San José del Guaviare, Colombia – Flying over the gateway to the Amazon in Colombia’s Chiribiquite National Park, the scene below is a paradise of nature untouched. Rivers snake through dense forest, carving pristine beaches from the banks, while the only breaks in the treeline are from the rocks that soar up over the park.
This area is one of the most important ecological zones in the world: the indigenous peoples who live here are uncontacted by the outside world and the ecosystems are so important for research that the park is always closed to visitors.
Much of this region used to be as wild and as densely forested as this, but just beyond the protected park area patches of farmland that have been cut into the forest begin to appear. In some spots, the ground smolders from recent slash-and-burn clearings. On others you can see the pin-prick regularity of palm plantings, or herds of cattle.
“There’s a lot of deforestation,” says pilot Samuel Nino, who from his cockpit 4,000 feet up regularly sees the clearances better than anyone on land. “They used to clear small parcels so that they would be hard to find and use them for growing coca, but now they are clearing for farming.”
This is Guaviare, a province that straddles Colombia’s eastern plains and jungle regions, and part of the front line in the country’s battle to stop deforestation in the Amazon. An advancing agricultural frontier has meant this area has seen some of the worst rates of deforestation in the country in recent years, but now it is also a region facing a new threat: the withdrawal of soldiers from the left-wing FARC guerilla group.
FARC waged war against the Colombian state for over 50 years. While the guerilla were hardly careful guardians of the forest – they too, were involved in deforestation and the clearing of jungle to grow coca for cocaine – their presence meant that huge swathes of the country were off limits to outsiders.
Though counterintuitive on the surface, there are concerns that the departure of these rebels from their rural strongholds may lead to heightened deforestation and further exploitation in some of the country’s most pristine territories. With a peace deal now in place, and some 7,000 rebel soldiers demobilizing in specially-designed camps all over the country, there are concerns that while their former strongholds are now safer for local communities, these areas’ natural resources may now be at greater risk than ever.
“There’s no doubt that the peace process changes things,” says Carolina Gil, the Colombia country director for the Amazon Conservation Team, a non-profit that partners with indigenous peoples to protect the Amazon. “And there are certainly threats, particularly in the Amazon, that things like illegal mining, illicit crop growing, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and illegal logging could return.”
Precisely because FARC strongholds were in the jungles and mountains in the most rural parts of the country, the areas once controlled by them are home to a “significant share of the country’s natural resources,” says Lorenzo Morales, a journalist and an adjunct professor at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, who has written a report on this subject for the Inter-American Dialogue.
The UN figures he quotes in his report are stark: almost 90 percent of the municipalities that have been deemed as needing special attention post-conflict are home to national parks, forest reserves, or have other environmental restrictions within the territory.
He explains the apparent paradox like this: while illegal armed groups caused severe environmental damage, their presence “inadvertently fostered the conservation of areas that remain beyond the reach of legal economic development projects.”
The withdrawal of FARC, however, could create complications.
“The constraint that kept many areas inaccessible will be lifted, opening the way for new populations to settle former conflict zones and for infrastructure and legal industries,” Morales writes in the report. That includes opportunities for agriculture, cattle ranching, mining, and oil exploration to expand into environmentally sensitive areas.
Miles of forests
Forests currently cover around 52 percent of Colombian territory — or 60 million hectares — making it the country with the eighth most extensive forest coverage in the world. Some 67 percent of these forests are located in the Amazon region, making it a particularly important carbon sink for its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The country has set itself a lofty target: it wants to have zero net deforestation in the Amazon by 2020, and to have stopped the loss of all natural forest by 2030 but even before the peace deal, the country was battling deforestation on a number of fronts.
Morales’ report quotes government figures showing that 2015 saw the loss of around 124,000 hectares (306,000 acres) of woodland, almost half of which was in the Amazon region. The main drivers include illegal mining, illicit crop cultivation, and illegal logging, all of which experts say could increase temporarily in the vacuum that follows the departure of FARC.
Another big challenge is coca. Despite huge sums of money being spent trying to cut production, coca plantations land has increased in recent years, from 69,000 hectares in 2014 to 96,000 in 2015. In the savannahs, and even in areas alongside the national parks, coca planting is up. In Chiribiquete, along the Tacunema River, the distance between coca crops and the park border shrank to 10 kilometres (6 miles) in 2015. That is less than the distance from New York’s La Guardia airport to Trump Tower in Manhattan.
“In the national parks the [conservation] laws are strict, but in some ways there’s no capacity of enforcement,” explains Brigitte Baptiste, a biologist and the Colombia director of the Humboldt Institute, a research institute. “There are park rangers but often very few people in charge of huge areas of woodland.”
But there are also potential challenges in controlling the spread of legal developments that may hold risks for these forest regions and the people that live there.
“At present, the state’s weakness in regulating economic activity — both legal and illegal — poses several risks,” writes Morales. “…[including that] legitimate economic activities might be undertaken in conflict-affected areas in a disorganized way, and at the expense of ecosystems and environmental services,” he warns in the report.
“The private sector,” he adds, “is often more nimble than the state in exploiting new on-the-ground realities, impeding the government’s ability to regulate activity, and ensuring sustainable development.”
Colombia is a country rich in oil and minerals: it has emeralds and coltan – a metal ore used in mobile phones and computers, oil and gold, but the report points out that “many requests for mining titles are also in areas of great environmental value, including in indigenous reserves in the Amazon.”
Here too, is an area of potential conflict in a “post-conflict” Colombia. Questions abound over what resources should be exploited to benefit the nation, and which should be protected. The withdrawal of FARC in some regions could leave room for the petroleum or mining sectors to move in, and the cost for people living in those areas is unknown.
Juan-Carlos Altamirano, an economist at the World Resources Institute in Washington DC, recently visited Colombia. He says some communities feel under threat. “They fear there might be land grabbing, competition for resources, and they are afraid that greater stability will also bring more multinationals,” he said. “The threat is there.”
People in some regions, he says, fear what is waiting to be discovered in the soil under their land and the potential money to be made from it.
“The problem in Colombia is that what is underground is the property of the nation,”Altamirano said. “Gold, oil, minerals — in those cases the Colombian state can say its in the interest of developing your region because you are, literally in some cases, sitting on a gold mine.”
The first foreign settlers to the Guaviare region were the Spanish colonizers who came seeking their wealth in the new world, but the biggest newcomer influx came about 35 years ago, during the time of the coca bonanza. Farmers were drawn here from all over the country, clearing forests and riversides for their smallholdings.
“This was pure virgin forest before the colonizers arrived,” explains Arnando Lopez, an ecotourism guide and a consultant for the national parks service. “Then we had the marihuana, poppy and coca for years. For ten years or so there was a bonanza, things were good, but what came next was very bad.”
This area — in a strategic position for both the guerrilla and the drug cartels — became a place known for kidnappings, murders, and drugs. Infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s mega-processing laboratory, Tranquilandia, was nearby. Locals remember when it was unsafe to go out at night, or the morning they woke up to find more than 30 people had been massacred by right-wing paramilitaries.
The hills and forests surrounding San José were once roamed by FARC guerrillas and the paramilitaries who fought against them leaving villages like Bocas del Raudal, a riverside settlement where the houses are painted pink, turquoise and yellow, emptied. A population of 200 is now around 35; the others left out of fear.
Stories like this can be found all over Colombia. Nationwide there are an estimated six million internally displaced people, making Colombia second only to Syria for the number of domestic refugees. And while the peace process has brought great hope, even on this issue, there are warning sings that their return will need to be carefully managed.
“If economic development is not well-planned,” warns Paulina Arroyo, the Andes-Amazon officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, “as former FARC members and victims of the conflict return home to reclaim land, these population shifts could also bring with them increased deforestation, unregulated mining and unsustainable use of resources.”
But while many of the experts contacted for this story conceded this was a time for caution, they also said that if handled well, the peace process also offers a unique opportunity to implement sustainable economic development while regulating land use and protecting land rights, indigenous rights and conservation areas.
“There are some very big pressures in places like Caqueta, Guaviare,” the ACT’s Carolina Gil said. “How we manage them is the challenge. But this is also an opportunity, not just for the local communities, who are the best guardians of the forests, but also for the country.”
Similarly, although sounding a note of caution, Morales calls this moment “an unprecedented opportunity for sustainable rural development in Colombia”: it just needs to be handled properly.
Back in Guaviare, Armando stops an open-back jeep on a steep dirt track. There is young forest in front of us, the occasional bright yellow flower of one of the local trees dotting the horizon. It is an area that was cleared by local farmers but which is now regenerating, where hunting is now banned and where they have seen the return of wild cats. Projects like these, he says, show that things can even get better.
“We are in a transition,” Armando says. “For many years this area was used for coca cultivation. Now these lands are being regenerated. This is not original forest, but we are trying to help the land recover, and we’re doing it by making the families that live here the protectors.”
Photo by Laura Dixon for Mongabay.