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Is war good for conservation?

The dilemma facing the Colombian jungle

"The armed conflict left thousands dead and the numbers of 'compulsory displacement' surpass four million people. However, some experts believe that, paradoxically, it was precisely the conflict that has helped conserve the forest."


Among the many complexities and contradictions facing Colombia, there is the guerrilla and what it means to such an important region as the Amazon. The armed conflict left thousands dead and the numbers of 'compulsory displacement' surpass four million people. However, some experts believe that, paradoxically, it was precisely the conflict that has helped conserve the forest.

But now, as the Army moves forward and begins to its withdraw from the guerrillas, conservationists worry because that measure has no environmental monitoring or a strategy to strengthen local governance to take care of the jungle.

The sociologist and journalist Alfredo Molano, who has spent much of his life studying the armed conflict, says that "where the Army goes, goes livestock, and with it, deforestation". "The Army's role is to make room for the investor because the democratic security (strategy to combat the guerrillas) is the recovery of public policy to bring investments and preserve them," he explains.

"When the forest is put down, investments are made into pasture for cattle, since this is the most profitable action. Alternatives to this are more complicated because they require a heavy usage of manpower and high technology", he says. Molano assures that huge tracts of land are now in the hands of generals who are also ranchers.

Green light for mining, and for Brazil

But it is not only about the expanding the agricultural frontier. Carlos Rodriguez, director in Colombia of the Dutch organization Tropenbos International, points out that with the withdrawal of the guerrillas, arrived in the regions of Putumayo and Guainía mining and oil companies that are damaging the forest.

“Mining, wherever one looks, is terrible and this is a big threat to Amazon. There are over two thousand requests for mining, more than half will receive the authorization and the rest will develop illegal mining, because there, who has control?" he wonders. Rodriguez believes that "this is more of a threat than livestock because it does not take one cow from the forest, instead it takes a kilo of gold”.

The director also believes that many raids bring Brazilian capital. "Illegal mining is expansionary and uncontrollable and often comes from parties where the mines were deeply exploited: Brazil. The mining that is coming from Brazil is illegal, with small dredges and totally disorganized", he assures.

Although the Colombian government has launched a campaign to fight illegal mining, it does not renew hopes for the forest, because, as explained by Alfredo Molano, they are fighting illegal mining to replace it with large enterprises. "Who does more damage?", he asks. "These environmental permits for mining projects are corrupted", he garantees. "The companies study the problem and afterwards present environmental mitigation projects that they fail to perform", he says.

Molano points out that even the indigenous territories (collective lands) are being oppressed by the miners' capital, since they are renting out chunks of territory in a clandestine fashion.

And the solutions?

To Alfredo Molano, the only solution is to avoid pressure from the agricultural frontier on the ownership structure, returning the land to the people and controlling the expansion of large farms through taxation. "Otherwise the clearing and colonization will continue advancing at a staggering pace".

Systems such as payment for environmental services, enabling the population to care for the forest, may also be possible solutions.

A Guerrilla without environmental benevolence

Although armed conflict has helped to stop raids in the Amazon, the war was not benevolent with the forest. The guerrillas kept away the invaders, but at the same time caused deforestation as the conversion of forest to pasture increased significantly where people forcibly displaced by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) settled.

Additionally, illegal crops from which profits the guerrillas are considered a major factor in the deforestation in the country, not only for the crops themselves but for what they cause: environmental damage and displacement.

In an article from Stony Brook University entitled "Forests and Drugs: Coca-Driven Tropical Deforestation in Biodiversity Hotspots," the biologist Liliana Davalos and her team argue that coca is more a symptom than a cause of deforestation. According to her, the major reasons for forest loss are socioeconomic inequality, the failed policies of agricultural development and armed conflicts, since crops are concentrated in areas with high poverty rates.

Along the same lines, Germán Andrade, professor at the University of the Andes, explains that the impact of coca crops can no longer be measured only in acres, but must take into account an entire sociopolitical system of destruction: the chain that goes after the fumigation and displacement or lack of governance.

"These chains are devastating to the forest, including the weakening of the state," he says. According to him, "the last chapter of this chain is the democratic security, which is a political response to the threat of the FARC, but it took, from the highest level of the State, to the weakening of the environmental sector". "Never before have institutions like the Ministry of Environment have been so weak as they are now," he warns.

Monitoring of illegal crops

According to the latest 'Multitemporal analysis of coca 2008 - 2009' by the Illicit Crops Monitoring System (SIMCI), at the Colombian Amazon there are three of departments (states) with the greatest influence of illicit crops: Guaviare (10% of the country, with 5,587 ha), Putumayo (7% - 4,097 ha) and Caquetá (5% - 2,914 ha).

The displacement of crops as a result of government persecution increased deforestation, although in some abandoned crops the forest has regenerated itself.

The main examples of the effect of illicit crops are Caqueta, where between 2001 and 2002 there were 1,818 ha of primary forests, and in 2008-2009 it dropped to 332 ha; and in Guaviare, which decreased from 12,214 ha between 2001 and 2002 to 1,421 ha between 2008 and 2009.

Maria Clara is a journalist, a literary studies professional and passionate about environmental issues and travel. She works as a freelance writer in Bogota, Colombia.



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