- In 2019, the Colombian government, led by Colombia’s former president, Iván Duque, launched Operation Artemis, which sought to stop deforestation, but it barely tackled 3% of the total deforested area in the country between 2019 and 2021, according to calculations by Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública.
- Although Operation Artemis cost Colombia more than 3.4 billion Colombian Pesos (about $765,000), deforestation did not slow down, going from 158,894 ha (about 392,636 acres) lost to deforestation in 2019 to 174,102 ha (about 430,215 acres) in 2021.
- Former President Duque also promised to recover the rainforest in the regions targeted by Artemis, but so far, there has not been any forest restoration work in those areas, according to what Colombia’s Network of National Natural Parks told Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública.
*This report is part of a journalistic collaboration between Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública, a Colombian news source.
In 2019, the Colombian government launched a military offensive against deforestation known as Operation Artemis. Led by former President Iván Duque, the Colombian Army supported the initiative and affirmed that it would effectively stop forest loss in Colombia’s national parks. “This operation seeks to tackle the crime of deforestation that has been affecting our country … so that we achieve three goals: stop continuous deforestation, recover our tropical rainforest [and] our forests, and prosecute those who are behind it,” Duque said during the launch on April 28, 2019. Yet, an investigation by Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública reveals the campaign barely tackled 3% of the country’s total deforested areas in the next two years — despite the operation’s substantial size and expense.
During the first year of Operation Artemis, 540 million Colombian pesos (about $120,000) were spent and 23,000 members of Colombia’s Public Forces were deployed, according to information shared by the Ministry of National Defense with Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública. In 2020 and 2021, funding for the operation was approximately 1,469 million Colombian pesos (about $330). Between 2019 and 2022, the total amount allowed for 21 military operations, of which 20 took place in national natural parks and forest reserve areas in the Colombian Amazon, mainly in the departments of Guaviare, Meta, Caquetá, Putumayo and Amazonas.
According to former President Duque’s administration, the results of these operations were reflected in the amount of territory taken from illegal groups, as announced by then-Minister of Environment Carlos Eduardo Correa Escaf in June 2022 when he discussed “the recovery of 27,046 hectares[about 66,832 acres] through Operation Artemis.”
Why do many people criticize Operation Artemis? The experts interviewed for this article agree that its most important goals — stopping deforestation and finding those responsible — were not achieved. Those 27,000 ha pale in comparison with forest loss figures from 2020, when 171,685 ha (about 424,243 acres) were deforested, and 2021, with 174,102 ha (about 430,215 acres), according to data from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM).
“At the end of last year, we came to suffer firsthand the effects of Operation Artemis. There were pretty tense situations with the military and they captured the governor of La Esperanza, made up of people from the Nasa community,” said Luz Mery Panche, a member of the Nasa Indigenous group from San Vicente del Caguán in the Caquetá department. “They released him, but during another operation in March 2022, two community members were taken, and for having complained of abuses in that operation, in April … they captured the governor once again. Artemis only brought us more conflicts.” Panche is also a member of the National Ethnic Coordination for Peace.
Despite Operation Artemis, deforestation remained relentless
The operations were led by Colombia’s Joint Task Force OMEGA, which consists of the Army, the Air Force, the National Police and the Navy, and aims to protect the country’s resources and combat illegal armed groups and international crimes. Each operation, or phase, of Operation Artemis involved the participation of 10 high mountain battalions, an anti-drug trafficking brigade and another brigade against illegal mining. Coast Guard units, the Colombian Naval Infantry and the National Police also participated.
Five natural parks and one forest reserve were prioritized during Operation Artemis: Serranía de Chiribiquete, La Paya, Tinigua, Picachos, Rio Puré, and the Forest Reserve Zone of the Amazon (Zona de Reserva Forestal de la Amazonia, or ZRFA, in Spanish).
As a result of the campaign, 113 people were captured: 96 were arrested as they were caught while committing a crime and 17 were arrested using court orders. So far, there are 13 convictions, according to information shared by the Office of the Attorney General with Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública. The Office of the Attorney General also has 13 legal processes in the trial stage and four cases under investigation, according to what the entity told Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública in response to our request for information. In terms of the infrastructure targeted by Operation Artemis, 53 structures — including houses, seven bridges and 12 illegal roads — were destroyed, alongside tools such as 13 branding irons used to mark cattle, 34 chainsaws and 18 scythes. The report stated that 29 weapons, seven vehicles and several cattle were also confiscated.
All of these results were obtained in just 3% of the total deforested area in Colombia between 2019 and 2021. According to IDEAM data, in that period, Colombia lost 504,682 ha (about 1.2 million acres) of forests.
Looking just at the Colombian Amazon, the situation barely changes. Only in the first half of 2022, it lost 52,460 ha (129,631 acres) after having lost 109,302 ha (270,091 acres) in 2020. If in 2019 62% of deforestation in Colombia was concentrated in this region, in 2021, that figure went up to 70%, according to information from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.
“If one looks at Operation Artemis relative to deforestation rates, forest loss did not decrease; instead, it increased. From that point of view, it was a failure,” said Manuel Rodríguez Becerra, Colombia’s former environment minister.
Rodrigo Botero Garcia, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), said “the largest debt” of former President Duque’s administration was deforestation, especially “the 700,000 ha [about 1,730,000 acres], which the country had cleared in those four years. … The military component, instead of recovering the deforested lands from the big land-grabbers, was used for the weakest part of the chain. He was unable to hold responsible those big deforesters, neither with the law nor with the Army. It is a huge debt,” said Botero.
In some Colombian national natural parks, like Sierra de la Macarena and Tinigua, the operation did not even cover one-quarter of the areas deforested during the same years. In Sierra de la Macarena National Park, for example, between Sept. 2, 2020, and March 9, 2022, 1,448 ha (3,578 acres) were intervened in, even though the forest loss reached 6,878 ha (16,996 acres), according to data from the FCDS. This means, based on calculations by Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública, that Operation Artemis only covered about 21% of the deforested area in Sierra de la Macarena National Park. In the lands that Colombian authorities entered, they arrested alleged criminals, destroyed infrastructure (such as roads, bridges, houses and machinery) and “recovered” that portion of the territory. “Recovered” is the term the government uses to refer to land from which it managed to remove inhabitants and alleged illegal loggers. In March 2022 in Tinigua National Natural Park, on the other hand, Operation Artemis intervened in 1,072 ha (about 2,650 acres), while the national park lost 8,216 ha (20,302 acres) to deforestation between April 2021 and March 2022, according to data from the FCDS. The forest loss was greater than the amount of space “recovered.”
Deforestation in Tinigua and La Macarena parks.
If we take into account the data from IDEAM between 2021 and 2022 and reference only the cases of Tinigua and Sierra de la Macarena national parks, we can say that Operation Artemis managed to intervene in an area equal to 13% of the total amount deforested in the same time period.
“The question is: What would have happened if they had not carried out the 21 operations [of Operation Artemis]? Would the [amount of] deforestation in the national natural parks have been higher? It is plausible, although it is very difficult to judge. The problem is that there are no objective evaluations for the results of each of the operations. There is no way to assess the effectiveness of Operation Artemis because there is no evidence. They should have hired a third party to evaluate it — an oversight committee,” said Rodríguez.
Doubts generated by data
Although the environment ministry has declared in its press releases that it intervened in 27,046 ha (about 66,832 acres) during Operation Artemis, Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública accessed an official list of the areas targeted, and this amount totaled about 23,842 ha (about 58,915 acres). This is 3,204 ha (about 7,917 acres) fewer than what the environment ministry publicly reported.
Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública also found discrepancies in the expenses of Operation Artemis reported by the General Command of the Military Forces (CGFM) and the Ministry of National Defense. Our team of journalists obtained access to two documents containing the total costs of the operation, detailed for each of the 21 interventions.
On Oct. 28, 2022, the Ministry of National Defense responded to Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública by providing information collected by the CGFM. It showed that from 2019 until May 2022, Operation Artemis cost a total of 2.961 billion Colombian pesos (about $668,000) and that one-third of this amount — 967 million Colombian pesos, or about $218,000 — was invested in five operations (operations #9 through #13) in 2021.
However, these data do not coincide with those that appear in another official report by the Ministry of National Defense that Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública accessed. This document, which was submitted by a government official who asked to remain anonymous, showed that the amount spent on five operations is higher than the total cost of Operation Artemis. In other words, the 3.250 billion Colombian pesos (about $733,000) spent on just five operations between 2019 and 2020 exceeded the total reported cost of Operation Artemis by 289 million Colombian pesos (about $65,200). We contacted the Ministry of National Defense to ask about these budget discrepancies, but by the time of this article’s original publication in Spanish, we did not receive a response.
Another point that also raises experts’ doubts is the issue of forest recovery. The environment ministry and the Ministry of National Defense have referred to the hectares that form part of Operation Artemis’ achievements as “intervened,” “controlled” and “recovered” areas. However, they have not stated whether this intervention, control or recovery goes beyond the arrest of presumed deforesters and the destruction of houses, roads and bridges.
According to Laura Santacolomba, director of the environmental justice department of the organization Dejusticia, the lack of transparency is a problem, since the current status of the hectares that Operation Artemis says are “recovered” remains unclear. “Nobody knows what happens with [those hectares]. What does ‘recovery’ mean? Are they conservation areas or are they areas that are excluded from the forest reserve areas?” asked Santacolomba.
In response to a request for information, the environment ministry said the areas covered by Operation Artemis have not been part of the national government’s plan to plant 180 million trees, despite the fact that “they meet some of the criteria for their prioritization to be part of a process of restoration, rehabilitation and recovery.” Still, the ministry said it was structuring the restoration projects and that it might be able to take into account the areas intervened in during Operation Artemis.
Colombia’s Network of National Natural Parks also responded by saying there were no planting or reforestation activities in the areas where Operation Artemis took place, although they acknowledged that those should be a priority. The entity added that these restoration tasks have not yet begun due to “situations [regarding] public order” that are making it more difficult for personnel to enter the area, adding that “in the areas where [Operation] Artemis was conducted, armed groups and illicit economies that promote and fund deforestation remain in the territory.” For this reason, according to Colombia’s Network of National Natural Parks, it has been impossible to develop production or forest economy projects in the various areas.
In other words, none of the “7.3 million trees planted” as part of Operation Artemis, celebrated by the previous government and its former defense minister, Diego Molano, were in the areas [that were] recovered by the military operation. Operation Artemis in the Amazon meant the deployment of military personnel and prosecutors, with support from the Air Force, to arrest and investigate alleged deforesters and destroy their infrastructure. However, they did not carry out reforestation programs, nor did they guarantee secure conditions for the constant entry of officials from the Network of National Natural Parks.
Although Rodríguez, the former minister of environment, said Colombia’s main goal should be to avoid future deforestation, he said replanting initiatives were not being prioritized in the areas where they should be done: those with the highest deforestation or with threatened forests. Silvia Gómez, the director of the organization Gaia Amazonas, added that in Colombia, many more trees are cleared than planted.
In a conversation with Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública, Diego Trujillo, the former attorney for environmental and agricultural affairs, concluded, “Artemis was a failed strategy that did not stop deforestation in any way. On the contrary; it ended up stimulating it because it did not achieve real control of the deforested areas, which started to be taken over illicitly.”
While he was in the public ministry, Trujillo explained that he proposed setting up the National Registry of Devastated and Deforested Lands, which was approved by the National Council for Deforestation Control and Other Associated Environmental Crimes (CONALDEF) and which aimed to monitor deforested areas. The registry, Trujillo said, could help avoid land-grabs by people new to the area, as the Army would intervene. However, according to him, this mechanism had not yet been implemented.
“There they have not recovered anything. The Army only went on the day of the operation. The people have come back. Where are they going to go? They’ve spent more than 40 years in the territory,” said Edilberto Daza, a rural social leader from the Foundation for the Defense of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law of Eastern and Central Colombia (DHOC), a nongovernmental organization.
Rural farmers and Indigenous people: Operation Artemis’ military objectives?
Artemis is the Greek goddess of the hunt, and for those who have denounced human rights violations, the operation became exactly that: an indiscriminate “hunt” that did not focus on those responsible for large-scale deforestation. One of the people arrested, who is now facing trial in prison, is Reinaldo Quebrada, the Nasa Indigenous community’s governor, who was arrested in San Vicente del Caguán on April 5, 2022. Quebrada has been labeled one of the biggest deforesters in Serranía de Chiribiquete National Park. This protected area saw a 13% increase in forest loss in 2021, according to the environment ministry and IDEAM. Quebrada maintains, however, that he had already been living in the area for three years by the time the park’s expansion became official in 2018.
The Office of the Attorney General is accusing Quebrada of having funded and directed the deforestation of more than 33 ha (about 82 acres) in Chiribiquete between December 2021 and March 2022. Intelligence investigators who are familiar with the case reiterated to Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública that they have evidence of deforestation against Quebrada. “They’ve accused me of being a large-scale deforester. That is completely false,” said Quebrada to Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública.
Quebrada was just one of the 113 people arrested during Operation Artemis.
In March 2022, after Quebrada’s arrest, the Colombian Commission of Legal Experts (CCJ) and the DHOC filed a complaint against members of the military. This came after two operations in the town hall of La Esperanza, a community made up of Nasa Indigenous people, located between San Vicente del Caguán in Caquetá and Calamar in Guaviare. The Office of the Inspector General is now investigating the military personnel who ran these operations.
The first operation happened Sept. 18, 2021. That was the first time Quebrada was arrested, although he was released after a few days. According to the complaint made by the community, soldiers and police officers set four houses on fire, including that of Quebrada, which was destroyed with explosives. “They violated our right to prior consultation [by expanding Chiribiquete National Park in 2018 without consulting us], since we had lived there since 2015. They bombed my house. They arrested me,” said Quebrada to Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública. In the midst of the chaos and tension of that day, the community temporarily captured a biologist from the environment ministry.
Six months later, on March 5, 2022, the Army executed a second operation in which personnel again used “explosives to blow up rural farmers’ and Indigenous people’s homes.” This operation was not referenced in documents from the ministries of environment and national defense that Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública accessed, even though the Office of the Attorney General did document it and said that it was in the trial stage. A young person died during this operation after allegedly being shot by a soldier in a confrontation between military personnel and community members.
Quebrada was arrested again a month after the operation. He is now facing legal charges for alleged kidnapping and extortion, the promotion and funding of deforestation, financing the invasion of areas of special ecological importance, as well as for the alleged manufacturing, trafficking and possession of firearms or ammunition. In short, he is accused of having orchestrated the kidnapping of a soldier.
Quebrada, the Indigenous governor, told Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública from prison that he was not a deforester and that he did not kidnap the soldier as Diego Molano, the defense minister at the time, had said when he was arrested. Molano even called Quebrada by the alias “El Indio,” or “The Indian.” However, Quebrada insisted that he only intervened so the communities would release the soldier who was held against his will. “They released me the first time, but this year in March, Artemis returned to burn the houses. There was a clash; [the military people] murdered a rural farmer. I did humanitarian work, mediating so that the others would release a soldier,” said Quebrada. “Later, they accused me of having kidnapped him. … It is a big lie,” he added.
Quebrada also explained that his community tried to justify their presence in a section of the protected area with the Network of National Natural Parks and that in 2017, they presented a formal application to the Ministry of the Interior for the recognition of their reservation.
Carlos Garay, the technical secretary of the National Human Rights Commission of Indigenous Peoples and director of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon said that Operation Artemis victimized them. “President Duque accused him of being the biggest deforester in San Vicente del Caguán. It is a setup,” said Garay.
An evaluation of the complaints compiled by our team of journalists — based on articles published by El Espectador, Verdad Abierta, the CCJ and other organizations and media outlets — showed that at least 27 arrests have been questioned, 10 incidents involving the burning or destruction of houses were reported, and one person died during an operation. The 27 questioned arrests represent 24% of the 113 total arrests and were reported in the departments of Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá.
“For us, the rural people, Operation Artemis caused a scene of terror [and] of illegal arrests. They took older people. Homes were bombed. Lots of panic was created, mercilessly, with hatred,” said Daza of the DHOC.
One of the common complaints of the communities is that they were already living in the areas targeted by the operations before they were declared protected areas. Daza added that when the operations took place, the rural farmers and Indigenous people were already negotiating with the Network of National Natural Parks. These mediations were ignored by the Army and the Office of the Attorney General.
It is estimated that between 14,000 and 22,000 people live in Colombia’s national natural parks.
“Operation Artemis has been terrible. Military support in the Amazon cannot be sustained. What is needed is for the same people to want to protect the forest, because if the effort comes from the outside, from the military, we will not be able to keep up. The country is very big,” said Liliana Dávalos, expert in deforestation and its drivers in Colombia.
Although they were residents of these areas, the rural farmers have not been offered alternatives. After the operations, several have been released in exchange for signing documents, or “passes,” in which they promised not to return to the area of the national park. However, their court proceedings continue to advance, according to Daza, the rural leader.
“Operation Artemis has not significantly targeted the large deforesters with political connections in the territory. It has, above all, [targeted] small settlers, who are responsible, but to a lesser extent,” said Nicola Clerici, an ecologist and researcher from Del Rosario University in Colombia. Quiroga, from the CCJ, added that a follow-up investigation into financial and criminal networks is needed to find those who are most responsible.
Besides possible human rights violations, there are also doubts about the confiscation of the large machinery that allows for deforestation and other environmental crimes. Several experts consulted for this article have said that large-scale deforesters do not damage the rainforest with scythes and chainsaws, but “yellow machinery” such as bulldozers and backhoes. Although the Army and the National Police have an order to destroy the machinery, cases like that of Reinel Gaitán — a palm tree cultivator who was accused of being a large-scale deforester by Molano, the former defense minister — show the complexity of the issue. Gaitán was arrested for allegedly bribing seven police officers in exchange for not confiscating backhoes used for extracting material from the Urichare River in Lejanías, Meta. According to the Office of the Attorney General, this was done for building a private road.
A questioned — but not hidden — operation
The new administration of Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s current president, decided to transform Operation Artemis. After Susana Muhamad, the current Minister of Environment, participated in CONALDEF, on Sept. 13, 2022, she announced a new focus “that emphasizes social, economic and productive aspects for communities, without losing control in the territories, but now persecuting the leadership that causes this harm to natural resources.”
Karla Díaz, a researcher from the NGO Environment and Society, said she sees the value in Muhamad’s change of focus and criticized Operation Artemis. “Given the statements made by Muhamad, it is important to emphasize the acknowledgement that Operation Artemis was a failure, since it did not address deforestation drivers, nor did it really recover areas; it was more of a demonstrative strategy that caused serious human rights violations,” said Díaz.
According to the Center for Alternatives to Development, the communities in the territory were “very firm in asking for the suspension of the military operations. What we hoped for from this administration was that the military would not be a priority in the new announcements).”
Natalia Escobar, a researcher and sociologist from Dejusticia, said the new administration must commit to reviewing what happened during Operation Artemis. “The message cannot be a clean slate. The guarantee that this will not be repeated is knowing what happened,” said Escobar. She also criticized the fact that information about Artemis was not public or easily accessible by citizens.
The organization Dejusticia and its allies plan to request that the human rights violations of Operation Artemis be reviewed as part of a follow-up to the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice’s decision that declared the Colombian Amazon a legal entity in 2018.
Editor’s note: This article is part of the project “The Rights of the Amazon in Sight: The Protection of Communities and Forests,” a series of investigative reports about the situation surrounding deforestation and environmental crimes in Colombia, funded by Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI). Editorial decisions are made on an independent basis and are not based on donor support.
Banner image: by Juan Felipe Ramírez Claro (IG: @amoe_art)