new land use regulations. The document was announced in October 2017, and on June 2018 it was signed into law by the government. The border includes 40,075,960 hectares (99 million acres), of which 7.6 million hectares (18.7 million acres) are suitable for agriculture.

“One would hope that from that [border] line inward, the landowners would have incentives such as formalization and that those from outside are beginning to be supervised. Or are we going to wait for someone else to define those regulations?” asks Botero, referring to the landowners and armed groups who are causing land hoarding.

Although the government has worked for 18 months on defining these strategies, the entities continue to work separately, according to Wendy Arenas, the senior adviser to the High Commissioner for Post-Conflict. On May 15, Arenas and others from the government, civil society, and Dejusticia met for their first workshop to discuss the supreme court’s ruling regarding the Amazon.

“The problem is that the environmental sector has worked in isolation, and although there has been lots of talk about having an integrated vision, the work keeps being done in sectors,” Arenas said.

From the national scale to the local scale

According to the entities that participated in the workshop, the goal of which was to identify the “bottlenecks” to confront the deforestation in the Amazon, the lack of coordination is evident in the strategies having to do with controlling and monitoring deforestation, where the Ministry of Defense plays a key role. The district attorney is in charge of investigating criminal behavior associated with deforestation, such as land hoarding.

The government created a subcommittee on security, where these entities coordinate their actions to combat the criminal networks that are inciting the cutting and burning of forests in order to hoard land. However, their results have been modest. The district attorney created a thematic concept for environmental crimes, including deforestation, but up to this point, there are only five prosecutors available in the entire country to attend to these cases.

At the local level, people complain that this staff shortage has an impact on the limited success of the operations performed under the “environmental bubbles” scheme, which is the most visible anti-deforestation strategy in the country and began in the department of Caquetá. That strategy involves weekly meetings at which officials from the ministries of defense and of the environment (led by Colombia’s Regional Autonomous Corporations, or CARs) and local authorities, including mayors and the governor, share and analyze information so that they can later plan operations to react immediately in the event of deforestation.

Since the “environmental bubbles” scheme was implemented in December 2016, the Colombian army has captured 110 people violating the anti-deforestation policy, but due to the staff shortage, none of them are imprisoned. “The environmental authority is in a ridiculous situation. How are you going to demand that they comply with regulations if the sanctions are not imposed? It is a waste of effort,” says environmental expert Manchola.

Additionally, mayors like Humberto Sánchez of San Vicente del Caguán, the most deforested municipality in Colombia, claim that the “environmental bubbles” strategy has been ineffective. He even says that he stopped attending the meetings because “They’re like a ‘friend club’ that sits to drink coffee and talk about the problems that we already know about, as if [the meetings] have to be done just because something has to be done.”

According to Ederson Cabrera, the leader of the deforestation monitoring team within IDEAM, this shows that it has been difficult to generate an impact at the local level.

“The process of creating an institutional presence in the area is slow. Where there are armed conflicts or social conflicts is where the forest is, and for many years, these areas have been isolated, without the presence of the state,” Cabrera said.

The responsibility of controlling and monitoring the issue is still in the hands of environmental authorities, such as Colombia’s CARs and the National Natural Park System, which are insufficient at the operational, technical, and budgetary levels to confront those who promote deforestation and land hoarding.

For example, the Autonomous Corporation of Guaviare, a Colombian department made up of 20,640 square miles, was operating with only 11 officials until December 2017. In 2018, thanks to resources from the Amazon Vision program, the corporation was able to hire an additional 21 officials. The team has since received threats from members of the FARC, which has prevented them from taking action without being accompanied by the army. The Amazon Vision program, with the help of funding from the governments of Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom, has the goal of eliminating the deforestation in this region by 2020.

Late last year, 11 people from the Autonomous Corporation of Guaviare were completing a training session on the Caño Flor path, in the municipality of Miraflores, when they were detained for one night by men associated with the alias “Gentil Duarte.” Although they were released the following day, thanks to the intervention of the local population, the FARC members who detained them requested to talk to the director of Autonomous Corporation of Guaviare. This year, a pamphlet circulated in the northern part of the Guaviare department and the southern part of the Meta department that declared the environmental authorities a military objective.

“After the court ruling, we have had more attention from the armed forces, but before that, we spent a long time asking for accompaniment. I can not send my people without accompaniment to do operations or technical concepts because they would kill me,” says César Meléndez, the regional director of the Autonomous Corporation of Guaviare.

The Ministry of Defense claims that, in coordination with the Ministry of the Environment, it is the sector that has most propelled the fight against deforestation, but that they also have to prioritize other challenges.

According to Aníbal Fernández de Soto, the vice minister of the Ministry of the Interior, some of those other challenges include combating the members of the FARC and the members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, as well as the situation on the country’s borders, which “will eventually result in environmental impacts.”

“It needs to be understood that we started from zero, and now we have a monitoring mechanism (the Intersectoral Commission against Deforestation and the “environmental bubbles”); we are pursuing concrete cases, and the problem is more mapped,” Fernández de Soto added. “There is more clarity and more awareness. There are results, but this is a process.”

Actions taken too late

Despite all these obstacles, CARs such as that of Guaviare are taking action to place sanctions upon those who contribute to deforestation. They have already demanded between $140,000 and $175,000 in fines, depending on the exact number of hectares that have been deforested.

However, the director of the Autonomous Corporation of Guaviare, recognizes that the collection of those fines will be complicated because, “The people will not want to pay voluntarily, so instead, we will have to make coercive collections.” In other words, they must follow up on the properties that illegal loggers have possession of to later seize them, auction them off, and sell them, thus being able to collect the fines. This is a tedious and slow legal process that does not directly attack the land hoarding problem.

“We should not have dumped the land hoarding problem on the weakest sector of the government — the environmental sector — when we were not capable of resolving it, even with a peace agreement. We’ll start with who administers the land and the unowned pieces of land in the nation. No one comes skin-to-skin with the collective estate,” said Botero of the FCDS.

Botero is referring to the National Land Agency, which is Colombia’s ultimate authority in terms of land. The agency carries out social policies for rural property, manages access to land, and administers rural pieces of land owned by the federal government. The agency is also in charge of the National Land Fund, which was created after the peace agreement with the FARC was signed. The National Land Fund hopes to have three million hectares (over 7.4 million acres) of land to give to farmers without enough land, but the government has recognized that the fund is using deforestation as a survival mechanism.

Although one of the ways that the fund acquires land is by taking advantage of the country’s unclaimed pieces of land, which are also the most hoarded pieces of land in the Amazon, many of them cannot be allocated because they are protected by forestry law. Even so, the director of the National Land Agency, Miguel Samper, told Mongabay Latam that the agency has implemented two measures to take action on those pieces of unowned land, thus responding to the growing demand for land in the region.

The first measure is an “unedited and innovative” mechanism, according to Samper, that seeks to give the rights to the use of those lands to people who promise to use them in a sustainable manner. In other words, those people could use certain forest reserves to develop productive projects and access credits and subsidies through contracts.

“We are already working on the configuration and identification of potential creditors of these contracts. Never, since 1959, when the forest reserve law was approved, has anyone thought of an alternative for the farmers who are in those areas of legal insecurity,” Samper said.

The second measure is directed at attacking land hoarding, and seeks to find those who have gained access to these unowned pieces of land and have therefore committed crimes against the environment. Those people are then prohibited from all of the National Land Agency’s programs having to do with access, rights, and the use or formalization of rural property. Additionally, investigations are being carried out against identified land hoarders, and criminal charges will be filed by environmental authorities.

“We are working with community action committees and with the Ministry of the Environment to send a very forceful message: anyone who threatens the environment will not access a single centimeter of land,” Samper said.

Both measures were approved by the governing board of the entity only two and a half months ago. Because of this, whether or not they will be successfully implemented to combat land hoarding will fall under the responsibility of the next administration.

What lies ahead

On June 17, Iván Duque, a member of the “Democratic Center” Colombian political party and supporter of former president Álvaro Uribe, was elected president. Although his administration program does not mention the word “deforestation” nor does it mention the Amazon, he proposes the development of productive activities and conservation to reduce the impacts of climate change.

In terms of Duque’s land proposal, which has to do with land hoarding, he has said that he will guarantee that the land access policy is equitable but “always starting with respect to private property and having good faith.” In other words, his administration will respect the property rights of current landowners, who may have acquired their land through land hoarding.

Even so, in terms of gangs and illegal armed groups, Duque has said that he will take back “all the resources that they have from their illegal activities,” which would be a direct confrontation against the armed groups that hoard land in the Amazon.

Banner image courtesy of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and first published in Spanish on our Latam site on August 2, 2018. It is the final in a three-part series by Mongabay Latam on post-conflict land issues in Colombia. Part one is here and part two is here.

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