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Deforestation increase dovetails with armed conflict in Colombia, study finds

  • According to the report’s primary author, forested areas in Colombia that are less than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away from illicit crops are most likely areas to be deforested.
  • Deforestation linked to armed conflict and coca cultivation was most prevalent in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, La Macarena, and San Lucas mountains, and in the regions of Tumaco and Catatumbo.
  • All areas impacted in Colombia are those with high biodiversity and conservation value.

Many of the world’s armed conflicts occur in areas with high biodiversity, according to a 2009 study published in Biological Conservation. The study found that more than 80 percent of such conflicts occurred in biodiversity hotspots, yet their impact on flora and fauna have rarely been studied since.

Colombia is home to so many species that it is considered “megadiverse,” and it has also experienced relatively high levels of armed conflict. A new study published in Biological Conservation analyzed the relationship between armed conflict and deforestation in Colombia between 2000 and 2015. The study also involved 17 other related variables, including the distribution of coca crops, the plant from which cocaine is produced.

One of the study’s main conclusions was that “[d]eforestation was positively associated with armed conflict intensity and proximity to illegal coca plantations,” especially in the Colombian Amazon. Higher amounts of deforestation were also associated with proximity to mining concessions, oil wells, and road networks.

These maps published in the study show deforested areas, with red indicating more deforestation than green. Image courtesy of Negret et al., 2019.

The effects of armed conflict

Pablo José Negret, a Colombian biologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, was the lead author of the study. “It has been speculated that there is a relationship between armed conflict and deforestation, but it had never been analyzed statistically. We showed that with more armed conflict comes more deforestation. Additionally, we analyzed coca crops, which had been done before. Researcher Liliana Dávalos has done lots of work with that topic,” Negret told Mongabay.

Rather than ranking which of the 17 variables had the most impact on Colombia’s deforestation, Negret and the other researchers focused on determining the relationship between the variables and the deforestation patterns. The study involved researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute (IAVH) in Colombia.

The 17 variables used in the study included elevation, slope, biotic region, soil erosion, department, population, the number of armed conflicts in the area, and whether the area was part of a national park, indigenous reserve, or Afro-Colombian collective land. The rest of the variables involved measuring the distance to the nearest previously deforested area, navigable river, paved road, unpaved road, coca plantation, mining concession, and exploited oil well.

“For example, we found that forested areas fewer than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away from illicit crops have a higher probability of being deforested than those that are farther away. Additionally, forests fewer than 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from a road have a higher probability of being deforested,” Negret said.

The Colombian Amazon after the land was deforested and set on fire. Image courtesy of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

The study found that when all 17 variables are considered, the deforestation in Colombia is mainly concentrated in the foothills of the Amazon and in the Andes region. However, when only the presence of armed conflict and coca crops is considered, the greatest amounts of deforestation are within the Amazon and some parts of Chocó department. “This makes sense because coca is an illegal crop, so people plant it in areas that are difficult to access, but this ends up affecting well-preserved primary forests,” Negret said.

Martine Maron, a professor from the University of Queensland and co-author of the study, said the relationship between armed conflict and deforestation is complex.

The authors say they hope this study will help generate more efficient and appropriate actions to save the Colombian forests that are at a high risk of disappearing in the short or medium term.

The regions most affected

According to the study, deforestation linked to armed conflict and coca cultivation was most prevalent in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, La Macarena, and San Lucas mountains, and in the regions of Tumaco and Catatumbo. These are “all areas of high biodiversity and conservation importance.”

In regions like La Macarena, where the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) historically had influence and partial control, deforestation has increased since the signing of a peace agreement in 2016 between the rebels and the Colombian government. The authors of the study say this increase is likely caused by a lack of governance in the area since the FARC’s exit. “Strengthening of governance and local institutions in those areas is therefore urgent to stop forest loss,” the authors write in the study.

Deforestation in the northeastern Colombian Amazon. Image courtesy of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

Coca cultivation and armed conflict are related because coca crops function as an important source of income for many illegal armed groups, increasing their ability to operate. These groups often cut down trees to create more space to cultivate coca, and more trees cut down means more income.

Negret offered a potential solution in response to the study’s findings. “We analyzed the effects of the protected areas, indigenous reservations, and Afro-Colombian territories, and we found that these places have the most significant impact in relation to preventing deforestation. It would be good to generate conservation projects with these communities,” Negret said.

The study suggested that national parks are generally effective in preventing deforestation, “even in areas of high deforestation pressure.” However, the parks that act as a corridor between the Amazon, the Orinoquía natural region, and the Andes are being deforested due to land grabbing and extensive livestock practices. A recent report by the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) found that between April 2018 and March 2019, the Sierra de la Macarena Natural National Park lost more than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of forest. The authors said that “the creation of protected areas in regions of high deforestation pressure is clearly necessary.”

The loss of primary forest in four protected areas between 2015 and 2018. Image courtesy of Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA/RUNAP.

Negret speculated that the cultivation of illegal crops “is the only profitable option that exists there. It is all connected to the lack of governance, and the government needs to look for alternatives to break these cycles.”

Finally, the study called for more precise information regarding the armed conflict issue in Colombia, since it is fundamental for understanding its impact on deforestation and biodiversity loss.


Negret, P. J., Sonter, L., Watson, J. E., Possingham, H. P., Jones, K. R., Suarez, C., … Maron, M. (2019). Emerging evidence that armed conflict and coca cultivation influence deforestation patterns. Biological Conservation, 108176. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2019.07.021

Hanson, T., Brooks, T. M., Da Fonseca, G. A. B., Hoffmann, M., Lamoreux, J. F., Machlis, G., … Pilgrim, J. D. (2009). Warfare in biodiversity hotspots. Conservation Biology, 23(3), 578-587. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01166.x

Banner image of burned land and roads in the middle of the Amazon, courtesy of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

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