Conservation news

Colombian farmers, ranchers join businesses to turn the tide on Amazon deforestation

Rodrigo Trujillo in his pepper field surrounded by conserved Amazonian forests. Photo by Dimitri Selibas.

  • Campesinos and cattle ranchers in Colombia’s Amazon are joining forces with businesses and research institutions to tackle deforestation in the region.
  • Deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon for 2018 was approximately 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres), nearly the size of Luxembourg.
  • In Caquetá, Colombia’s second-biggest cattle region, which produces 1.7 million liters (450,000 gallons) of milk per day and represents 22,500 ranchers, a zero deforestation agreement has been signed by the region’s cattle ranchers’ committee, the government, unions, civil society organizations, top chefs, and restaurants.
  • A 20-year study by the Amazonian Scientific Research Institute SINCHI shows how agroforestry, silvopastoralism and enrichment can preserve the fragile Amazonian soils while also being highly profitable, with returns on investment ranging from 10% to 16% and net earnings of $13,200 per hectare after 20 years.

In December 2019, sitting on the wooden patio of his hilltop cabin, the Amazonian forest buzzing in the background, Rodrigo Trujillo reflects on his 25 years growing coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine. The distant hillsides are thickly wooded, and Trujillo is reforesting the closer slopes for planned ecotourism projects. And in front of the cabin lies a pepper field that he harvests from to sell to a well-known Colombian restaurant group.

“In Colombia we are very hopeful and believe that solutions have to come from the government, but here … the solution needs to come from the campesino [peasant farmer],” says Rodrigo Trujillo. 

Putumayo department, where Trujillo’s farm is located, along with neighboring Caquetá department, have witnessed some of the highest levels of deforestation in Colombia, in part driven by the coca trade. According to the environmental ministry and IDEAM, Colombia’s meteorological agency, deforestation in the Amazon for 2018 was approximately 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) — nearly the size of Luxembourg. 

But the primary driver of deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon remains the illegal appropriation of land, with forests converted into pasture. Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), says Colombia has one of the last vast agricultural frontiers in the world, creating an enticing scenario for land grabbing. This issue, he tells Mongabay in a phone interview, is amplified by a lack of territorial control and clear inter-institutional responsibility: at least eight government agencies have overlapping jurisdiction over national deforestation response. 

Botero says the solution needs to have a long-term view and that “the fight against deforestation has two branches. The one is to promote sustainably using the forest, and the other has to do with implementing the law. Obviously, sustainable development with communities right now is the most feasible … and sustainable strategy, while the implementation of the law is far more difficult.” 

While the Colombian government continues its efforts to tackle the systemic issues underlying the appropriation of land in the Amazon, campesinos like Trujillo and cattle ranchers are coming together with support from Colombian businesses and research institutions to find their own sustainable solutions to stop deforestation.

Cattle raised using silvopastoral methods produce more milk and allow forests to regrow. Image by Dimitri Selibas.

Colonizing the wild Amazon

Jaime Barrera, a senior researcher at the government-run Amazonian Scientific Research Institute SINCHI, has spent nearly three decades working in the region. In a video call, he says Colombia’s Amazon has seen various bonanza periods, producing huge bursts of wealth from the extraction of gold, rubber, valuable hardwoods, and animal furs. 

Without forests in the Amazon, he says, the productivity of the soils disappears, driving the need to chop down more forest. Yet in the 1960s, the Colombian government began to actively promote the colonization of the Amazon. Farmers and ranchers could claim land by showing they had made improvements to it, i.e. clearing it of forest.

Catalina Riveros Gomez, an environmental researcher at the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), an independent Colombian think tank, said in a video interview that one of the biggest enduring problems in the Amazon is a cultural legacy where people in the big cities consider forests as something very far away and not particularly valuable. She adds that farms are seen as more valuable if they have pasture on them instead of forest. Although Colombia became independent of its Spanish colonial masters more than 200 years ago, the term “colonizer” is still widely used and ironically celebrated for those moving in to “tame” the wildness.

César Augusto Pulecio Méndez shows off a native Amazonian araza fruit. Image by Dimitri Selibas.

Alternatives to illicit crops

Colombian society remains one of the most unequal in the world, where the richest 1% of the population owns 80% of the land, according to the U.N. When the coca boom years started in the 1990s, many landless campesinos began to migrate to the Amazon from across Colombia, driving deforestation to try cash in on the new “green gold.” In 2000, the Colombian government began to aggressively fight coca production with support from the U.S. through “Plan Colombia.” A keystone of this strategy was to eradicate coca crops through the aerial spraying of glyphosate, a weed killer best known by the trade name Roundup. 

Trujillo, a religious man, was already thinking of stopping growing coca after a local priest explained the harmful impacts of the plant’s use. Coca leaves, collected and mixed with gasoline and other noxious substances to transform them into a coca paste, was what Trujillo and other farmers would sell on. It was the fundamental part of the production process but disconnected from the final product — cocaine — that would be created in laboratories further down the line.

Coca remains more lucrative than conventional crops in pure market terms, but it created an exceedingly difficult existence for Trujillo and his family. On top of the high production costs, he had to deal with the constant threat of the government and army destroying his crops, and intimidation from FARC rebels and paramilitaries as they fought to control the coca trade. 

Finally, in 2002, Trujillo’s crops were eradicated. This cemented his resolve to abandon coca and grow pepper as part of Plan Colombia’s crop substitution program. Other alternatives supported by the program included cattle or crops such as coffee, cacao, sugarcane or heart of palm. 

Critics of Plan Colombia say it focused too narrowly on showing results for coca plantations destroyed and that it did not apply adequate attention to social and environment concerns. Research by FIP noted that of the 23,500 families who transitioned from growing coca, 72% moved to cattle ranching, continuing to fuel the region’s deforestation. 

Another criticism of the substitution program is that the government did not provide sufficient technical and financial support to transitioning farmers, nor provide the necessary conditions to guarantee access to markets or a fair price for their substitute crops. Over time, most of the substitution projects failed, and in areas with limited roads and other infrastructure, growing and selling coca is often also the most logistically feasible option. The campesinos’ distrust of the state deepened further and many returned to growing coca, once again expanding into the forests. 

Drone technology is used to map out individual farms and track vegetation regrowth. Image by Dimitri Selibas.

Businesses providing stable markets and fair prices

WOK is a Colombian Asian-inspired restaurant group that previously imported most of its ingredients. But over the years it searched for local alternatives, substituting bamboo shoots for heart of palm, Chinese eel for Amazonian pirarucu fish, and purchasing ingredients like pepper directly from small farmers like Trujillo.

Simon Vieira, WOK’s sustainability director, says in an interview at the founding restaurant in Bogota’s Zona T that although not directly involved with the protection of forests, WOK joins other Colombian restaurants and food makers creating opportunities for “small farmers and campesinos to market their products directly to us.”

“[W]e believe that this effectively contributes to strengthening the social fabric in the countryside where one of the main problems is generational change, helping the economic development of rural areas by generating more income for producers, and fostering clean agriculture methods by improving the product quality and environmental protection,” he says.

Vieira adds that “when one supports a project, like for pepper or heart of palm, the most interesting thing about supporting it is not charity or patronage, it’s a matter of supporting a project that really has the potential and virtue of being world-class … and on top of that, we are also supporting people who previously grew coca.”

Copoazú is an Amazonian white cacao used for hot chocolates, juices and sweets. Image by Dimitri Selibas.

Cattle ranching and civil society nature reserves

On a horseback ride at his family’s Amazonian farm in Caquetá, cattle rancher Felipe Esclava shows Mongabay the resurgence of forest on the land. Overhead, a drone’s high-altitude buzz mixes with the squawking of passing macaws. 

“Sustainable cattle ranching responds to the terroir and the construction of the soil,” Esclava says. “This is a large part of what I learned in France. To make the soil alive … is what makes any project possible.”

Esclava is part of a new generation of cattle ranchers in Caquetá using intensive silvopastoral techniques to plant their fields with edible herbs and bushes, providing shade and allowing their cattle to obtain more nutrients by intensively grazing a smaller area of land. And in the process, they can transform swaths of pasture back into forest. 

The conserved areas are converted into civil society nature reserves, connecting to a network of neighboring reserves, indigenous territories, and biological corridors. Drone technology is used to map out individual farms and track vegetation regrowth, with monitoring also conducted for levels of biodiversity and carbon capture. Participating ranchers have already noted increases in cow fertility, milk production, and profit, with this project serving as pilot for the rest of Caquetá department. 

Rafael Torrijos, president of the Caquetá Cattle Ranchers Committee, whose 22,500 members produce approximately 1.7 million liters (450,000 gallons) of milk per day, says in an interview that “the very same ranchers who have been stigmatized up until now for being the biggest environmental predators understand that we have a set of tools to mold our production systems differently, and in that way reconcile ourselves with the environment.”

Esclava and Torrijos are also part of Ruta de Queso Caquetá, the Caquetá Cheese Route, which produces protected designation of origin (PDO) cheese and is a signatory to a “zero deforestation” agreement between the cattle ranchers’ committee, the government, unions, civil society organizations, leading Colombian chefs the Rausch brothers, and the high-end Takami restaurant group.

The Takami group has purchased 2.7 tons of cheese from Ruta de Queso Caquetá since 2016. In January 2020, the group launched its “Un domicilio, un arbol” campaign, where for every takeaway delivery from their restaurants, one tree is planted in a Ruta de Queso civil society reserve. Juliana Lugo Jaramillo, Takami’s sustainability director, says the project is not just about planting individual trees, but “it is everything behind that tree … it’s a product, and a rancher who is willing to leave a space on his farm for conservation and is willing to think in terms of a production system which is sustainable.”

By combining its conservation mission with strong economic returns, all involved say they hope to persuade more families to join the 100 who are currently signed up to Ruta de Queso Caquetá. Yet the biggest challenge for scaling the project remains a cultural one.

Clearing forest to create pasture is a common practice in Colombia’s Amazon. Image by Dimitri Selibas.

Alternative farming techniques

“The colonizers would say the indigenous are lazy for having so much land and not cutting it,” says César Augusto Pulecio Méndez in an interview in a food garden on a thickly wooded hillside in Caquetá. “They had a different perception about life and culture … the rush to get money quickly is what you see here with coca and illicit crops.”

In areas with high levels of distrust for the state, NGOs and outsiders in general, growing coca and conventional cattle ranching provide financial gains in a relatively short amount of time. Yet Méndez, holding a bright yellow araza fruit in his hand, remains optimistic. 

He is part of AgroSolidaria, a national community-based organization that promotes solidarity networks for agriculture and agro-ecotourism. In Caquetá, they purchase Amazonian fruits and nuts from campesinos and indigenous communities, providing them with markets and guaranteed prices. 

SINCHI has done research demonstrating that many Amazonian fruits and nuts are exceptionally nutritious, identifying the commercial use of these species as a way to further halt deforestation and promote conservation. AgroSolidaria is working with SINCHI to promote the cultivation of Amazonian fruits like araza, açaí and camu camu, and nuts pressed for nutrient-dense oils like sacha inchi and castaño

With additional research supported by SINCHI, AgroSolidaria also encourages the use of agroforestry farming techniques, inspired by the chagras of indigenous communities across the Amazon, where food is cultivated in ways that mimic how plants naturally grow in the forest. Méndez, a trained agronomist, says this type of cultivation preserves the fragile Amazonian soils while also being more profitable than raising cattle. 

Barrera, the SINCHI researcher and coordinator for promoting sustainable practices to prevent and control deforestation, headed a 20-year study on the effectiveness in the Amazon of agroforestry, silvopastoralism and enrichment, where valuable hardwoods are planted in natural forests. The basic agroforestry model consists of planting pancoger subsistence crops — plantain, yucca and maize — with cash crops like rubber, cacao and copoazú (also known as Amazonian white cacao, used for hot chocolates, juices and sweets) and high-value hardwood species like tropical cedars, mahoganies and oaks. 

Barrera says these projects need to be done with a long-term, 20-year view. In the early years, subsistence crops provide food and a basic income, while costs are incurred to establish the system. Then, after about four years, the cash crops begin to provide additional income; after 20 years, the timber can be harvested. 

The study provides detailed cost analyses, with returns on investment ranging from 10% to 16%, depending on the species selected and the amount of work and up-front costs incurred. Barrera says that by using this technique, farmers can earn about $13,200 per hectare (about $5,300 per acre) at the end of the 20 years, providing them with a significant pension that they otherwise would not have had. 

So far, 2,500 families managing 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres) across the Amazon are using these alternative methods.

“To speak to the campesino about reforestation and protecting the environment is easier when you can show them that they will gain something,” Méndez says.

Banner image: Rodrigo Trujillo in his pepper field surrounded by conserved Amazonian forests. Photo by Dimitri Selibas.