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Illegal deforestation rises in South America’s Indigenous territories, parks

  • Satellite data show tree cover loss in South America rose 2.8% between 2018 and 2019. Colombia, Peru and Bolivia had particularly big surges in deforestation.
  • Preliminary data indicate the rate of deforestation has increased further in 2020 in many areas.
  • Among the areas affected are Catatumbo Barí Natural National Park in Colombia, Siona Indigenous territory in Ecuador, Santa Martha Indigenous territory in Peru and the Concepción Lake Ramsar site in Bolivia, which together lost more than 36,000 hectares of forest cover over the past two decades.
  • Sources say illegal agriculture is the driving force behind these incursions.

Between 2010 and 2020, South America lost an average of 2.6 million hectares of forest per year, according the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In other words, the continent lost an area of forest the size of Ecuador in the space of a decade.

And this rate of forest loss only appears to be increasing. Satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on the online platform Global Forest Watch show tree cover loss in South America rose 2.8% between 2018 and 2019. Colombia, Peru and Bolivia had particularly big surges in deforestation.

“We’ve been noticing an upsurge in deforestation in recent years in the Amazon, in general,” says María Olga Borja, a deforestation specialist at EcoCiencia, in Ecuador, and an analyst at the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-environmental Information (RAISG).

Preliminary UMD data for 2020 indicate a similar trend in 2020, with many regions registering higher numbers of deforestation alerts than during the same periods in 2019. For instance, between January and October 2020, UMD registered some 16,300 deforestation alerts in just two protected areas: Catatumbo Barí National Natural Park in Colombia and Concepción Lake Ramsar site in Bolivia. In addition, UMD recorded 57,600 alerts in two Indigenous territories: the Siona territory located on the border between Ecuador and Colombia and the Cacataibo Santa Martha Indigenous community in Peru.

After cutting down the trees, invaders wait a month to start burning the logs and, later, planting coca. Photo by Comuneros de Santa Martha.
After cutting down the trees, invaders wait a month to start burning the logs and, later, planting coca which is used to make cocaine. Photo by Comuneros de Santa Martha.

These four protected areas have lost more than 36,000 hectares in the last two decades, according to UMD data – the equivalent of more than 21,000 soccer fields. Sources say that among those responsible for this deforestation are armed narco-terrorist groups, smallholder farmers from surrounding areas and Mennonite communities.

 Data from UMD show that between January and October 2020, 4,700 deforestation alerts were recorded in Catatumbo Barí National Natural Park, which is located in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander. Experts say the alerts are associated with small-scale agriculture.

“There are very profound changes in the protected area, which may indicate the presence of illegal crops judging by where they are located,” said Mikaela Weisse, a manager at Global Forest Watch, which is an initiative of World Resources Institute. Weisse said that the illegal crops in question are most likely coca plants – from which cocaine is made.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland shows several areas of GLAD deforestation alerts in Colombia's Catatumbo Barí Natural National Park.

Coca cultivation is expanding in Catatumbo Barí, according to Colombia’s Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System (SIMCI). In 2018, 872 hectares of coca crops were reported within the park; SIMCI’s latest report finds that that number had nearly doubled to 1,448 hectares in 2019, making Catatumbo Barí the most affected park in the country.

“In general, deforestation seems to have continued steadily in the area since the beginning of this century,” Weisse said.

Down along the Colombia/Ecuador border, satellite data show deforestation alerts cropping up throughout a territory that’s home to the Siona people. In the Colombian Siona community of Buenavista, satellite data show deforestation has been increasing since 2009, and preliminary data suggest 2020 may be the biggest year yet for deforestation in the territory.

Deforestation appears to be particularly high in the area surrounding the Wisuyá community.

“We found small patches of deforestation that are far from the roads, which makes us suspect the presence of coca,” Weisse said.

Investigation by Mongabay Latam revealed that the small patches of deforestation found in Wisuyá are linked to clearing by drug traffickers to make space for mobile homemade drug laboratories where cocaine is processed.

Colombia isn’t the only South American country seeing an increase in deforestation in its protected areas and Indigenous territories. Many sensitive areas of Peru are also losing their forests. For instance, satellite data shows deforestation in the Indigenous territories of central Peru increased between 2019 and 2020, particularly around the Cacataibo community in the Santa Martha Indigenous territory.

“The pattern here is interesting, since the deforested spaces outside the community look very different from those inside it,” Weisse said.

According to UMD data, Santa Martha lost 14% of its forest cover between 2001 and 2019, with with 2,535 deforestation alerts recorded between January and October, 2020. “We found that deforestation had restarted in August and there was a peak of 1,253 alerts in early October,” Weisse said.

The accelerated loss of forest in Santa Martha and other Indigenous territories is linked to a wave of violence. At least one Indigenous leader has been killed this year and many others feel threatened and trapped after they confronted land invaders and drug traffickers, according to community members. Bolivia is also keenly feeling the repercussions of forest loss. Concepción Lake in the department of Santa Cruz is a Ramsar site, which denotes wetlands of international importance. But while Concepción Lake and the land surrounding it are protected on paper, it seemingly cannot escape the agricultural expansion that is gobbling up native habitat across the country.

Over the past eight years, Mennonite communities have enlarged their agricultural holdings, using heavy machinery to extend their fields of soybeans, sorghum and other crops. This large-scale agriculture is violating environmental regulations and is subject to fines. But sources say laws are not enough to dissuade the communities from clearing land for commodity crops.

“It is disturbing that when we try to inspect them and ask who authorized them, they reply that they have already paid their fine and, on that basis, they consider that the issue is already closed,” said Nair Arias, head of the environmental arm of the mayor’s office in Pailón, a district that includes the lake.

“There has been quite a lot of large-scale agriculture in this area since around 2012,” said GFW’s Weisse.

Weisse said deforestation has increased particularly quickly in the area just south of the lake. “We have two instances where incursions were made in the protected area this year: January and August,” she said.

Satellite image from Sentinel-2 from November 2020 shows progression of deforestation has progressed and reduction of the water surface of Concepción Lake. Image by Observatorio del Bosque Chiquitano/FCBC.
Satellite imagery from Sentinel-2 from November 2020 shows deforested crop fields around Concepción Lake.  The water level also appears to have decreased. Image by Observatorio del Bosque Chiquitano/FCBC.

Illegal deforestation often takes a big toll on the communities that depend on the forest to survive.  In Catatumbo Barí, residents of the Barí Indigenous territory report invasions by growers of illegal coca crops.  Even government intervention can inflict collateral damage on communities, with anonymous sources alleging that spray used to eradicate illegal crops also destroyed the community’s subsistence farms.

Most of Catatumbo Barí overlaps with Barí indigenous Territory, which contains two reservations: Motilón Barí and Gabarra-Catalaura. In 2019 1,448 hectares of forest were cleared for the illegal cultivation of coca within the park, according to SIMCI, representing a 66% jump over 2018.

A report produced by SIMCI found that the most significant problem in the park is the presence of four narco-terrorist groups: the National Liberation Army (ELN), the dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

As of November this year, seven leaders and human rights defenders have been killed in the Catatumbo region, and more than 50 death threats have been reported for reasons related to drug trafficking, according to the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace in Colombia (INDEPAZ). Local authorities say this climate of violence makes it impossible to have monitoring bases and guard posts in the protected area.

The Siona Indigenous territory, located in the Putumayo watershed of Ecuador and Colombia, as well as the Cacataibo Indigenous Territory of Peru are report similar issues of violence fueled by deforestation activities.

“What we observed in Putumayo is that key people in the Indigenous territories represent a kind of barrier to deforestation,” said María Olga Borja from Ecociencia. She urges greater involvement from Ecuadorian and Colombian authorities.

“We see the greatest deforestation on the outskirts of the Indigenous territories, but over the years more deforestation has been observed inside them,” Borja said. In Buenavista, the Siona community located in Colombia, the latest SIMCI data indicate 172 hectares were deforested for coca cultivation in 2019.

Community advocates say one of the most important ways to protect Indigenous territories is to formally recognize community ownership through land titles. And that, all too often, this official recognition is lacking.

“From a regulatory perspective, Indigenous territories remain unprotected,” said Pedro Tipula, a specialist at the Institute for the Common Good (IBC) in Peru. Currently, only around 30% of native Colombian communities are registered, according to the National Superintendency of Public Registries (SUNARP). “And even if they are, sometimes you just find a plan or a description, but you don’t have a complete determination,” Tipula said. “They have imperfect titles.”

Lack of official land ownership isn’t just an issue in Colombia, but is a common problem for Indigenous communities around the world.  For instance, the Cacataibo Indigenous community that inhabits Peru’s Santa Martha territory possesses titles for its land; however, sources say that because the titles don’t contain specific language regarding communal use, outsider-driven deforestation activities are still commonplace within the territory.

“The area that the locality requested as an extension of its territory is now subdivided into individual parcels of land,” Tipula said. “It is these areas that are now deforested.”

Deforestation in Santa Martha territory. Photo courtesy of Comuneros de Santa Martha.

On April 12, Arbildo Meléndez, Indigenous chief of the Unipacuyacu, a neighboring community, was killed in the vicinity of Santa Martha. In mid-October, an Indigenous person from Santa Martha who had repeatedly denounced deforestation was allegedly the victim of an attempted homicide at a festival in his community (the identity of this person has been withheld for safety reasons).

“During the pandemic, illegal activities have continued to operate and with far greater freedom,” Tipula said. The latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) show the area cultivated for illegal crops like coca and marijuana grew by 22% in Peru’s Indigenous territories between 2016 and 2017.

Sources say the consequences for farming drugs all too often amount to little more than a slap on the wrist.

“These people who are tied to drugs are well aware of the shortcomings of the State. Nothing happens when a prosecutor investigates,” said the provincial prosecutor of the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office in Environmental Matters (FEMA) of Ucayali, José Luis Guzmán Ferro. Ferro believes the problem must be tackled in a more radical way, with a robust and forceful approach aimed at destroying all illegal cropland and drug-related infrastructure.

In June 2020, the SIMCI system of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that the illegal cultivation of coca is known in 14 of Colombia’s natural national parks, totaling 6,785 hectares. UNODC data indicate that 53% of this cultivation occurred in just three parks: Sierra de la Macarena, Catatumbo Barí, and Nunak.

The violation of protected areas is also clear in Bolivia. The Observatory for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Forest estimates that the Concepción Lake protected area will lose half its forest cover by 2050 if deforestation continues at current rates.

“You can see there is a lack of protection in the area, given that this type of agricultural activity is permitted,” said Mikaela Weisse of Global Forest Watch, who believes continued deforestation of the area “will have a serious impact on the lake.”

However, broad gestures to protect land may not be enough to stem the tide of deforestation while safeguarding Indigenous communities. In Ecuador, the government launched a strategy in 2010 to protect forest along its border with Colombia via the creation of the Cuembí Triangle Protective Forest, a protected area of 104,238 hectares that would be controlled by the Armed Forces. However, the decision was rejected by Siona Indigenous communities who alleged it was made without Indigenous consultation and consent. In July 2020 the Constitutional Court of Ecuador ruled in favor of the Siona and declared the designation of the Cuembí protected area unconstitutional.

Indigenous Siona have organized to monitor their territory and prevent further deforestation. Photo by Mateo Barriga Salazar / Amazon Frontlines.
Indigenous Siona have organized to monitor their territory and prevent further deforestation. Photo by Mateo Barriga Salazar / Amazon Frontlines.

Between 2010 and 2017, while the Cuembí protected area was in effect and forest protection shifted from Indigenous community members to the armed forces, the loss of forest doubled, according to EcoCiencia.

“The designation did not seem to reduce the trend in deforestation to any extent,” said María Olga Borja from EcoCiencia. Borja added that this deforestation has increasingly encroached into Siona territory.

Research shows that the communities that live on the land tend to be the best at protecting it.

“Protected areas are a cornerstone of biodiversity conservation globally, but current levels of protection will be insufficient to halt the planetary extinction crisis,” said University of British Columbia professor Peter Arcese, whose 2019 study added to the growing chorus that indigenous-led land management can be an effective conservation solution. “We must manage a larger fraction of world’s area in ways that protect species and leads to positive outcomes for people and the species they’ve relied on for millennia.”


This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was first published by Mongabay Latam on December 02, 2020.

Banner image produced by Kipu Visual  for Mongabay Latam.

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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