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Deforestation rises in Colombia’s Chiribiquete National Park as cattle invade

Meseta de Pyramides, Chiribiquete, Colombia. Photo credit: Mark Plotkin

  • Chiribiquete National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest continental protected area in Colombia, comprising more than 4 million hectares (40,000 square kilometers or 17,000 sq miles) of land in the Colombian Amazon.
  • For the past several years, the Colombian Amazon has been hit harder by deforestation than any other region in the country, according to the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM).
  • Satellite data from the University of Maryland registered an “unusually high” number of deforestation alerts in Colombia’s Chiribiquete National Park in January.
  • A report by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) revealed that over 1,000 hectares inside Chiribiquete National Park were deforested between September 2020 and February 2021.

For the past several years, the Colombian Amazon has been hit harder by deforestation than any other region in the country, according to the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM). The institute’s 2020 report found that 158,894 hectares (about 1,589 square kilometers or 613 sq miles) were deforested in Colombia in 2019. Of that forest loss, 98,256 hectares (about 983 sq km or 380 sq mi), or 62%, occurred in the Amazon.

Sources say important protected natural areas in the region are being strongly affected by the felling and burning of trees. According to IDEAM’s annual report, 7% of the total deforestation in Colombia in 2019 was located within natural national parks, and authorities are particularly concerned about four protected areas: Tinigua (with 6,527 hectares [16,128 acres] deforested), Sierra de la Macarena (with 2,173 hectares [5,370 acres] deforested), Chiribiquete (with 820 hectares [2,025 acres] deforested), and Paramillo (with 806 hectares [1,992 acres] deforested).

According to IDEAM’s latest early detection report, which analyzed forest loss between April and June 2020, 40.7% of recorded tree cover loss alerts were in the Amazon. Satellite from the University of Maryland indicate high deforestation trends are continuing in 2021.

A fire inside Chiribiquete National Park (image captured Feb. 11, 2021) burned areas that had recently been deforested. Image courtesy of Planet (SkySat).

One of the Colombian Amazon’s most affected protected areas is Chiribiquete National Park, situated in the municipality of San Vicente del Caguán in the department of Caquetá. San Vicente del Caguán is the second-most deforested municipality in the country. Edersson Cabrera, the Forests System coordinator for IDEAM, said that “only eight Colombian municipalities hold 47% of the nation’s deforestation.”

Chiribiquete is the largest continental protected area in Colombia, comprising more than 4 million hectares (40,000 sq km or 17,000 sq mi) of land. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch registered an “unusually high” number of tree cover loss alerts the week of January 25, 2021, compared to the same week previous years.

Satellite imagery shows the progression of clearing in an area of northern Chiribiquete National Park.

Meanwhile, Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) —an initiative of the Amazon Conservation Association and Conservación Amazonia (ACCA)— published a new report in February in which it warned of an increase in forest loss in an area already dubbed Colombia’s “the Arc of Deforestation.” This area is in the northwestern Colombian Amazon and includes four national parks – Tinigua, Sierra de la Macarena, Chiribiquete, and La Paya – as well as several Indigenous territories.

According to the report, the most heavily affected protected areas are Tinigua and Sierra de la Macarena. This coincides with the continued deforestation in Chiribiquete National Park.

“Chiribiquete National Natural Park lost more than 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) in the last six months [September 2020 – February 2021], in six different areas of the park. Much of this deforestation appears to be associated with the conversion of primary forest to illegal cattle pasture,”  MAAP’s report states.

Deforestation in the western sector #1 of Chiribiquete National Park. Reference coordinates: 1.05497° N, 74.26465° W. Image by Planet, MAAP.

In February 2021, the fire season was already in full swing in the Colombian Amazon. This was made evident by very high-resolution images (SkySat) that showed the burning of recently deforested areas inside Chiribiquete National Park. This was also confirmed during a Feb. 11 flyover by the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

Rodrigo Botero, the director of the FCDS, warned of the accelerated advancement of deforestation in the Amazon. “The interests of some agro-industrial groups are consolidating and expanding in the Amazon region. The large-scale informal land market keeps advancing. You see large industrial conglomerates getting into areas with legal restrictions,” Botero said.

The seriousness of the events in Chiribiquete has been corroborated by Colombian authorities. In late February 2021, the Office of the Attorney General led an operation and judicial intervention in the park. “Ten people were captured and accused of funding the deforestation in Chiribiquete and the surrounding areas of special environmental protection. Chainsaws, scythes, and other elements used for the indiscriminate felling of the forest were seized,” said Deicy Jaramillo, deputy prosecutor before the National Courts.

An image of what the Office of the Attorney General found during an operation against deforestation in Chiribiquete National Park in February 2021. Image courtesy of the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia.

Jaramillo added that of those 10 people, seven were caught in the act, and one of her prosecutors will charge them with crimes related to the illegal use of natural resources, the invasion of an area of special ecological importance, and arson. “The other three were already prosecuted, since their names appeared on a poster of those most wanted for deforestation in the Amazon,” Jaramillo said.

In late February 2021, Indigenous groups denounced the advancement of deforestation in their territory, fearing that the government’s actions are not sufficient to stop it. Video courtesy of ONIC.

Additionally, the Office of the Attorney General claimed that it could verify that approximately 3,000 hectares (about 7,413 acres) of forest were affected in Chiribiquete National Park and that they halted two large construction projects being carried out within the protected area.

Deforestation in Chiribiquete National Park. Image captured in February 2021 by the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia.

Concerns over deforestation are not exclusive to Chiribiquete. Sources say the situation is becoming critical in Nukak Natural Reserve and in the Nukak Reservation in the department of Guaviare. Felipe Rangel Uncacía, the councilor of Land, Natural Resources, and Biodiversity within the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), was part of the general assembly of the council of traditional Mauro Munu authorities from the Indigenous Nukak community, which took place Feb. 22-25, 2021, in Caño Cumare.

“There was evidence of serious deforestation and fires in the ancestral territory. The appropriate authorities and their allies in the government have not yet assumed authority to take immediate drastic actions and sanctions to punish the offenders of these violations against our mother earth,” Uncacía said.

Botero (of the FCDS) previously expressed concern over the fate of the area’s Indigenous territories in December 2020. “Rural populations continue to be created on top of these reservations, which is illegal. The government continues to invest in power lines, highways, and even assistance for productive projects in the land that has been invaded,” Botero told Mongabay Latam.

For many years, experts have been calling attention to the need for authorities to capture those responsible for the deforestation of the Amazon. “Land grabbing and deforestation are going full steam ahead,” Botero said, “while the application of justice to the major drivers of deforestation —and rural development programs, including formalization and forest economics— are moving at a snail’s pace.”


This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was first published by Mongabay Latam on March 09, 2021. 


Banner image: Chiribiquete National Park contains some 4.3 million hectares (about 10,625,530 acres or 16,600 square miles) of protected land. Image courtesy of the Amazon Conservation Team.

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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