- Former fighters in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are working to restore the Colombian Amazon through a cooperative called Comuccom.
- Their goal, despite ongoing conflicts and danger, is to plant 1 million native trees to counteract deforestation from illegal mining, logging, ranching and coca cultivation.
- Those involved in the effort, many of whom were just children when they joined FARC, have already planted 125,000 trees; another 250,000 trees are ready in their cooperative nursery.
PUERTO GUZMÁN, Putumayo, Colombia — Duberney López Martinéz was only 13 when he joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2003. “Since I can remember, my family has always been involved in insurgent movements,” he says. “At 13, I ran away from a coercive father at home, and a friend invited me to join the FARC in the Putumayo selva. I … decided to join after seeing a group of boys my age killed and cut up by paramilitary at a checkpoint.”
Today, Duberney, 33, lives with his wife and young son after spending more than a decade fighting in the FARC 32nd Front and two years in jail. In 2017, after being released, as part of his reintegration into society after the ceasefire, Duberney got involved in the ecological restoration of the Colombian Amazon. He and another 23 ex-FARC members are promoting the ecological restoration of the Colombian Amazon as part of the Communitarian Multiactive Cooperative of the Common (Comuccom) located a few kilometers from Puerto Guzmán, in southwest Colombia on the border with Ecuador.
Comuccom aims to plant and care for 1 million native trees in order to counteract deforestation from illegal gold mining, cattle ranching, coca-growing and illegal logging. According to recent data from the Ministry style=”text-decoration: underline;”>of Environment and Sustainable Development, the Colombian Amazon lost 1,858,285 hectares (4,591,922 acres) between 2001 and 2022, representing 58% of national deforestation.
“In 2017, after the signing of peace agreements, our cooperative was born to involve local associations as protagonists in restoring nature for future generations and active peacebuilders,” explains Duberney, who became Comuccom president after the murder of Jorge Santofimio Yepes during a cooperative meeting in February 2022. “We want to show that we can leave behind a culture of conflict and move toward solidarity and peace in our territory.”
How do peace agreements work for Amazon restoration?
Today, the cooperative is located on a 12.7-hectare (30-acre) public farm loaned for use by Rodrigo Rivera, the former mayor of Puerto Guzmán. Here, 23 families live with their children and work to restore ecosystems via agroforestry, aquaculture and meliponiculture.
Comuccom is also leading the Network of Amazonic Communitarian Nurseries, 12 organizations of peace agreement signers, women and rural workers in the region of Caquetá, Meta, Putumayo and Guaviare working to preserve the biologic corridor of the Amazon. They promote a network of 14 nurseries spread across the so-called “Arc of Deforestation” in Colombia where 112,899 hectares (278,979 acres) were cleared in 2022, according to the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM). Their goal is to restore the entire Colombian Amazon Basin, reaching the most affected areas, even those in the deep jungle.
“I met Jorge Santofimio in the early 2000. We became close friends playing microfútbol [mini soccer] in the jungle when we were part of FARC,” explains Armando Aroca Sanchez, 35, legal representative for Comuccom. “Once we decided to sign the peace agreements, for our reincorporation, we wanted to work on something good for people and the ecosystems.”
Aroca Sanchez has two daughters, ages 16 and 11. The elder was just 6 months old when he joined the FARC, and the second was born during the conflict. Now, he dreams of seeing them grow up free in a peaceful country.
“In the FARC, we had strict rules for environment preservation, and after laying down arms, we decided to create a social and solidarity economy cooperative based on tilapia farming and Amazon restoration,” he continues. “Our dream started with some seeds of the abarco tree (Cariniana pyriformis) brought by my friend Jorge [Santofimio]. Then, 14 trees grew up and are still here in his memory.”
On Feb. 24, 2022, Santofimio, the former cooperative president, was murdered in the Comuccom headquarters when paramilitaries opened fire during a night assembly. Four people were injured, among them the 6-month-old child of Angie Lorena Sanabria.
Since then, military units have been patrolling the farm, along with the cooperative’s own security. Some Comuccom leaders couldn’t exit the farm, not even to pick up their children from school due to the threats. In Colombia, since 2016, 385 ex-FARC peace agreement signers were killed, including 11 women, according to the last report of the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz). Despite threats, Comuccom continues its environmental work in the Colombian Amazon.
Melipona bees for a million trees
So far, according to their planning, the dream of 1 million trees planted is just eight years away. Since their first restoration project, which took place in 2021, Comuccom and the Network of Amazonic Communitarian Nurseries supported by the environmental authority of south Amazonia (Corpoamazonia) have already planted 125,000 trees across 49 deforested hectares (120 acres) in Putumayo. Now, another 250,000 trees are ready in their cooperative nursery, named Musu Kaisai, which means “New Life” in Inga people’s native language.
More than tree planting, the cooperative aims to regenerate the soils impoverished by cattle pasture and coca crops, as well as the water sources polluted by gold mining and mercury use. They also want to restore ecological corridors for fauna such as jaguars, armadillo, white-faced monkeys, and birds like hummingbirds, parrots, and herons, which have started to return to the newly planted trees. “We believe that a full ecosystem restoration is possible,” continues Duberney. “We are using a scientific model studying tree species that have been lost in the past and reintroducing them. … It’s a process that needs time; a wood needs around 60 years for a total recovery.”
Comuccom recently planted 11,000 trees on 7 hectares (17 acres) in the Afro-descendant community of Las Acacias, located 5 kilometers away from the cooperative in an area heavily vulnerable to deforestation. Just before the Mongabay visit, a hectare of jungle was cleared by illegal settlements close to Las Acacias.
More than 50 tree species are hosted in their cooperative’s nursery, some at risk of extinction according to the IUCN Red List, such as the carrecillo (Pachira quinata) as well as Amazonic fruit such as copoazú (Theobroma grandiflorum), açai (Euterpe oleracea), guayaba Amazonica (Eugenia stipitata) and caimarón (Pourouma cecropiifolia), associated with timber-yield trees like laurel amarillo (Ocotea veraguensis) and cedro americano (Cedrela odorata) and medicinal vegetation such as sàbila (Aloe vera) and matarratón (Gliricidia sepium).
Among the trees, Melipona stingless bees fly tirelessly from 65 hives. “We started with meliponiculture two years ago to counteract massive bee deaths due to manual fumigation with glyphosate that was done to eradicate coca crops [by the army],” says Angie Lorena Sanabria, founder of Asocolib (Association of Women’s Freedom Builders), formed by 13 women engaged in meliponiculture, as part of Comuccom. “We take care of the bees for pollination to produce a small amount of honey for our consumption, and to promote female leadership to support women working outside the household.”
Sanabria is not an ex-combatant. Five years ago, she came to the Comuccom farm to visit a cousin and fell in love with a former FARC member. Now, she lives here with her 2-year-old Nahia, injured during Santofimio’s murder. “We know we are all in danger,” adds Sanabria. “But at the same time, we muster up courage to continue with our collective work. I feel lucky to be present in the process developed by the cooperative and the association.”
Despite the peace agreement, the conflict is still present in daily lives and memories, according to Kristina Lyons, professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been working in the region in the last two decades. “In Putumayo, armed conflict and antidrug policies heavily impacted bonds among people, communities and their relations with the region’s ecosystems,” Lyons tells Mongabay. “The ecological restoration of the Amazon has deep significance for healing relations between humans ruptured by the conflict and among people and their territories. It can be understood as a form of reparation for war crimes and other kinds of violence in the wake of the peace agreements.”
Despite community efforts, resource exploitation in the Amazon is still ongoing. According to Global Forest Watch, from 2002 to 2022, Putumayo lost about 166,000 hectares of humid primary forest, which represents 53% of its total tree cover loss over the same period.
“In Puerto Guzmán, there is a constant flow of people from different parts of the country. We’ve observed fragmented deforestation: in some areas for land-grabbing or mining, in others for cattle and coca crops, [the latter] in decline due to changing consumption habits and politics that make no profitable new coca plantations. Most of the people are clearing a patch and then waiting for land titling or road construction to increase value,” explains Jorge Luis Guzmán Rocha, investigator at Fundacion ItarKa, contributor at the University of Rosario and one of the sons of the Puerto Guzmán founder.
According to Guzmán Rocha, people continue with deforestation and degradation in Puerto Guzman, as is the case of illegal logging of valuable timber-yield species, used to build luxury furniture in Colombia or for export. “Many farmers have no economic alternatives, they know that deforestation is not good, but at the same time, preserving the forest is not profitable for them. Thus, they need a recognition of their ecosystems and biodiversity value at the national level. This is crucial to counteract deforestation drivers,” says Guzmán Rocha. “Now it’s even more important during the climate crisis.”
In this sense, Comuccom is also looking for ways to make its restoration work self-sustainable. Duberney says they are working on a business model focused on restoring all ecosystem services: tree plantation with long-term care, fruit tree incomes for the communities, soil and water source regeneration. “Also, we want to promote education, as we did last year, hosting 120 students on our farm,” says Duberney. “We are working to create around 20 good job contracts for cooperative people employed in different areas.” He says they are still far away from their goal, needing good government investments, “not just money put in reforestation with the trees abandoned once they are planted.”
At the political level, all eyes are on President Gustavo Petro’s government. “In the long term, we hope to be part of the national initiative to pay salaries for Amazon restoration. We want to show that environmental defense has cost us human lives but that we are firm in our objectives,” explains Aroca Sanchez. “There are plenty of people here who don’t like coca plantations. We hope to be able to plant 125,000 trees per year and eventually reach 1 million trees in eight years. Then, I’ll have a rest. To me, restoring the Amazon is the same process needed for healing the heart of a person.”
Banner image: Duberney López Martinéz, president of Comuccom, walks through the cooperative’s nursery where they grow native Amazonic trees as açai (Euterpe oleracea) and guayaba amazonica (Eugenia stipitata) part of their restoration project. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.
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