In the Colombian Amazon, Peace Has Environmental Consequences

January 10th, 2019 - by admin

Gena Steffens / Nivela & GlobalPost & Camila Bustos and Marcela Jaramillo / The Guardian – 2019-01-10 17:19:45

In the Colombian Amazon, Peace Has Environmental Consequences
Gena Steffens / Nivela & GlobalPost

BOGOTA (May 3, 2018) — Acrid yellow smoke billows from the smoldering remains of a once-untouched forest, filtering into the fragmented canopy nearby. Though clouds in the distance look like rain, it might be weeks before burning season in the Colombian Amazon is over.

In 2016, after more than half a century of civil war that left some 220,000 dead and more than 7 million displaced, a peace agreement was reached between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian state. The end of what was once the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict is assumed to be an outcome broadly beneficial to society, but for the environment it has proven to be a double-edged sword.

For decades, the Colombian Amazon — a region that makes up nearly half of the country’s territory — was virtually blocked off to human encroachment and development by the presence of the leftist guerrillas of the FARC, who long depended on the shelter provided by the region’s thick, largely uninhabited forests.

Although the FARC contributed to significant environmental damages over the years by blowing up oil and gas pipelines and supporting the widespread cultivation of illicit crops, in many cases they were the only mechanism in place for regulating land use in the far-flung regions under their control.

In the year following the implementation of the 2016 peace accords, the rate of deforestation in Colombia rose by 44 percent — a dramatic increase attributed to the FARC’s disarmament and withdrawal from isolated areas of the country which, even today, have yet to be consolidated by the Colombian state. The power vacuum opened in the FARC’s absence has led to widespread degradation in some of the country’s most ecologically important — and in many cases, still unexplored — areas.

The Amazonian department of Caqueta was long considered a FARC stronghold and was a main stage for years of violent combat between leftist guerrillas, far-right paramilitaries and the Colombian armed forces.

Today, the department has become the epicenter of Colombia’s post-conflict environmental crisis, accounting for nearly 40% of the country’s newly deforested areas, despite the fact that the department makes up only 12% of the country’s total area.

Across much of Caqueta, the FARC rebels were the only “government” inhabitants had ever known. Daily life and interactions between guerrillas and rural communities were long dictated by “cohabitation manuals,” which stipulated everything from how domestic disputes should be settled to the establishment of environmental policies.

“The FARC maintained rules regarding the amount of forest the campesinoscould clear every year, which was usually limited to around five hectares,” says Farit Murcia, a community leader in the village of Santa Fé del Caguan, located along the banks of the muddy Caguan River in the department of Caqueta.

“Over the years, the FARC tried to teach the campesinos things like the importance of taking care of the forest, and why we shouldn’t clear vegetation around sources of water. They enforced limits on activities like hunting and fishing, and established a huge forest reserve nearby,” says Murcia. “They drew a line and said, ‘No one can disturb the forest on the other side of this line,’ and everyone respected that. Anyone who disobeyed would be made to pay fines or was punished. This type of environmentalism that the FARC enforced was not particularly popular among the campesinos, but it was effective.”

Like virtually every other Amazonian nation, cattle-ranching is the region’s most important economic activity. In this case, it is the main driver of deforestation, as farmers who have long been prohibited by the FARC from expanding production into forested areas seize the moment to clear land before talk of legal repercussions become more than just far-fetched rumors.

A cattle rancher himself, Murcia recognizes the extent of the damage this industry wreaks on the environment. But even after a lifetime of altering the landscape, he insists that the levels of destruction occurring in the region around him since the withdrawal of the FARC are like nothing he’s ever seen.

He is one of the few community leaders in the region who has been moved to action, traveling on his own expense to the department’s capital city to file complaints with Corpoamazonia, the regional environmental authority.

“Whatever environmental benefits the FARC produced during their years in this region have been totally erased,” says Murcia, shaking his head as he surveys a broad expanse of felled trees that a neighbor had clear-cut days before. “A few days ago, this was virgin forest.”

The plot of land we are looking at is approximately twelve hectares, roughly the size of 22 American football fields. While it appears devastatingly large from our perspective, it seems almost trivial compared to what is occurring in the deeper, more inaccessible reaches of the forest.

What many don’t often realize, Farit explains, is that large-scale deforestation is an expensive undertaking, one that is economically out of reach for the average campesino in the region.

“I’ve been notified of areas of more than 200 and 300 hectares that are being clear-cut in one fell swoop, in what used to be the forest reserve protected by the FARC,” he says, gesturing towards an expanse of forest that disappears into the horizon.

“Now, let’s calculate how much that might cost. Aside from the chainsaws, extra blades, fuel, grass seed, and the cost of labor, you’re going to need food and supplies to last you and your crew for at least a month, and horses to haul all of that into the forest. This type of project will probably cost several thousand dollars. Tell me, do you think any of these poor campesinos around here have that kind of money?”

While one can hardly blame the small-scale farmer who hopes to increase his productivity after years in the crossfire of the armed conflict, the small plots of deforested land add up quickly.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most significant losses incurred during this ongoing wave of deforestation are produced by crews of workers hired by mysterious “sponsors” to blaze trails into untouched reaches of forest, where pristine jungles are cleared, burned, and later planted with grass, often several hundred hectares at a time.

When I ask who could be responsible, Farit shrugs. The only thing he knows is that the sponsors are “wealthy individuals from out of town.”

It doesn’t come as a surprise that these “sponsors” remain in the shadows. Across this vast, isolated territory, anonymity is a benefit closely associated with the region’s difficult access and harsh conditions, making it ideal for the proliferation of organized crime and illicit activities.

The region’s geography plays a main role. The vastness and isolation of these areas prevented the Colombian state from ever really establishing itself there, and in their absence, clandestine organizations such as armed groups (like the FARC) and big cocaine cartels have been able to develop their respective activities without having to worry about the police or any sort of authority — put simply, these clandestine organizations became the authority.

In addition to the lingering presence of FARC dissidents who rejected or abandoned the peace process, the Amazon has increasingly come under control by different organized criminal bands, known in Colombia as BACRIM (Bandas Criminales Emergentes, or Emerging Criminal Groups), which are often descended from former right-wing paramilitary groups that went through their own (highly criticized) process of demobilization nearly fifteen years ago.

In many areas, authorities believe these groups are responsible for driving deforestation in order to open illegal mining operations, increase land used for coca cultivation and to widen areas used for narcotrafficking routes.

Colombia has stepped up its defenses against this wave of deforestation through the creation of special units of the armed forces, police and prosecutors, but progress is slow. Environmental regulatory agencies, such as Corpoamazonia, which is responsible for the departments of Caqueta, Putumayo and Amazonas, are underfunded, understaffed and, according to Territorial Director of Caqueta, Mario Barón, unprepared to respond to the boom in environmental devastation that is being “oxygenated” by the post-conflict era.

In Caqueta, a department measuring more than 88,000 square kilometers, Corpoamazonia has a mere 35 employees, the majority of whom are confined to pushing papers in an office built, ironically, with beautiful, richly colored Amazonian wood.

In addition to its vast reserves of natural resources and extensive unexplored ecosystems, the Colombian Amazon is home to numerous indigenous groups, including the Nukak Maku, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer groups in South America, who are being gradually choked out of their territory by ongoing deforestation in the nearby Guaviare department.

Within the past few months, deforestation hot spots have extended to within 25 kilometers of the bounds of Chiribiquete National Park, the largest stretch of undisturbed, unexplored area in the country, which is also believed to be home to several uncontacted indigenous tribes still living in isolation.

This is bad news for regional biologists like Alexander Velasquez, director of the Center of Investigation for the Biodiversity of the Andean Amazon (INBIANAM) in Florencia, Caqueta. Decades of armed conflict have long limited the ability of scientists to study the country’s ecosystems, reflected in the fact that Colombia, which is considered to be the second-most biodiverse country in the world, has just 4.9 million records in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, while Costa Rica — which is 22 times smaller than Colombia and rates 17th in biodiversity — has nearly 8.4 million records.

For years, Velasquez and other biologists have prepared themselves for the promised “environmental dividends” of peace. But today he’s forced to watch as many areas he had hoped to study are decimated before his eyes.

“I would say that all of the important natural zones in this region of the country have come under threat due to this new wave of deforestation,” says Velasquez. “We can’t even begin to quantify the amount of biological richness we have lost so far, because no one has ever taken inventories of these areas.”

Despite the situation’s urgency, many conservationists worry that the race to study and preserve natural areas is losing out to the drive for development and the exploitation of natural resources.

“Without real knowledge of this region’s biodiversity and ecosystem services, we’re bound to commit enormously profound errors. It is of utmost importance that we study all forms of biodiversity — including the cultural diversity of this region’s indigenous inhabitants — in order to truly determine the potential impacts of future social and economic development in this region.”

Though land restitution is a main pillar of the 2016 peace accords, some are worried that a lack in rigorous land use planning will cause secondary booms in deforestation in environmentally sensitive areas as millions of displaced Colombians return to convert long-abandoned areas into productive agricultural land.

The improved security situation also signifies the start of new conflicts, in which nascent ecotourism industries and concerned communities are pitted against oil and gas companies seeking to begin long-awaited extractive projects in areas like Caqueta.

While the Colombian government depends on these projects in order to finance the implementation of the peace accords, tensions continue to rise as communities take matters of protecting priceless ecosystems into their own hands by refusing entrance to employees of extractive industries and launching massive public resistance movements in opposition to the presence of these companies in their territories.

What Does Peace in Colombia
Have To Do with the Environment?

With the conflict finally over, the Colombian government
must turn its attention to protecting
biodiversity and natural resources

Camila Bustos and Marcela Jaramillo / The Guardian

BOGOTA, Colombia (October 24, 2016) — After 52 years of war, the government finalised a peace accord to cease conflict and construct stable and long lasting peace in Colombia. After four years of negotiations and almost 300 pages, the accord delves into different key points for the ceasefire, the guerrilla demobilisation, the integral rural reform, transitional justice, political participation of ex-combatants and drug policy, among others.

The Colombian people narrowly rejected the accord on 2 October — there is no clarity yet regarding what would be the implications of this result for the future of the peace agreement.

Without a doubt, the armed conflict has left a footprint on Colombian landscapes and ecosystems. According to the Colombian organisation Dejusticia, the armed conflict has been accompanied by bombings of oil pipelines, fumigations of illegal crops with glyphosate, chemical pollution due to illegal mining, the presence of armed groups and anti-personnel mines in protected areas, and the expansion of the agricultural frontier as a result of forced displacement.

According to the government, the country could save $2.2bn (£1.8bn) a year in environmental damages. From 1990 to 2013, 58% of the deforestation in the country took place in areas affected by the conflict, with 3m lost hectares. Numerous attacks to oil pipelines during the last 35 years have resulted in 4.1m spilled barrels, the equivalent to 16 disasters like Exxon Valdez.

The end of the conflict brings opportunities to repair the environmental damage and rethink the country’s development. There are many environmental reasons to be happy about the peace accord, not least the potential to decrease deforestation; have greater control over the restoration, recovery and conservation of ecological areas (such as natural parks and paramos); and to create a more sustainable, efficient and diverse economy.

The impact of the war on Colombia’s natural richness has been huge. Sections on “integral rural reform” and the “solution to the illegal drugs problem” in the peace accord show that post-conflict policy will have an impact on economic, social and environmental development. As well as increasing the opportunities, we have to empower the country in its natural resource management.

Empowering Farmers
The accord creates a land fund to benefit the rural communities most affected by state neglect and conflict. The fund will have 3m hectares of land during its first 10 years of creation. Some of these lands will come from the update, delimitation, and strengthening of the forest reserve and their granting will be conditional on the formulation (with the involvement of local communities) of plans to guarantee social and environmental sustainability.

The accord also establishes that those who benefit from these lands will have to protect the environment, remove illicit crops and strengthen food production.

The government has a deadline of no more than two years to develop an environmental zoning plan where it delimits the agricultural frontier and expands the inventory of areas that require special environmental management such as forest reserves, highly bio-diverse lands, fragile and strategic ecosystems, watersheds, paramos and wetlands.

Conservation and Deforestation
Conservation and deforestation are some of the most complex environmental problems linked to conflict and peace. While the conflict has contributed to deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems, it has also limited the exploitation of resources such as wood, mining, and agribusiness in several rural and difficult to access areas, many of which are characterised by high biodiversity.

In other places around the world, post-conflict internal migration has led to increased pressure on natural resources and in many cases, an increase in deforestation.

In this sense, the accord establishes that the reform must guarantee socio-environmental sustainability. There is also an important focus on the protection of natural reserves.

In addition, the section about economic and social reincorporation in the accord establishes that programmes for ex-combatants will pay special attention to environmental protection and recovery and humanitarian de-mining. In a similar fashion, the component regarding the conflict’s victims explains that, as part of victims’ reparation, the FARC is committed to participate in programmes to repair environmental damages like reforestation.

One of the factors that contribute to deforestation and thus, to this sector being one of the largest carbon emitters is the production of illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin. The accord creates voluntary crop substitution programmes to ensure that alternatives are sustainable from an environmental and economic point of view. Substitution plans must include actions for the mitigation of environmental damage in areas of special environmental interest and for forest recovery.

New Resources, New Challenges
According to the UN, war has limited the economic development that Colombia can achieve thanks to its biodiversity. It is also true that the areas that face the most intense conflict are areas of great biodiversity like Chocó. At the same time, they face great economic need and state neglect.

Peace opens an opportunity for these areas to exploit their natural resources in a way that does not enrich illegal groups nor corrupt politicians. This is the opportunity to take advantage of the land to create and implement sustainable tourism programmes and other forms of economic development that do not solely depend on resource extraction, but on their preservation and responsible use to offer a better quality of life to vulnerable and low-income communities.

Much has been said about the economic dividends of peace. Colombia spends approximately 3.4% of its gross domestic product in defence. It is the Latin American country that spends the most on this sector.

Although freeing this public budget does not directly mean that there will more economic growth or better social spending, it does open an opportunity to redirect this money to education, health, and environment. According to the government, peace can result in an increase of 1.5% in GDP and 5% to 8% in the regions most affected by conflict.

Some of these issues are being contested under the renegotiation process following the vote, particularly the rural reform. If the government and the guerrilla can agree to go ahead with an accord that includes the elements of the original agreement discussed above, it is possible to reinvent the environmental governance of the country.

The great challenge then from now on will be how to manage resources in a responsible and proactive fashion. In order to advance towards sustainable development, strengthening of institutional capacity, monitoring, transparency in implementation, and accountability should all be central components in a post-conflict scenario.

The piece was originally published on Nivela.