- A reporting team has analyzed the impact of environmental crimes in 320 Indigenous reserves that are part of the Colombian Amazon biome. According to Global Forest Watch, more than 19,000 hectares (more than 47,000 acres) of tree cover were lost in 218 of these reserves in 2022.
- Illegal coca crops were also recorded in 88 reserves, with illegal mining-related impacts reported in at least 10 reserves.
- Illegal groups that exercise territorial control with weapons are threatening Indigenous governance and keeping inhabitants confined to their territories.
In June 2023, where the Caquetá River leaves Colombian territory and enters Brazil, no more than 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) from the border, Custodio Yucuna Tanimuca came across a group of soldiers stranded in the Córdoba stream, one of the most feared rapids in the tributary even for the most skilled navigators. The soldiers asked the Indigenous resident, health promoter and leader of the Yucuna ethnic group, born in the Curare Los Ingleses Reserve, to help them cross the stream on his boat. Skilled in such matters, like almost all those who grew up navigating the tempestuous waters, he took them to the other side of the river, where they continued on their way.
What Tanimuca did not know, was that the group from the army’s 26th forest brigade was after a shipment of 800 kilograms (1,764 pounds) of pressed marijuana. The well-guarded cargo, stored on a farm in the southeast of the country, was destined for Brazil, a country where the marijuana trade has increased in recent years and can be costlier than cocaine.
The price that Custodio Yucuna Tanimuca paid for his help was death. Two days later, the illegal armed group that was guarding the shipment of marijuana (one of the criminal gangs that controls the Caquetá River, through which cocaine, weapons, gold and other illegally exploited metals are moved) murdered him. According to several local sources who asked that their identities be protected, the group prevented the area’s residents from moving Tanimuca’s body and from reporting the crime. No one talks about this issue in this part of the Colombian Amazon, where inhabitants are confined unless criminal groups authorize their movements.
“Those defending the territory are immediately threatened. They have to be still or quiet because otherwise they will lose their life,” says Carlos Alberto Gaitán, coordinator of territory, the environment and climate change of the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC), when referring to the security situation for leaders in Amazon territories.
A month before Tanimuca’s murder, the Ombudsperson’s Office issued Early Alert no. 017-2023, which warned about the risk in the area, especially for communities living along the border between Vaupés and Amazonas, specifically between the municipalities of Taraira and La Pedrera, due to the presence of two dissident groups of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). They are the Carolina Ramírez First Front, which operates from the Putumayo River to the middle of the Caquetá River, and the Armando Ríos First Front, an organization that, together with organized criminal groups in Brazil, traffic drugs and illegally mined products, such as gold and rare minerals (17 elements such as lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium and europium) that have numerous technological applications.
For years, Indigenous reserves in the Colombian Amazon have been the silent victims of increasingly worsening violence. To understand the magnitude of this problem, a team from Mongabay Latam, in partnership with three Colombian media outlets, Baudó Agencia Pública, entreojos.co and La Silla Vacía, and the journalist network La Liga Contra el Silencio (League against Silence], traveled to five reserves to report on what Indigenous communities are experiencing, geospatially analyzing the impact of environmental crimes in 230 territories of the Colombian Amazon biome (an area that covers six entire departments and part of four more). Their findings show a critical situation: 218 Amazon reserves lost more than 19,181 hectares (47,397 acres) of tree cover in 2022, with illegal coca crops present in 88 reserves and pollution from illegal gold mining in eight rivers impacting 10 reserves.
The results of this geographical analysis together with data from seven state institutions and civil society led the reporting team to five reserves surrounded by illegal activity: Yurayaco, El Hacha, La Yuquera, Villa Catalina and Curare Los Ingleses.
The Indigenous communities of Bajo Caquetá live in confinement, and they are not the only ones. In the Amazon, illegal groups navigate the rivers, cross the forests and fight to break the barriers that ancestral territories have created for millennia to protect the forest and its natural resources as well as their culture and their lives.
Living together to survive
“Every community that lives in the Amazon has its beliefs that enable them to survive because that’s what Indigenous peoples have done in our country — survive,” Carlos Alberto Gaitán, Piapoco Indigenous leader and coordinator of OPIAC, says in an interview with Mongabay Latam.
According to Gaitán, this difficult path of resistance has resulted in many fatalities in recent years. According to the nongovernmental organization Global Witness, Colombia is among the most dangerous communities in the world for environmental and territorial defenders. In the past 10 years, at least 382 environmental defenders were murdered in Colombia, 159 of whom were Indigenous people.
“In our country, some leaders have died defending the territory. We have our own way of governing, but we don’t believe in weapons; we’re more about spirituality. So, because we’re peaceful and therefore vulnerable, the [armed] groups have abused us,” says Gaitán.
With illegal groups ruling, many of the threats and deaths that occur in these territories remain unknown, such as the murder of Tanimuca. “There is no protection from the government, so you have to distance yourself. Imagine, we’re the lungs of the world and we barely have a candle to light, we don’t have the conditions. What are we going to do? In our area there are obviously groups, but what can we do? We need to know how to live with them, it’s the only way. That’s our motto: We need to know how to live together where we are … to live together to survive,” says Gaitán.
The 230 Indigenous reserves span 27 million hectares (67 million acres), which represent 56% of the Colombian Amazon biome.
The geospatial analysis carried out for this report by Mongabay Latam was based on information from the National Land Agency, the Territorial Environmental Information System of the Colombian Amazon, Global Forest Watch, the Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System (SIMCI), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information and the Gaia Amazonas Foundation. The data collected and analyzed provided insight on the impact of deforestation, the presence of illegal coca crops and illegal mining throughout Indigenous territories in the Colombian Amazon.
According to information from Global Forest Watch, 218 of the 230 Indigenous reserves (those with at least 1% of their territory within the Amazon biome) are affected by the loss of tree cover. Global Forest Watch defines tree cover loss as the complete removal of forests, plants and vegetation, “for any reason, including human-related loss as well as loss caused by natural phenomena.”
Of these 218 reserves, the four that have lost the most hectares are Nukak Maku (3,264 hectares or 8,065 acres), Vaupés (2,445 hectares or 6,041 acres), Predio Putumayo (1,514 hectares or 3,741 acres) and Llanos del Yarí-Yaguará II (1,179 hectares or 2,913 acres), which are in the departments of Guaviare, Vaupés, Putumayo, Amazonas and Caquetá, respectively.
When analyzing the Indigenous territories that lost large percentages of their land in 2022, 12 are among those most affected with respect to their expanse. Of these, the San Rafael Reserve in Caquetá stands out, having lost 5% of its land, as well as the Inkal Awá Reserve in Putumayo and the La Julia Reserve in Meta, both of which lost 3%.
Illegal coca crops are responsible for a lot of the deforestation reported in the Colombian Amazon. The geospatial analysis has revealed that this problem is affecting at least 88 reserves, each of which has more than 2 hectares (4.9 acres) of coca crops. The most critical cases are located between in Guaviare (Nukak Maku, Morichal Viejo-Santa Rosa, and Cerro Cucuy) and in Putumayo (Villa Catalina de Puerto Rosario, Yarinal-San Marcelino, San Andrés-Las Vegas, Buenavista, Damasco Vides, Awá De Cañaveral, El Hacha and Jerusalén San Luis Alto Picudito).
Although it does not affect a large proportion of the reserves, illegal mining is another crime that represents a serious problem for at least 10 of them. The eight Amazon rivers bordering these territories have been contaminated with mercury from illegal activities. This not only impacts biodiversity, but the health of communities in the reserves.
The advancement of coca crops in Putumayo
The 2022 data from the UNODC SIMCI reveal a substantial increase in illegal coca crops in the Colombian Amazon reserves, rising from 4,743 hectares (11,720 acres) in 2021 to 6,618 hectares (16,353 acres) in 2022 — an increase higher than the national average. According to SIMCI data, illegal planting increased by 18% for all the country’s reserves for the period, and by 39% in the Amazon.
Of all the reserves in the country that have coca crops, 28% are distributed in three Amazon regions, with 14% distributed in just one, Nukak Maku, where 925 hectares (2,285 acres) of coca crops are planted. Following this is Villa Catalina de Puerto Rosario, with 465 hectares (1,149 acres) of coca crops and Yarinel-San Marcelino with 431 hectares (1,065 acres).
Putumayo is one of the most critical areas. In 2022, in 45 of the 78 Indigenous reserves in the department, an average of 105 hectares (259 acres) of coca crops were recorded, according to analysis of UNODC data by Mongabay Latam. Furthermore, eight of the 10 Amazon reserves with the largest number of illegal crops are found there, accounting for 36% of all coca planted in Colombia’s Indigenous territories.
The five reserves that have the highest percentage of their territories taken for these crops are also in Putumayo. The most notable case is that of Selva Verde, a reserve of the Awá people, which has had 45% of its territory taken for these crops. Nuevo Horizonte, of the Pastos community, ranks second, with 41% of its reserve affected by coca crops, and Damasco Vides also of the Awá people, ranks third, with 28% of its land affected.
The situation is the same along the southern border, where the Putumayo River separates Colombia from Ecuador and Peru. There, the Siona communities lead their own resistance to threats and confinement. Armed with their batons and proudly wearing armbands of the Indigenous guard, the young leaders of several communities share that they are unable to move freely throughout their own territory because of the illegal armed groups.
These illegal groups of FARC dissidents (in this area, the Border Command and the Carolina Ramírez First Front, which are enemy factions) control the illegal crops, which in the northern part of the Amazon, near the Caquetá River, leaves dozens of hectares of land deforested that border or are even part of the reserves.
On the journey that the La Silla Vacía reporters took along the Putumayo River, at the entrance to the El Hacha Reserve between Puerto Asís and Puerto Leguízamo, they encountered a checkpoint of armed men from the Border Command who were checking the ID cards of passengers using the public transport boats against a list.
From this perspective, the battle seems lost in Putumayo. “We keep on going because everything is here, our teaching, Mother Earth — everything that gives us life. We were born with a sense to protect and care, but we can’t do anything about the logging that makes way for crops. We fight so that they won’t enter our reserve, our territory, but there are areas where it’s prohibited to cut down the coca plants because everything is being monitored,” says one of the members of the Indigenous guard.
For Leonardo Correa, technical coordinator of UNODC, illegal coca crops are just the start of what is happening in the area. “I’m concerned that the hub in Peru is already using the river because the business is not just to plant coca crops, but to process them, which involves moving substances, setting up laboratories and making landing strips or having a flow along the river — this is a lot more complex.” Researchers are worried about the possibility of drug traffickers building hundreds of runways within the best-preserved Indigenous territories and national parks in the Amazon, as part of efforts to reach Brazil and continue their drug marketing process.
Those who move through the region confirm that these fears are already a reality. Juan Felipe Guhl, coordinator of the socioenvironmental dynamics research program at the Amazonian Scientific Research Institute (SINCHI) confirms that reports have been received on the presence of illegal groups in the area that control the coca business on the border with Amazonas. “The vulnerability of the human rights of communities in Putumayo is much greater than in the rest of the Amazon region, and this extends to the north of the Amazon. It’s an area of high tension where people can’t move freely and where we have been prevented from carrying out several projects with Indigenous communities.”
Meanwhile, these populations live in constant uncertainty, “because of deforestation, because of crops,” say with sadness young Siona community members, who also reveal that the situation is causing them to lose their spirituality, with animals such as fish and monkeys disappearing from the area.
The forests that are losing their reserves
Comparing the map of the 230 reserves with the tree cover loss data for 2022 recorded by the Global Forest Watch satellite shows that more than 3,200 hectares (7,907 acres) of tree cover have been lost from 218 reserves. In total, these Amazon reserves have lost 19,181 hectares (47,397 acres) of forest.
The greatest losses are within an arc of deforestation that has occurred in the departments of Guaviare, Meta, Caquetá and Putumayo, where according to the nongovernmental organization Gaia Amazonas Foundation, deforestation has been on an upward trend since 2017. However, the most recent report of the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) indicates that this situation may have changed, although some experts suggest that the figures are higher.
According to IDEAM, 102 of the 230 Amazon reserves had 12,081 hectares (29,852 acres) of land deforested in 2022. The most affected territories were Llanos del Yari-Yaguará II with 2,338 hectares (5,777 acres) deforested, then Nukak Maku with 2,251 hectares (5,562 acres). Following these were Predio Putumayo with 904 hectares (2,233 acres) lost, Vaupés with 745 hectares (1,840 acres) and Selva da Mataven with 736 hectares (1,818 acres).
When analyzed in terms of the percentage lost with respect to the total territory, two reserves lost 7% of their land in 2022: La Aguadita and Monilla Amena.
According to a study by the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development on forest loss in the Colombian Amazon, in the department of Guaviare, “8,391 hectares (20,734 acres) of natural forest have been transformed in recent years to expand preexisting plots, open roads, introduce livestock and plant new crops for illicit use.”
In the five reserves that the reporting team visited, more than 36,000 alerts of tree cover loss were reported on the Global Forest Watch platform between Jan. 1 and Oct. 12, 2023. Each alert represents the loss of an area of tropical forest measuring 30-by-30 meters (98-by-98 feet), which is roughly the size of a basketball court.
Deforestation has several faces in the Colombian Amazon, each of which has consequences for Indigenous people. The recently published Natural Vegetation Map of Colombia shows that along the border between the Orinoquía and Amazonía regions, 25-30% of plant cover has been lost. Orlando Rangel ( who holds a PhD in biology and is the director of the Institute of Natural Sciences of the National University of Colombia), who led the project, explains to Mongabay Latam, “It’s very clear where the areas without vegetation are. In Caquetá, Guaviare and Putumayo, transformation fronts are endangering the 10 or 15 reserves located there. If measures aren’t taken to prevent them from connecting, everything will be lost.”
The small communities in the arc of deforestation are living their own tragedy. In La Yuquera, a reserve of just 7,708 hectares (19,046 acres) between the Nukak Maku Reserve and Serranía del Chiribiquete National Natural Park in the department of Guaviare, there is very little that the Yucano people who inhabit the reserve can do. “We’ve fought to stop the reserve from continuing to be destroyed, but it’s impossible against the farmers who say the lands are empty. We’ve avoided clashes with them but they’ve entered our territory,” says Gustavo Bernal, the leader of the Indigenous reserve. In 2022, the reserve lost 339 hectares (837 acres) of tree cover due to activities that include extensive livestock farming, the expansion of the agricultural frontier and coca planting, among others.
In Putumayo, the Inga people, who are ancestral inhabitants of the Villa Catalina reserve in Puerto Rosario, cannot travel through the reserve for security reasons. For several years now, settlers have occupied thousands of hectares of forest within their territory, cutting down trees, introducing livestock, and planting extensive areas with legal and illegal crops. Dissidents patrol throughout the territory with no letup.
“In the river area by the José María Inspection [adjacent to the reserve], we were approached by people from Caquetá, who seemed intent on leaving no tree standing,” says Olga López, Indigenous leader of the Villa Catalina reserve in Puerto Rosario. The figures support this, with the reserve having lost 496 hectares (1,225 acres) of tree cover in 2022. Despite all these pressures, if the Amazon territory is analyzed as a whole, the resistance of Indigenous peoples in their territories has managed to keep forest loss at just 0.19% in recent decades, according to the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development.
According to Rangel, all types of infiltration into the forest must be stopped, from road development to the exploitation of gold and rare minerals, with efforts made to protect the land. “If I clear a little path for one man with an animal, then next I’m going to say let’s clear a path for three men with three animals, and then for a mule train. The impact is going to be increasingly bigger and unstoppable.”
Another factor is the health of the Amazon’s inhabitants. “With respect to deforestation, we’re not just talking about the disappearance of tree cover but also the mobilization of mercury and other metals that go and accumulate up the food chain, for example in the fish that the Amazon’s inhabitants consume,” warns Santiago Roberto Duque Escobar, a biologist and associate professor at the Laboratory of Wetland Management-Amazonian Research Institute. Duque Escobar is leading a study that seeks to verify whether the mercury left by deforestation also affects the chagras (community croplands) and in turn the food that Indigenous residents consume daily.
Ultimately, this all concerns Indigenous peoples’ very existence because Indigenous peoples depend on the existence of their territories.
Gold that does not shine
“Our survival is through nature because it’s what gives us food, but white people are already impacting us because while we conserve nature and take care of it, they want to just take over our territory for many reasons, such as to illegally mine,” says Indigenous leader Carlos Alberto Gaitán.
Illegal mining is not new in the Amazon, but the current boom is, according to experts consulted, who also mentioned the high prices of gold in international markets. The Gaia Amazonas Foundation and UNODC have each independently monitored the presence of illegal mining in part of the region, specifically in the rivers that cross it. In these rivers, they have identified mining areas, extraction sites and even supply boats.
According to reports issued from these organizations in 2021, some type of exploitative activity was present in all the large Amazon rivers, as was also evident from the analysis conducted by Mongabay Latam, which involved comparing the reserve’s territories with the data reported by the two organizations.
UNODC reported on the presence of legal mining in five rivers, with those most impacted including the Caquetá, Apaporis and Inírida rivers.
The Gaia Amazonas Foundation recorded mining activities in at least eight Amazon rivers from 2005 to 2019, with the most significant activity recorded in the Inírida, Caquetá, Putumayo and Cotuhé rivers. The impacts of this have reached 10 Indigenous reserves.
The dynamics of this expansion are very complex for communities, especially Indigenous ones, because they come hand in hand with the presence of FARC dissidents. Juan Felipe Guhl, from SINCHI, says that “in rivers such as the Inírida and the Atabapo, the miners themselves restrict communities and leaders in order to carry out their illegal activities. They also affect Indigenous women who end up as their partners or working in prostitution.”
The impacts for the populations that live around these rivers are very serious. According to professor Orlando Rangel, communities experience impacts similar to those created by Brazilian garimpeiros looking for gold and precious stones.
Illegal mining also affects the health of Indigenous communities. As professor Duque Escobar explains, the mercury used to obtain gold nuggets moves through the rivers and thus impacts the health of Indigenous peoples.
“The main issue is that the water, and its ecosystems, are public property. They aren’t based within reserve areas, but the reserve’s inhabitants use water ecosystem services, such as fishing, and for purposes such as farming,” explains Duque Escobar. This explains why a significant number of Indigenous residents and national park officials in the Amazon have extremely high levels of mercury in their blood and hair.
“There may not be any mining where you live and eat fish, but fish move, they have no borders. I could be in Leticia down the Amazon River a thousand kilometers (621 miles) from a mining site, but because the Madeira River flows there, which is one of the main sites for gold and precious stone seekers from Brazil, the fish could be impacted by that mining. In Leticia, SINCHI has found some species with mercury levels,” he explains.
This is disastrous for Indigenous people because beneath the landscape of lush forests that can be seen from above is a “hidden danger that doesn’t even exist in shamanism. The big issue is that if there were a shamanic cultural development to manage evils, things could be done, but when the evil concerns a foreign agent, something completely foreign such as mercury, there is no way to confront it. The issue is so delicate that it can put people’s existence at risk,” says Duque Escobar.
As the violence increases, the leaders of the Amazon Indigenous organizations, both the oldest and the youngest, have decided to fight against “the real threat of cultural, social, population and territorial extinction,” as defined by Fabio Vanegas, Indigenous leader of the Pirá Piraná Territory and part of the Macuna people. His decision is to recover his lost ancestry and remain a guardian of the forest. “Indigenous peoples, united and supported by their spirituality, will be able to keep the mountain unspoiled,” concludes a young Siona community member as he boldly raises his baton to the sky.
Cornered Indigenous reserves is an investigation coordinated by Mongabay Latam in partnership with Baudó Agenia Pública, La Liga Contra el Silencio, entreojos.co and La Silla Vacía.
Coordinating editor: Alexa Vélez. Editors: Michelle Carrere and Thelma Gómez Durán. Coordination: Dora Montero. Reporting team: Dora Montero (Mongabay Latam), Natalia Pedraza, Isabel Caballero Samper, and Jeanneth Valdivieso (La Liga Contra el Silencio), Germán García (entreojos.co) and Santiago Rodríguez (La Silla Vacía). Data analysis and visualization: Juan Julca, Cristian Salas and Vanessa Romo Espinoza. Photography and video: Sergio Alejandro Melgarejo, Carlos Piedrahita and Víctor Galeano (Baudó Agencia Pública). Audiovisual production: Richard Romero. Promotion and networks: Dalia Medina and Richard Romero (Mongabay Latam) and Nicoll Fonseca (La Liga Contra el Silencio).
Editor’s note: This report is part of the project “Amazon Rights in the Spotlight: Protection of People and Forests,” a series of investigative reports on deforestation and environmental crimes in Colombia, funded by the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative. Editorial decisions are independent and are not based on donor support.