For a long time, Colombia was one of the least affected areas of South America by deforestation. For not very good reasons: for decades there was war between the Farc guerrillas and the Colombian government. In 2014, the Farc declared a ceasefire, followed by a peace treaty with the government in 2016.
But with peace came deforestation. From 2015, the number of cleared hectares skyrocketed. In 2018 and 2019, the last years for which figures are available, it was possible to curb deforestation again. However, Colombia is still one of the ten countries in which tropical rainforest is destroyed the most in the world.
“Victoria Márquez” says that it is terrible how much is cleared. Within a few days, hundreds of hectares of forest had been cut down in a national park for cattle breeding. The animal breeding expert has been working in the forests for 15 years and tries to teach farmers forest-friendly animal husbandry. Very large areas are constantly being cleared, but no one controls it, she says.
Little state and much wild West
Márquez cannot give her real name, that would be too dangerous. Her work has always been difficult. It experienced the times of the guerrillas, then came paramilitary groups. Both sides distrusted her and her colleagues.
In the meantime, it can move more freely, but its sense of security has not increased since the peace agreement. The circumstances are too confusing: “Today we are facing people who we do not know who they are, what they are called, who stands behind them,” she explains. That sounds like little state and a lot of wild West.
One of the main reasons for the unchecked destruction of the rainforest is the weak Colombian government, but also the economic necessities. Colombia needs money to finance peace, says Torsten Krause, who has worked on the Colombian peace process and its effects on population and nature in several projects.
Forest protection programs have little effect
Unlike the use of natural resources, this is hardly possible, explains the scientist, who conducts research for Lund University in Sweden. The withdrawal of the Farc has created an opportunity to exploit both legal and illegal industries.
International forest protection programmes, which are financed primarily by Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom, have had little effect in Colombia, Krause notes. Small farmers and landless people are once again disadvantaged in the transformation process.
The land reform is a long time coming
Most of the deforestation is accounted for by livestock farming and palm oil production. Whether the farmers own the land they clear is often doubtful. A key agreement of the peace treaty, the land reform, has not yet been implemented. There is no cadastre and no land register, the ownership is unclear.
Those who deforest try to create facts in order to register the cleared land later. They were backed by investors who provided them with seeds and livestock, and in return they took part in the profits, says Márquez. Who these investors are is not always clear.
Legal and illegal economy lend a hand
In addition, there is legal and illegal mining. Illegal gold mining in particular is associated with environmental damage and uncertain conditions. Some farms would also be used for money laundering, Krause enumerates.
The area on which coca bushes are grown increased already after 2014. The anti-coca policy pursued by Colombia under considerable effort had essentially failed. However, there are few alternatives for farmers in some places.
The location is complex and Corona has not made it any easier, which shows the number of forest fires that have increased in 2020. It is even less controlled and Colombia currently has understandably different priorities than protecting the rainforest – a difficult starting point for a stable, sustainable policy.
The forest can recover - if you leave it alone
By 2030, Colombia still wants to halve its greenhouse gas emissions; by 2050, the country wants to be climate neutral. Currently it does not look like it, in the first quarter of 2020, the “Tagesanzeiger” quoted in May 2020 the Colombian environmental scientist Rodrigo Botero, probably more was cut down than in the entire year 2019. Current figures do not yet exist.
Márquez is nevertheless optimistic: if the clearing were stopped, the forest could recover almost as quickly. Farms that were abandoned 20 years ago are now again so wooded that until recently they themselves believed that they were natural primeval forest.