There are various competing land uses of the Amazon rainforest. The region in southern Colombia that until less than two years ago was the stronghold of the FARC guerrilla group has become the shelter of a criminal structure that unites the dissidents of the now-defunct guerrilla group, criminal gangs and political and economic actors seeking to take over those lands.
After the signing of a peace agreement with the government in November 2016, the FARC left the territories it had ruled for half a century. The objective was for the government to establish its presence in those places historically affected by the armed conflict. But that did not happen.
The region is now facing an acceleration of what many have long feared: deforestation, land grabbing, expansion of the agricultural frontier, and an increase in illicit crops and illegal mining.
“Groups are bringing people into the territory and giving them land illegally,” a resident, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told Mongabay. “Then they send them to buy cows … they tell them: ‘cut trees here,’ ‘put them [cows] here,’ ‘plant a little bit of coca…’
“Farmers are spending all their money on this business and they do it because the government has no governance over the baldíos [state-owned property]. Entire localities of some municipalities have disappeared because they have been bought by a single person.”
The resident’s claim is confirmed by Gen. César Parra, commander of the sixth division of the National Army, which operates in part of the Colombian Amazon. Parra said that ever since the government agreed in the peace deal that more than 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) of land would be legalized and 30,000 square kilometers (11,600 square miles) more would be redistributed, many villagers were looking for a piece of land to settle on.
It is clear that, although the army could reach any corner of the country, it is necessary for the government to be present in these territories.
“There is a lack of economic alternatives for the communities, which is why it is so difficult for them to find other ways of living which do not deforest, mine or grow illicit crops,” Parra said. “The involvement of all institutions is needed. The government must try to reduce multidimensional poverty rates. People want to live on other activities, but there is no communication, no coverage, no roads, which makes everything difficult. The army cannot do this alone.”
According to the most recent report from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies in 2017 (known by its Spanish acronym, Ideam), the Amazon accounts for 65.5 percent of the country’s deforested areas.
And in 2018, things have not seemed to improve.
Tinigua National Park, one of the areas that should be protected by the government, lost more than 56 square kilometers (22 square miles) of forest in the first three months of this year. This shows the reality of the entire region.
The Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) confirms that between January 2017 and February 2018 a total of 1,600 square kilometers (620 square miles) were lost in the Colombian Amazon. Of these, 900 square kilometers (350 square miles) were in the corridor that connects the national parks of La Macarena and Serranía del Chiribiquete, known as the green belt between the Amazon and the Orinoquía, a Colombian natural region in the Orinoco River watershed.
But the rest of the country is not far behind. According to Ideam, nearly 2,200 square kilometers (850 square miles) were deforested last year, 23 percent more than in 2016. In those two years, the total amounted to 3,990 square kilometers (1,540 square miles), more than twice the area of the Quindío region, one of the territories that make up Colombia’s coffee-growing heartland.
Captain Édgar Obando, chief of rural environmental control of the Carabineros Police Force, said there were six drivers of deforestation: land grabbing (45 percent), illicit crops (22 percent), infrastructure and roads (10 percent), forest fires (8 percent), extensive cattle ranching (8 percent), and illegal exploitation of oil and mining deposits (7 percent).
The conflict has played a role in these.
Currently, groups operating outside the law, who took over the areas left by the FARC, fight to the death for the territories and have grown stronger. A report by the Foundation Ideas For Peace (FIP) states that in 2016 only one FARC dissident group was known to operate mainly in Guaviare; in March of this year there were approximately 20 known structures (consisting of 1,200 to 1,500 members) with some kind of presence in about 13 regions. Guaviare, Nariño, Cauca, Caquetá and Meta are of great concern.
The territories where these residual groups have grown stronger are the same ones that have a deforestation alert and where the cultivation of illicit crops has increased considerably. According to the latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), coca cultivation in Colombia increased considerably, going from 960 square kilometers (370 square miles) in 2015 to 1,460 square kilometers (560 square miles) in 2016. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warned at the end of last year that it was likely this trend would continue to increase.
The fight for the Amazon
According to the FIP, the south of Meta and Caquetá are full of FARC dissidents, integrated by ex-combatants and commanded by the insurgent chiefs known as Gentil Duarte and Euclides Mora, who are believed to be generating alliances with criminal gangs such as the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) and the puntilleros, which are drug-trafficking groups considered remnants of paramilitarism.
In the regions of Guaviare, Guainía, the south of Vichada and Vaupés, the dissidents are more involved with criminal activities and are integrated. Some of their leaders are known as Iván Mordisco, Giovanni Chuspas and John 40. In the region of Putumayo, there are structures made up of members of two former FARC fronts and the current ELN guerrilla group, which seeks to expand to Vichada and Guainía.
The Amazon is vital for businesses operating outside the law, especially due to the large number of water sources it possesses: the Guaviare, Inírida, Vaupés, Apaporis and Caquetá rivers, among others. According to the FIP report, these tributaries give access to shelter areas, cocaine transport routes and weapons. In addition, these rivers are a natural way out to Venezuela and Brazil.
“The Residual Organized Armed Groups, as they call the FARC dissidents, have tried to organize themselves, but it has not been easy for them,” Parra said. “We have killed 22 of them in this year and have captured over 40.”
He said the army also faced a drug-trafficking gang named La Constru, and the Caqueteños organization, which operates in Caquetá and Putumayo and commits crimes on the border with Ecuador and Peru, transporting cocaine to other countries.
The presence of these criminal gangs is also becoming a threat to indigenous reservations.
Ginni Alba, technical secretary of the Commission on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, says these groups have the native communities of Putumayo and Guaviare under their control. “No one was supposed to enter this area, but as the FARC left, the paramilitaries began occupying it. The control of illicit crops and illegal mining is now being disputed,” Alba told Mongabay.
Alba points out in the commission’s 2017-2018 report: “The criminal gang La Constru has been present in the territory for more than three years as a cocaine producer, but also as an agent of other criminal activities, such as homicides, kidnappings, extortions, etc., especially in Puerto Asís (Putumayo).” This situation has given rise to more than 16,000 violations against the indigenous communities, included cases of dispossession, forced disappearance, kidnappings, murders, threats, and displacements.
According to the UNODC, by 2016 there were more than 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) planted with coca in the Amazon. Alba says that in the municipality of Miraflores, in Guaviare, coca has become the de facto currency and is more important than traditional money. “Everything is bought with grams of coca, that’s how one lives,” she said.
Cocaine is not the only problem for the communities and indigenous people.
They also live from mining, which is also controlled by the armed groups. It is estimated that in Guainía, a region on the border with Venezuela in the Atabapo River sector, some 1,000 people live off small-scale mining, which is the one of the only available forms of livelihood. Parra says that in the first five months of this year, the army’s Sixth Division under his command conducted 26 operations against illegal mining and captured 46 people linked to the business.
Alba says the problem is not only illegal mining but also legal mining, as several communities risk being displaced by large extractives projects, mainly in Putumayo. According to National Mining Agency records, until last year more than 150 mining titles were granted throughout the Amazon for the extraction of construction materials, gold, coltan and other precious metals:
– Putumayo: 47 mining titles on a combined 153 square kilometers (59 square miles).
– Guainía: 34 mining titles on 727 square kilometers (281 square miles).
– Caquetá: 58 mining titles on 40 square kilometers (15.3 square miles).
– Guaviare: 10 mining titles on 6.1 square kilometers (2.4 square miles).
– Vaupés: five mining titles on 144 square kilometers (55.6 square miles).
– Amazonas: the most recent figure for this region is from the 2015 Amazon Scientific Research Institute (SINCHI) records, which registers four mining titles.
A growing mafia
Brigitte Baptiste, director of the Humboldt Institute in Colombia, says there is a large, structured mafia in the Amazonian region that is not only composed of armed groups but also “corrupt accomplices” within the government.
“When 40,000 hectares of deforested land appear in just two months, one immediately imagines trucks full of operators with chainsaws hired for days at the border of the jungle. Who is paying for that? Who is letting hundreds of illegal loggers deforest? Which authorities are looking the other way? There is every reason to think there is a system that is deliberately deforesting as a business, and people who are investing large capital, whom one can presume are narcotraffickers or of suspicious character,” she says.
Other inhabitants of this region tell Mongabay they have heard the municipal authorities telling people to “take land” and “not to be stupid,” especially in Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá. And the dissidence of the FARC is not far behind. According to them, they distribute land as if they were the owners and masters of the Amazon; an “opportunity” difficult to miss, considering that the strategy of some landowners has for years been to take over the land by buying it from settlers at very low prices and then legalizing it before a judge.
Thus, according to the Superintendence of Notaries and Registry, more than 6,720 square kilometers (2,600 square miles) have been legalized in the country.
For this reason, what is happening in the Amazon is not uncommon. According to different inhabitants of the region, especially from San José del Guaviare, large investors are coming to buy land so that the villagers will be able to colonize further and expand the agricultural frontier. They say there are entire localities of 150 square kilometers (58 square miles) or more that have been bought by one person. Some places like San Lucas have empty schools and health clinics.
The lands in this region are being taken for several reasons.
First, landowners know that these properties could increase in value if the government develops roads such as La Marginal de la Selva (between Macarena, in Meta, and San José, in Guaviare) and the Calamar-Miraflores road (also in Guaviare). Second, more value would be added if the so-called Zones of Interest for Rural, Economic and Social Development, better known as the Zidres — an initiative by the government that seeks to promote development in the countryside — are developed. And third, these territories are suitable for agriculture, livestock, fishing and forestry. However, they are far from urban centers, they have low population density, and they have limited infrastructure.
For Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), the possibility of developing Zidres, building roads and buying cheap land are policies that are stimulating the unbridled intrusion in the territory.
“If the price of land is zero, even livestock, which is the least productive system, becomes profitable,” he said.
A study by the FCDS highlights that deforestation by livestock has affected mainly the municipalities of San Vicente del Caguán and Cartagena del Chairá, in Caquetá. But it’s not just there. The same thing is happening throughout the Amazon; it is estimated there are more than 2 million head of cattle in the region.
Besides those who buy land to develop businesses, there are those who take advantage of the current situation in the region to benefit from the illegal market.
“In an illegal market, you have no restriction in accumulated areas. Something which does happen in legal situations. There are also no restrictions on use. And the best thing is that you do not pay taxes to the government, instead you pay taxes to an armed group, which is cheaper,” Botero says.
Another dispute over land took place in Villagarzón, Putumayo, at the end of last year. Settlers clashed with indigenous people who were in negotiations with the National Land Agency for the creation of an Inga indigenous reservation.
Alba says the goal of creating a reservation was to safeguard the territory and prevent some megaprojects from happening. “This would make the development of oil projects more difficult. But this is difficult to achieve because there are many interests in play,” she says.
Fighting over the Catatumbo region
Although the Amazon is an alarming case of deforestation, Obando, the rural police chief, says the region of Norte de Santander in northeastern Colombia, specifically the localities of La India, Alto San Miguel, Barrancas, Chiquinquirá, El Retiro, Mineritos, Alto Río Chiquito and El Progreso, all in the municipality of Tibú, are hard hit by the problem.
According to Ideam, that region has recorded 14 percent of the deforestation alerts in 2018. There, the main causes are also related to illicit crops, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, the extraction of wood, and underground mining.
According the institute, “The presence of illicit crops is one of the causes of the increasing and recurrent deforestation in this area of the country.” Coca plantations in Norte de Santander went from 115 square kilometers (45 square miles) in 2015 to 248 square kilometers (96 square miles) in 2016 — an increase of 115 percent in one year, according to the UNODC. In Catatumbo, a subregion northeast of Norte de Santander that covers 11 municipalities, this business is controlled by the guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN) and a residual group of the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), better known as Los Pelusos.
Although historically everyone coexisted in this territory, now they are disputing the land and preventing the authorities from starting the National Crop Substitution Plan (PNIS), an initiative to fight the drug trafficking that appeared after the peace deal with the FARC. It seeks to transform the living conditions of the communities that did not have a different economic alternative other than the illicit drug business.
According to a report by the FIP, violence has increased in the municipalities with the largest areas of coca cultivation. This is because the armed groups are prepared to give their lives defending their main economic activity. In 2016 the number of murders in Tibú reached 120; in 2017 it reached almost 190. “The security deterioration is not only seen in the rise of homicide levels but in the number of threats and direct attacks to the process of [crop] substitution,” according to the FIP.
But in this area, deforestation isn’t just caused by illicit crop cultivation. There are those who deforest and take advantage of the violence to take the land and distribute it to large productive activities.
Currently, the Superintendence of Notaries and Registry has identified 41 square kilometers (16 square miles) of vacant lots in Tibú, that is, of properties belonging to the state. This coincides with another important fact: this northern municipality is also the one with the most head of cattle (42,118 in 2017) throughout the region, according to the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA).
New armed groups in the Pacífico
Another area that is not doing well is the Pacífico Sur, specifically the region of Nariño that borders Ecuador. Six percent of the deforestation alerts of the country are from this area, particularly the forests of the Patía River and the localities of El Maque, Pumbi and Guacuco, of the municipality of Roberto Payán.
As in the Amazon, in the Pacífico the dissidence of the FARC was strengthened, in this case, integrated by ex-combatants of the 29th Front in Nariño. The FIP says these militiamen never demobilized and now face groups like the ELN for control of the territory and the illicit economies. The main leaders are known as David and Guacho. The latter has gained considerable international notoriety, as he is responsible for the murders of the two journalists and an Ecuadoran driver from the newspaper El Comercio last April, in addition to other kidnappings and murders in the border area with Ecuador.
In the region of Cauca, also in the Pacífico, the criminal groups comprise ex-members of two other former FARC fronts. Also present are the ELN, the AGC criminal group and part of the EPL guerrilla group. This entire region is of vital importance for groups that operate outside the law, especially on the border with Ecuador, which is one of the illicit trafficking corridors that allows them, according to the FIP, to maintain contacts with mafias and international crime organizations.
In the Pacífico region, illicit crops have become stronger. Coca cultivation in Nariño in 2015 occupied 298 square kilometers (115 square miles); in 2016 it increased to 426 square kilometers (165 square miles). In Cauca, it rose from 87 square kilometers (33 square miles) to 126 square kilometers (49 square miles) in the same period. In Chocó, it increased by 21 percent, going from 15 to 18 square kilometers (5.7 to 7 square miles) in one year. In the region of Valle del Cauca, whose capital is Cali, the third most important city in Colombia, the figure was much lower, from 5.9 to 7.5 square kilometers (2.3 to 2.9 square miles). In general, though, the entire Pacífico region is a major concern.
Authorities know it will not be easy to get rid of the mafias that are behind deforestation throughout the country, especially those operating in the Amazon. The outgoing environment minister, Luis Gilberto Murillo, has said it will be impossible to reach the goal set for 2020 — zero deforestation in this region — although he suggested it could be achieved by 2025. Experts agree that in order to comply with the objective, urgent actions must be taken that involve all institutions. This is something that has become a continental concern since in the last 50 years the loss of forest in the entire Amazon region of South America has reached 17 percent.
In a paper published last February in the journal Science Advances, Carlos Nobre, a member of the Academy of Sciences of Brazil, and the U.S. researcher Thomas Lovejoy warned that if the dreaded 20 percent level was reached, it would be a point of no return. This would affect the water cycle and the ecosystems, and would be catastrophic not only for the Colombian population but for the whole world.