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In Colombia, end of war meant start of runaway deforestation, study finds

  • A new study analyzes the changes in forest cover in Colombia before and after the signing of a peace agreement in 2016 between the government and armed guerrillas.
  • The authors found that between 1988-2012 the forest area transformed to agriculture amounted to 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres), but that in the much briefer post-conflict period of 2013-2019, the pace of conversion surged, with 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) turned into farmland.
  • The researchers also identified a direct relationship between violent events and the loss of forest cover.

The signing of a peace deal in 2016 between the Colombian government and armed rebels was one of the most anticipated moments in decades for millions of Colombians. But the end of one of the world’s longest-running civil wars marked the start of a severe setback for Colombia’s forests.

Since the signing of the peace accords, which ended a 57-year conflict, the longest in the Western Hemisphere, deforestation has increased by 40% compared to the previous 24 years, when the war between government forces and the leftist FARC rebels was in its most critical phase, with the insurgents staking their presence across a significant portion of the country.

This is one of the main conclusions of a new study about “rapid, widespread land changes in the Andes-Amazon region following the Colombian civil war.” It was published in the July edition of the journal Global Environmental Change.

Colombian researcher Paulo Murillo-Sandoval led the research as part of his doctoral studies at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University (OSU). According to Murillo-Sandoval, the study’s objective was to evaluate the changes in forest cover in the Colombian Amazon before, during, and at the end of the war.

Although previous research already showed an increase in forest loss after the end of the conflict in Colombia, this study explores not just the deforestation after the peace deal, but the 30 years before its signing — all the way back to the 1980s (when the conflict was in one of its most intense moments). It then compared this to the few years that have elapsed since the signing.

The study also analyzes how forest cover has changed in conflict zones. For this, the authors examined the deforestation that occurred within a 1-kilometer (0.6-mile) radius of sites of armed attacks with at least one fatality.

“We observed satellite images of the Landsat Archive to compare how land use was transformed when FARC was the environmental authority in a good part of Colombian territory with what happened when [they] left those territories, giving way to other actors, such as the peasants, the big companies and the state,” Murillo-Sandoval said in an interview.

The research details how FARC acted as a governing authority during the conflict in areas of control.

“After the peace agreement was reached, the forests were more secure but also had little or no government oversight, creating an opportunity for people with money and power to take over the land,” David Wrathall, an associate professor at OSU and one of the paper’s co-authors, stated in a press release.

“It is undeniable that the mere presence of FARC represented an obstacle for investors, be they peasants or large agricultural projects,” Murillo-Sandoval said. “Proof of that is that in the Andes-Amazonia area, during the 1988-2012 period, the size of ​​forest transformed to agriculture reached 1.2 million hectares [3 million acres], while only in the 2013-2019 period the conversion to agriculture was much faster, going 0.5 million hectares [1.2 million acres].”

The authors conclude that slow implementation of conservation governance, the emergence of illegal land markets, and illicit land uses like illegal cattle ranching could accelerate land cover change. Image by Pedro Szekely via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

More deaths, less forest

To correlate the incidence of violence with the increase in deforestation, the researchers used the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, a database that, in the case of Colombia, keeps track of confrontations between different armed actors such as FARC, paramilitary groups, the state, and civilians, in which there was at least one fatality.

The researchers identified a total of 181 violent events and found that the forest cover within a 1-km radius of these conflict events decreased significantly: from an average of 19% during the conflict, it surged to 30% in the post-conflict period.

According to Wrathall, this proves that “conflict itself causes deforestation.”

Similarly, the expansion of agriculture has been more substantial during the post-conflict period, but exclusively in municipalities with low population density, the study shows.

The authors conclude that “slow implementation of conservation governance in the region; the emergence of illegal land markets by people with wealth and power; and illicit land uses such as illegal cattle ranching and, to a much smaller degree, coca farming” — could accelerate land cover change in the coming years.

The researchers also found that the presence of the FARC had a positive impact on the increase of secondary forest, fundamental for the generation of primary forest, but this has changed negatively during the post-conflict period.

Wrathall notes in the OSU press release that their intention is to identify “an incredible policy need, not only in Colombia but in other areas of the world affected by armed conflicts, such as the Congo or Liberia.”

Banner image: A black-mantled tamarin in Colombian Amazon forests. Image by Gregoire Dubois via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).