In the 1970s, marijuana growers pushed colonization further up the mountains, clearing away virgin forests to grow the illicit crops. With the marijuana came the guerrillas, the paramilitaries and the military. The ensuing conflict between the armed actors spawned a reign of terror in the Sierra Nevada, with children forcibly recruited into armed groups, as well as widespread forced displacement, selective assassinations, massacres and sexual violence.

Even though the country’s largest guerrilla army, the FARC, set down its weapons in 2016, political and drug-trafficking violence is a rising concern in the Sierra Nevada, with rearmed paramilitary groups fighting over territorial control. In the past 18 months alone, six community leaders were killed, another suffered an attack and 42 people were displaced, according to a recent report.

“The dispute is over a mobility corridor between three departments, with a [major highway], access to seaports and where many illegal revenues can be generated in everything related to tourism and banana crops and [oil] palm,” Luis Trejos, of the Caribbean Observatory at the Universidad del Norte, told local media outlet Semana.

The Ombudsman warned of the threat to indigenous inhabitants. Gelver Zapata Izquierdo, indigenous leader of the Arhuaco, told Mongabay Latam in 2018 that the armed groups are present in areas where strategic projects such as mining, oil drilling, and infrastructure development are planned or being carried out.

“It’s strange that the state is close to those projects and so are the armed groups,” Zapata Izquierdo said. “For us any armed group is the same, it is the symbol of war within the territories. We are convinced that Colombia needs dialogue to rebuild, but beyond the dialogue, is recognition of human rights.”

A report published in 2019 by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and the Historical Memory Center found that out of the country’s 102 indigenous tribes, almost 70 percent are at imminent risk of physical and cultural disappearance. Since the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC, ONIC has recorded 158 assassinations of indigenous leaders, primarily in the southwestern department of Cauca.

“In Colombia, an indigenous [person] is murdered every 72 hours,” ONIC senior adviser Luis Fernando Arias told France 24. He said indigenous people are often targeted for defending their territory from armed groups. “Indigenous peoples are an obstacle for armed groups because we defend our territories, exercising social control and barring armed groups.”

On December 23, two high profile environmentalists from the city of Santa Marta were found murdered near the Tayrona National Park of the Sierra Nevada. It wasn’t clear if the killing was connected to their social and environmental work, or if it was the result of a carjacking. In the same rural sector along the Caribbean coast, park ranger Wilton Orrego was killed in January, 2019. For both murders, the authorities are investigating the involvement of the paramilitary group, Los Pachencas, who maintain strict territorial control in the region, and are heavily involved in cocaine trafficking to the U.S. and Europe.

Severe environmental stress

A 2017 study by Colombia’s Bank of the Republic used high-resolution satellite images to research rates of deforestation, human settlements and road infrastructure inside the Black Line. While the results indicate official land protection has helped limit deforestation and human activity in national parks and indigenous reserves in the area, the researchers were not able to conclude that it had any effect inside the Black Line.

“Our main results indicate that while [the Black Line] has no detectable effects, there is evidence of significant [reducing] effects from indigenous reservations and national parks on deforestation, population settlements and road infrastructure,” the authors report in their study.

An area of deforestation in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Image courtesy of Fundacion Atelopus.

The region is also experiencing other, more indirect, impacts from human pressure. Climate change is already severely impacting the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada. Since 1900, 92 percent of the glaciers that once covered the great mountains no longer exist. According to a study by the country’s climate research agency, IDEAM, Colombia’s six equatorial glaciers will disappear by the year 2050 if the current rate of melt continues.

Arias said the negative effects of climate change on Sierra Nevada’s water tables and snowpack are being multiplied by extractive and megaproject development taking place in the lowlands inside the Black Line.

“Already, we’re seeing rivers are drying up and the snow is at the point of disappearing. Of course, climate change is having an effect but the mining and megaproject activities are rapidly accelerating the process and causing immediate damage,” Arias said. “None of these forms of exploitation are allowed under our laws. For us, it’s like removing blood from the body.”

In 2013, a study declared the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park as the most important protected area in the world for threatened species. The Sierra Nevada comprises particularly critical habitat for endangered amphibians. Lina Valencia, Colombia conservation officer at Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), said the Sierra Nevada has the highest number of threatened endemic amphibians in the world.

The Guajira stubfoot toad (Atelopus carrikeri) is endemic to the Sierra Nevada. It is found at elevations between 2,350 and 4,800 meters, and is known to survive in even snow-covered areas. Image courtesy of Fundacion Atelopus.

Recently, the Arhuaco indigenous community allowed conservation biologists from GWC’s local partner, Fundación Atelopus, to access a mountain watershed where they were able to identify and photograph the critically endangered starry night harlequin toad (Atelopus arsyecue) that had been considered “lost to science” for nearly 30 years.

“There are 18 endemic species of amphibians in the Sierra Nevada and four species of harlequin toads. Frogs are considered to be guardians of the water because they’re found in the headwaters of the rivers,” said Luis Alberto Rueda, a professor at Universidad del Magdalena and co-founder of Fundación Atelopus.

Rueda and other Universidad del Magdalena researchers have been studying endangered amphibians in the Sierra Nevada for more than five years. The team has modeled future population trajectories for the starry night harlequin toad, with their results showing a tendency toward decline. Rueda said the principal threats to the species are from cattle ranching and crop production, along with waste, infrastructure and other issues arising from the region’s growing and poorly regulated tourism sector.

Indigenous movement joins National Strike

President Iván Duque, a handpicked apprentice of former President Uribe, took office on Aug. 7, 2018. Criticized as inexperienced and largely unpopular, Duque has struggled to govern the country. On Nov. 21, 2019, the largest countrywide protests since the 1970s broke out against the government.

Indigenous organizations in March had already led a national protest, known as a minga, to demand Duque’s government fully implement the 2016 peace agreement and recognize indigenous land rights. In the latest round of protests, the national indigenous organization ONIC immediately called on Colombia’s native population to join the national strike.

The Indigenous Council of the Kankuamo Reserve called on its people to join the strike as well, expressing their solidarity with the “diverse sectors of Colombian society who feel their essential rights have been violated.”

Duque’s response to the overwhelmingly non-violent protest has been a heavy-handed police crackdown, combined with reluctant offers to negotiate with strike organizers. More than a month after the strikes began, an agreement between the government and the protesters has yet to be reached.


Banner image: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain peaks emerge from a sea of clouds. Image from Gicaman via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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