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Drivers of Colombia’s peacetime deforestation weave a complex web

A common squirrel monkey in Colombian Amazon.

A common squirrel monkey in Colombian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • When the Colombian government signed a historic peace accord with the paramilitary group FARC in 2016, conservationists waited to see what peace would mean for the environment.
  • New research shows how the forces driving deforestation in both war and in peace varied across the Colombian countryside between 2001 and 2018.
  • Researchers found that cattle ranching, coca cultivation, and the size of municipalities were strong predictors of forest loss across this period, but that their respective importance varied across localities.
  • Researchers say that considering the local drivers of forest loss can help improve both peacebuilding and environmental outcomes.

When the Colombian government struck its historic peace accord with the paramilitary group FARC in 2016, heralding an end to one of the world’s longest-running wars, scientists and journalists were already contemplating the potential repercussions for Colombia’s wild places.

For many, peace brought hope that environmental protection would emerge phoenix-like from the ravages of conflict. Yet others feared peace might have a sting in its tail. What if illegal actors, renegade factions, powerful economic interests — or simply smallholders searching for a better life — swooped into the post-war vacuum left by the rebels’ exit?

“Peace brought a mixture of feelings from an environmental perspective,” says Ediscon Para, an orchid conservationist from Cali, Colombia. “We had the chance to reach out to areas that had not been inventoried, but we also worried about what changing territorial control would be mean for deforestation.”

In the intervening post-conflict years, both prophecies have panned out. Many protected areas have burned, and deforestation in parts of Colombia has accelerated as the FARC’s disbandment opened up previously forested areas to often illegal economic development. This, even as Colombian scientists continue to tally new species in far-flung, formerly guerrilla-dominated regions.

Indeed, the fallout of wartime — and now peace — on Colombia’s diverse ecosystems has been far from straightforward, according to a paper recently  published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science.

“We observe that in some areas, peace has not significantly changed the patterns of deforestation. In other places, deforestation has been exacerbated in the years since the agreement was signed,” says Augusto Castro-Nunez of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a co-author of the paper.

The study combined high-resolution satellite data of forest loss between 2001 and 2018 with a method known as “time-series clustering analysis” to determine the drivers of deforestation at different spatial scales. This allowed the researchers to track deforestation across the whole country, to the regional level, or right down to municipalities.

These macro and micro views of deforestation gave researchers insight into the forces destroying forests in different places, and across a time frame spanning intense bouts of violence, cease-fires, and the aftermath of the flagship peace accord six years ago.

How much do different potential predictors of deforestation contribute to observed deforestation rates across the 29 departments of Colombia? Researchers explored how conflict events (light blue), coca cultivation area (red), number of displaced people (orange), number of cattle (dark blue), number of cattle farms (green) and municipality area (yellow) contributed to deforestation rates in Colombia. Image courtesy of Ganzenmüller et al. (2022).

“Conservation objectives in the past rely on studies using perspectives that do not necessarily capture the local context,” Castro-Nunez told Mongabay. “By using a multi-scale analysis, our study provides new insights on what else to consider for us to gain a better understanding of deforestation dynamics in Colombia.”

Of the 1,121 Colombian municipalities examined, the authors found that just 708 accounted for 98% of Colombia’s total deforestation over the study period. Most of this forest devastation was concentrated in the biologically rich Andes and Amazon biomes, home to much of Colombia’s endemic wildlife. They also identified certain “usual suspects” cropping up repeatedly as important predictors of forest loss.

Cattle and cocaine accompanies deforestation at all scales. Coca cultivation and the density of cattle grazing in an area proved strong forecasters of deforestation from the municipal to the national level. Larger municipalities were also more likely to have their forests ravaged, something Castro-Nunez attributed to deforesters being more able to run roughshod across areas where authorities were stretched thin.

But once the researchers started digging into the details, they revealed important diversity in deforestation across Colombia — perhaps unsurprising for a nation famed for its stunning diversity of flora and fauna. Colombia is considered the second-most biodiverse nation in the world, tied with Indonesia, and behind only Brazil.

While cattle-rearing was the chief player leveling forests in the Colombian Amazon, the size of municipalities and government differences proved more noteworthy in the Andes.

Variations were also apparent at other scales, with distinct portfolios of forest destroyers emerging in different parts of Colombia.

Whereas in Norte de Santander, for instance, illicit coca cultivation best explained the forest loss, in Boyaca, cattle-rearing was most important. And while in many municipalities, deforestation accelerated exponentially within formerly FARC-dominated territories around the peace accord, in others, forest loss remained flat over time.

Deforestation driven by agriculture in the Colombian Amazon. Recent research reveals the dynamics driving deforestation across the country, meaning program managers need to tailor environmental policies to local contexts to stanch the forest loss. Image by Matt Zimmerman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Our findings suggest that policy and development actors need to adjust existing interventions to arrest deforestation in Colombia … and tailor them to the local deforestation dynamics,” Castro-Nunez says.

Previous research suggests peace may have contributed to increased deforestation in former rebel strongholds in different ways. In some cases, forests may have become vulnerable, as rebels no longer needed to maintain them as hideouts from airborne detection. Other times, peace may have encouraged greater road-building efforts, with ensuing forest destruction.

But Castro-Nunez says more research is needed to understand why some municipalities have bucked this trend, showing no change in forest loss after the peace accord. It might be that these municipalities achieved relative stability prior to the peace process, he says, or that they didn’t experience substantial changes in territorial control.

Whatever the reasons, Castro-Nunez says that both peacebuilding and forest conservation efforts would benefit from considering local drivers, and they can avoid past mistakes developed based on generalizations of the environmental threats at play.

“For example, there have been tendencies to prescribe tools to halt the expansion of cattle ranching, as some narratives point to this activity as a major driver of deforestation in Colombia. Yet, the reality is that cattle ranching is in some areas a tool for land grabbing,” he says.

Research by the Crisis Group has shown how illegal actors and rebel splinter groups use cattle to consolidate large areas of land and launder ill-gotten gains in Colombia’s countryside.

In such cases, Castro-Nunez says, a renewed focus on reducing land grabbing, such as through collective land titles, would lead to better outcomes than policies focused on improving cattle-ranching practices per se.

More localized analyses could also shed light on how peace intersects with environmental protection in other countries.

For example, why did peace in Mozambique enable the recovery of megafauna devastated by the civil war there, whereas in Peru and Indonesia it led to a rise in forest destruction?

“An understanding of more localized drivers … can improve both peacebuilding and conservation outcomes because they can inform solutions that fit the context of a particular locality,” Castro-Nunez says.

Banner image: A common squirrel monkey in Colombian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Citations:

Armenteras, D., Schneider, L., & Dávalos, L. M. (2018). Fires in protected areas reveal unforeseen costs of colombian peace. Nature Ecology & Evolution3(1), 20-23. doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0727-8

Murillo-Sandoval, P. J., Gjerdseth, E., Correa-Ayram, C., Wrathall, D., Van Den Hoek, J., Dávalos, L. M., & Kennedy, R. (2021). No peace for the forest: Rapid, widespread land changes in the Andes-Amazon region following the colombian Civil War. Global Environmental Change69, 102283. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102283

Ganzenmüller, R., Sylvester, J. M., & Castro-Nunez, A. (2022). What peace means for deforestation: An analysis of local deforestation dynamics in times of conflict and peace in Colombia. Frontiers in Environmental Science10. doi:10.3389/fenvs.2022.803368

International Crisis Group. (2021). A broken canopy: Preventing deforestation and conflict in Colombia (91). Retrieved from: https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/andes/colombia/091-broken-canopy-deforestation-and-conflict-colombia