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Colombia: Deforestation and Conflict

Source: crisisgroup

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Principal Findings

What’s new? Deforestation has surged in Colombia since the FARC rebels put down their weapons following a 2014 ceasefire and 2016 peace accord. Other insurgents and criminal groups have stepped up economic activities – ranching, logging, mining and coca growing – that accelerate loss of woodland and jungle in areas the guerrillas once controlled.

Why does it matter? By enabling economic activities that provide income to insurgents and criminals, deforestation helps them engage in fresh cycles of rural violence, hinders the state in its efforts to control territory, and prevents Colombia from meeting core goals on environment protection.

What should be done? Bogotá should refocus its campaign against environmental crime to target economically empowered actors driving deforestation rather than impoverished loggers. It should implement peace accord commitments for rural areas, especially concerning land registration and restitution, and build a stronger natural resource management system, drawing on community involvement and technical assistance.

Executive Summary

In the five years following its historic 2016 peace accord, Colombia has seen a surge of forest razing and land clearance amid continuing unrest in the countryside. The rate of tree loss, which greatly lowers the country’s chances of meeting its zero-deforestation goal by 2030, is tied to conflict and violence. These ties are complex. Deforestation began to rise soon after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which had operated mostly from rural areas, declared a ceasefire in December 2014. It then gathered steam after the 2016 accord was signed. The rebels’ departure from their strongholds provided an opportunity for other insurgencies and organised crime to assert control. With state authority in the countryside still feeble, those groups pushed back the forest to expand enterprises like coca growing, cattle ranching, illegal gold mining and logging, sometimes working with legal businesses. To arrest the damage, Bogotá should fix its approach to prosecuting environmental crime, implement peace accord commitments relating to the environment and urgently bolster its natural resource management systems.

In many ways, the FARC ran roughshod over the environment during its five-decade insurgency. But there was a clear difference between them and the current crop of violent outfits operating in rural Colombia. In areas where FARC rebels operated, they tended to restrict deforestation. One reason was that thick tree canopies helped prevent the state from spotting their encampments from the air, allowing them to move more freely. But as they implemented a late 2014 ceasefire and prepared to sign the 2016 accord, the guerrillas also for the most part stopped limiting land clearance. Deforestation rose sharply, spearheaded or abetted by new and old armed actors, often in bruising competition with one another. These actors included the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s last remaining insurgents; FARC dissidents (ie, former fighters who have reneged on the peace process and returned to arms); and criminal groups that inherited many of the structures once belonging to right-wing paramilitaries.

At the front line of [Colombia’s] receding forest, … small-hold farmers are coerced or coopted into doing the armed groups’ bidding. 
Deforestation, however, is not solely the handiwork of illegal bands. Tens of thousands of internally displaced people and other conflict victims, many of them desperately poor, have been swept up in the push to clear Colombia’s woodlands for remunerative uses. Often having lost their land to violent groups, these farmers have been forced to find ways of surviving by clearing forest and creating new livelihoods in far-flung places. At the front line of the country’s receding forest, some of these small-hold farmers are coerced or co-opted into doing the armed groups’ bidding while others are paid small amounts for their labours.

Cattle ranching stands out as the single biggest cause of deforestation. Feeding into legal supply chains, it now causes more tree loss than coca, illicit logging or illegal gold mining. On paper at least, ranching is a normal business, but illegal actors engage in it, and the state has been unable to rein in many corrupt and criminal practices within the sector. Land used for grazing is often obtained illegally or located in environmentally protected territories. Profits frequently enrich criminal groups that terrorise local people and perpetuate conflict.

While the current level of rampant forest clearance in Colombia is driven by a mix of armed and criminal groups, licit actors and deep structural problems – notably the country’s profound socio-economic inequality and the state’s chronic weaknesses – Bogotá is far from helpless to stop it. The government has at its disposal tools and strategies that can help it check unregulated deforestation and blunt the adverse consequences thereof. One is law enforcement. Colombia’s campaign to fight environmental crime, Operation Artemisa, has flagged as a result of high costs, and been the object of some public wrath. It has lost support in part by tending to go after individual farmers rather than tackle the more pressing and difficult work of targeting the big bosses behind deforestation. But a new comprehensive law should enable Bogotá to remedy these mistakes by increasing punishment for the financial backers behind environmental crimes.

Another potential mechanism for bringing about change is the 2016 peace accord. Carrying out its environmentally focused provisions has been difficult, due to financial constraints, the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of high-level political support. But implementation is of critical importance. At the heart of that agreement is a set of measures that would go a long way toward addressing the causes of deforestation. The steps under way toward creation of a new land registry could help clarify property ownership and use throughout the country, while a land fund that builds on the progress made since passage of the 2011 Victims’ Law could enable families whose property was seized by armed groups to re-establish farms. In combination, these two reforms have the potential to help staunch the drive to clear more forest by providing more formal deeds to existing farmland.

Also of relevance, the accord looked to strengthen the Campesino Reserve Zones, where unused or inefficiently used land is distributed for ownership to small-hold farmers; contemplated participatory mechanisms for communities to design sustainable development plans; pledged to create a program to encourage coca growers to substitute licit crops; and envisaged a zoning plan to help manage land use, among many environmental features.

Largely unregulated land clearance, which offers a thoroughfare for armed and criminal groups to get richer and reach deeper into remote territory, is a double threat to Colombia. On one hand, it is an impediment to the country’s prospects for peace. On the other hand, accelerating tree loss, in Colombia and elsewhere, is a threat to the environment and those who depend on it. Deforestation increases the country’s vulnerability to climate change by exacerbating exposure to the effects of extreme weather, which already disproportionately harm the country’s poorer and more neglected people. Soil degradation will magnify the effects of flooding and droughts brought on by climate change, as well as knock-on disasters like landslides.

Growing deforestation, which is likely to be a core concern addressed at COP26, the UN climate summit under way in Glasgow, is also at odds with Colombia’s ambitious climate commitments under the Paris Agreement. Shortfalls in reaching these goals will not only cause reputational damage but also negatively affect access to donor funding. Better management of the country’s natural resources will require collection of more reliable data, establishment of more effective controls, and fluid dialogue between state authorities and rural populations that have been living in environmentally protected areas, sometimes over several generations, as to their future livelihoods and use of woodland.

Standing by while the farthest reaches of Colombia are cleared for illicit profit risks feeding cycles of violence. Averting this outcome will depend in large part on confronting the many interests pushing the agricultural frontier outward.