Land is power in Colombia, and the struggle for land has been the main driver of conflict, displacement, death and environmental destruction for many decades.
Deforestation is on the rise in megadiverse Colombia. Attempting to understand the complex and interconnected web of social, political, economic and environmental drivers of deforestation in Colombia - past and present, legal and illicit, direct and indirect - is critical.
The Covid-19 pandemic has emboldened land-grabbers and illegal gold miners since late March of this year due to a diminished state presence and the self-imposed isolation of vulnerable Indigenous communities who have long served as stewards of these forests.
In a dark paradox, some of South America’s most precious ecosystems were preserved during the more than half-century-long civil war between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the Colombian Government and mercenary paramilitary groups. The war left nearly 300,000 people dead and more than seven million people displaced.
A lack of infrastructure, industry and rural development, along with a foreign fear of investment in rural Colombia due to the very real risk of violence, extortion and kidnapping, all contributed in different ways to much of Colombia’s rich tropical forests being left intact.
The FARC held influence over more than 30 percent of Colombian territory, principally in remote and sparsely populated forested regions.
As a guerilla group that ended up funding itself mostly through the illicit cocaine and gold trades, with some supplementary income from kidnapping, wildlife trafficking and illegal logging, the FARC depended upon an ability to hide the movement of their soldiers, and their illicit economic activities.
They drew up “coexistence manuals” and clear command structures with local peasants, coca growers and Indigenous communities, while imposing rules against deforestation in territories where they held major influence. For the FARC these frameworks served to directly protect themselves and their economic interests, and to promote their legitimacy both locally and nationally.
While the war was and continues to be a humanitarian crisis, FARC's presence likely delayed extensive deforestation.
The internationally acclaimed signing of the peace accords between the FARC and Colombian government in November 2016 left pronounced power vacuums within extensive forested territories, and there has since been a major spike in deforestation. The Colombian Amazon in particular has become a global deforestation “hotspot.”
To address the current rapid rates of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, it is important to understand the complex context and the interconnected socio-ecological drivers of deforestation over the past several decades.
Forests along the densely populated Andean mountain slopes, the Atlantic coast and along the colonization frontiers of the Amazon, have been cleared en masse for decades in Colombia, but until recently the highland Andean forests and paramos, and lowland tropical forests, remained largely preserved.
The original colonizers and deforesters of the Colombian Amazon were rubber planters in the early twentieth century, who enslaved tens-of-thousands of local Indigenous people, causing incalculable long-term biocultural damage. They were followed by migrants that fled a civil war between Liberals and Conservatives in the mid-twentieth century, an episode that laid the seeds for the formation of the FARC.
The mass-scale conversion of the region from forest to cow pasture only began in the 1960’s though, with long-since abandoned state-sponsored infrastructure projects that brought large waves of new colonizers. Since then much of the forested landscape on the frontiers of the Colombian Amazon － especially in the high-conflict departments of Caqueta and Putumayo － has been transformed into cow pastures and coca plantations.
The largest direct driver of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon - and many other parts of Colombia and South America - is the expansion of cow pastures. Interestingly, the global demand and price for beef has not driven the mass conversion of forest to pasture in Colombia, as opposed to other countries with a larger export market for beef and dairy products.
Cow pastures are an extremely unproductive use of land in Colombia, and although 38 percent of the country (38.6 million hectares) is being used for an estimated 23 million head of cattle, analysis has shown that only 6 percent of land in Colombia is actually optimal for cattle grazing.
It is often illegal land grabbing and the perverse law of titling any “productive” land in Colombia that has driven this expansion of cow pastures in the Colombian Amazon. Land is power in Colombia, and the struggle for land has been the main driver of conflict, displacement, death and environmental destruction for many decades.
The process of land-grabbing and clearing is frequently done by smallholder farmers, who then sell the newly deforested plots to wealthy landowners - known as “latifundios” - to be consolidated into large cattle ranches and territorial control that allows for more profitable illicit activities in the background.
In terms of land distribution, Colombia has one of the world’s highest levels of inequality, with around one percent of landowners in Colombia holding 81 percent of nominally “productive” land. Furthermore, a prodigious 44.7 percent of Colombia’s rural population is estimated to live in poverty.
This land-grabbing process even happens in and around constitutionally protected areas such as national parks and Indigenous territories, especially where roads - both state-sponsored and illegal - have been constructed. Typically roads encourage urbanization due to easier access to markets and natural resources, which leads to a further increased demand for land. Areas around roads become obvious places to clear forests and replace them with cattle in order to claim “land use” and legal ownership.
Hydroelectric dam constructions and operations, and the expanded infrastructure that they require, have been staples of the Colombian economy and landscape for several decades. More than 70 percent of Colombia’s domestic electricity consumption is generated by hydroelectric dams.
The connection between large dams, deforestation and land degradation is strong: they flood forests, directly destroying habitats and displacing forest communities, while also bringing infrastructure that often indirectly leads to further deforestation.
Established extractive industries in Colombia include oil and natural gas exploration and exploitation, as well as the mining of gold, silver, platinum, coal, salt, emerald, nickel, coltan, copper and more. Oil is Colombia’s primary export and Colombia is Latin America’s largest coal exporter. Colombia is also one of the world’s largest exporters of gold －most of it illegally mined, but since it is nearly impossible to trace it enters the market “legally.”
Furthermore, Colombia is the fourth largest producer of palm oil in the world, and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Despite greenwashed claims of “zero deforestation” and post-conflict “sustainable development,” the reality of Colombia’s expanding palm oil supply chain is far more complex and destructive.
Often in the background of these legal industries and extensive cow pastures are notorious and highly lucrative illicit industries, namely drug-trafficking and illegal gold mining.
Coca - the base ingredient of cocaine and a sacred medicinal plant for many Indigenous peoples - is often considered to be a direct driver of deforestation in Colombia.
The Amazonian departments of Putumayo, Caqueta, Meta and Guaviare and the Southwestern Andean-Chocoan departments of Narino and Cauca are all former FARC strongholds with abundant coca plantations and abandoned infrastructure projects. Near all-but the most isolated coca plantations are cow pastures, to maintain control over the land.
Forced eradication attempts of coca have failed miserably, especially the US-backed “Plan Colombia” of the early 2000’s that called for the aerial spraying of glyphosate. Production mostly increased and deforestation frontiers expanded as coca farmers went deeper into the forests, while legal crops, natural vegetation - and possibly humans and other animals - were sickened or killed by the drifting glyphosate droplets.
In response to forced eradication attempts, small-scale coca growers often resort to alternatives like illegal gold mining that further deforests and contaminates water supplies: they see little alternative, since the land is degraded and there was little access to legal markets to begin with. Colombia - at the urging of the Trump administration - is nonetheless promising a new campaign of forced eradication, again through the aerial spraying of glyphosate.
The departments of Antioquia and Cauca in the Andes, as well as Caqueta and Putumayo in the Amazon, have been particularly impacted. “Blood Gold” has also funded past and present conflict - when the peace accords were signed, illegal gold was actually generating more money than the notorious cocaine trade for the FARC, ELN, and certain neo-paramilitary groups.
And when there are concerted state efforts to crackdown on illegal mining, the often impoverished miners are driven into other illicit activities, like coca cultivation, which again leads to further deforestation. It is a tragic and destructive cycle.
While many of the legal and illegal drivers of deforestation described above have existed in Colombia for decades, their scale and regions of influence, and the underlying socioeconomic and political circumstances that encourage their expansion or contraction, are constantly changing.
Complex conditions in “post-conflict” Colombia are presently driving deforestation deep into the Colombian Amazon.
With the FARC demobilized, their abandoned territories have become extremely vulnerable to a range of opportunistic forces looking to fill the vacuum.
A nasty combination of new and old illegal actors violently compete for control of vast forested territories and highly profitable illicit industries. These illegal groups fight against or work along with the interests of speculating multinational mining, oil, oil palm, agriculture, timber and construction corporations. All of these groups are vying for control of new land to title, exploit, or both.
Often there are blurred lines between all of these groups, and the role that the government plays in either preventing or facilitating the intentions of these actors. This volatile mix is on top of poorly thought-out governmental “land restitution” agendas for millions of displaced victims of the civil war, the complex reintegration of former FARC combatants into society, and an already destructive system of land titling that encourages land-grabbing.
The expectation of all interested parties is that with “peace,” there will be a proliferation of infrastructure and roads - both “official” government-funded and nominally “illegal” projects - that will facilitate the extraction of natural resources.
In the midst of this chaos, the state has largely neglected the constitutionally promised safeguarding of national protected areas and Indigenous lands. Indigenous leaders and other social and environmental defenders have been threatened and killed at alarming rates to coincide with the rampant land-grabbing and deforestation around the country.
2020 saw Colombia named the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental defender, and since the signing of the peace accords, more than 900 social and environmental leaders have been assassinated according to INDEPAZ.
The Colombian Amazon has become a critical “hotspot” of deforestation since the signing of the peace accords. According to data from Global Forest Watch, in 2018 Colombia experienced its highest amount of primary forest loss ever recorded, up 500 percent from 2003, and almost entirely within the Amazon.
Overall deforestation in the Colombian Amazon was up 97 percent in 2018 versus 2016, the year of the peace accords.
Ten national parks in the Colombian Amazon were abandoned earlier this year － totalling approximately nine million hectares － due to threats against neutral national park staff by FARC dissidents and other illegal armed groups. These vast parks are now even more vulnerable, and data coming from the field that may otherwise have helped prevent future deforestation and conflict throughout the region, has stopped being collected.
Illegal gold mining has also been spreading to previously untouched regions of the post-conflict Colombian Amazon, as reported recently by national park staff and Indigenous leaders. The Indigenous leaders of the Colombian Amazon have categorically rejected the presence of both illegal and state-sanctioned “legal” gold miners within their territories.
Integrated socio-ecological research and monitoring has been shedding light on present trends and the complex forces driving the recent uninhibited deforestation of the Colombian Amazon.
Isolated forest fires - strong indicators of areas of present and future deforestation - were detected at an alarming 600 percent higher rate within protected areas in 2017.
The departments of Caqueta, Meta, and Guaviare, all places where large-scale deforestation occurred previously, are seeing their frontiers of deforestation expand exponentially in post-conflict Colombia, but fires have also been detected in the more isolated eastern Colombian Amazon.
Amazon forest fire expert professor Dolors Armenteras, who was the lead author of a 2018 study that connected isolated forest fires to future deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, recently explained to me that “the vital environmental corridor between the Sierra de la Macarena, Tinigua and Cordillera de los Picachos national parks has exhibited a dramatic rise in fires and subsequent deforestation during the post-conflict period. This key biodiversity hotspot connects Andes and Amazon ecosystems.”
If these trends continue, there is the real possibility that large sections of the Colombian Amazon will become fragmented, posing risks to numerous species and biogeochemical cycles.
Anthropogenic forest fires and accompanying deforestation trends in the Colombian Amazon are also expected to increase with drier climatic conditions, which in certain years will be exacerbated by strong El Nino events. Drought and decreased overall precipitation throughout the Amazon - along with heavy precipitation events, flash floods and landslides - results from tragic and preventable feedback loops set in motion by deforestation.
Mass-land clearing degrades the land, fragments the forests and directly alters local and regional precipitation patterns, while contributing to the Amazon’s march toward the tipping point of becoming a carbon source.
A study published in March 2020 that built off of professor Armenteras' work on forest fires, compared deforestation rates within and around 39 national parks and forest reserves in the three years before (2013-2015) and after (2016-2018) the peace accords. The researchers noticed a pronounced increase in deforestation in several of the national parks that are considered “biodiversity hotspots,” from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the north to Nukak Nature Reserve deep within the Amazon.
In conjunction with illegal fires and land clearing, President Ivan Duque’s extractivist-focused National Development Plan has been doling out mining and oil exploration titles in former FARC-controlled forested areas, to multinational corporations who are anticipating increased infrastructure and security.
These concessions often come without the constitutionally guaranteed right of prior consent from communities living on those soon-to-be-exploited lands.
Running in parallel with these state-sponsored plans for established extractive industries are controversial proposals to initiate fracking, planned and in-construction mega-dams along the Magdalena and Cauca rivers, the counterproductive plan to re-initiate aerial glyphosate spraying to eradicate coca crops, and the continued expansion of oil palm plantations.
While researchers and environmental activists sound the alarm about deforestation in national parks and extractivist projects around the country, critical deforestation monitoring and modeling studies still have not been conducted in post-conflict Colombia with a proper focus on constitutionally recognized, collectively held Indigenous territories.
Land-grabbing, deforestation, illegal gold mining, forced displacement and the assasination of Indigenous leaders is rampant in these territories as well.
185 recognized Indigenous reserves are divided between more than 60 diverse ethnic groups in the Colombian Amazon. They account for more than double the forested area - 26 million hectares vs 12 million hectares - of national parks and forest reserves.
Murui Muina Indigenous leader Jorge Furagaro told me in March of this year, before going into Covid-19 induced isolation within his Amazonian territory: “We are the true guardians of these forests.
Illegal actors have become further emboldened by the uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic and associated rising global gold prices.
Spikes in forest fires and ensuing deforestation in the Colombian Amazon have been observed since Colombia went into national lockdown in late March 2020, while illegal gold miners have been encroaching upon Indigenous territories and protected areas throughout the region.
Indigenous communities have self-imposed isolation measures in a necessary attempt to prevent the spread of Covid-19 within their communities.
Already greatly reduced in numbers after decades-to-centuries of land-grabbing, forced displacement and disease, and with minimal to no access to basic “Western” health and communication services, many isolated Indigenous communities are extremely vulnerable to this novel disease, which has been spreading rapidly throughout the Amazon.
Isolating communities are also mostly unable to receive alerts and vital information, which coupled with a reduced presence of the state and scientific researchers, has weakened their continued fight to monitor and protect the forests of their ancestral lands. These forests, if kept intact, could help prevent future pandemics.
A range of strategies are being attempted to slow the rising rates of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. These range from internationally sponsored “results-based payment” schemes like REDD+, to military operations against peasant farmers within protected areas - but not against the large landowners, multinational corporations and illegal groups promoting the deforestation.
We have also seen the ideologically beautiful but so-far impracticable legal ruling by the Colombian Supreme Court granting legal rights of “personhood” to the entire Colombian Amazon Region.
But none of these nor other attempts seem to fully appreciate or address the complexity of the dynamic socio-ecological mechanisms that are driving rampant deforestation and ecological destruction in the Colombian Amazon and elsewhere in the country.
Colombia is undoubtedly one of the more complicated and conflicted countries in the world, which along with its diverse ecosystems and cultures makes it a critical case.
There is an opportunity though. Understanding and successfully combating the interconnected drivers of “post-conflict” Colombia’s rising deforestation rates through a complex socio-ecological systems approach would help inform other forested parts of the world, especially those in countries and regions with poor governance, current or recent conflict, and traditional cultures.
Daniel Henryk Rasolt is an independent researcher and writer, and the founder of Unbounded World, an initiative that takes an integrated approach to environmental and cultural preservation. He holds a degree in astrophysics and works in diverse disciplines related to energy, the environment, health and traditional cultures. His interdisciplinary and intercultural approach has a basis in complex systems science. Follow him on Twitter @DHRasolt.