Stopping the Violence Devouring Colombia's Forests | Opinion

Government leaders gathering at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) to discuss climate change signed the "Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use," which commits them to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. In countries such as Colombia, where both the perpetrators and victims of conflict drive the razing of forests, it will be impossible to fulfill the promises of the declaration without addressing the root causes of violence.

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, but about 780,000 hectares of primary forest—a territory the size of Haiti—have been cleared since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) declared a unilateral ceasefire and began to withdraw from their traditional strongholds. Last week, the U.S. National Intelligence Council listed Colombia among the 11 countries most vulnerable to the threat of climate change, and the current rate of tree loss aggravates the potential risks posed by drought and flooding in Colombia.

Farmer cuts tree
A subsistence farmer in rural Caquetá cuts a tree in half. Bram Ebus/Crisis Group

The country's natural riches have long been vulnerable to man made devastation. Throughout Colombia's guerrilla wars and other conflicts, dating from the 1960s, collateral environmental damage has been routine: terrorist attacks against pipelines resulted in oil spills, causing irreversible harm to fragile ecosystems, while as part of the U.S-sponsored war on drugs 1.8 million hectares were fumigated with a poisonous herbicide. At the same time, criminal groups have been plundering natural resources such as coca, timber and illegal gold, the profits from which continue to fuel competitive violence.

But if conflict ran roughshod over the environment, a peace deal signed by the government in 2016 with the largest Colombian guerrilla group, the FARC, has actually made things worse. With the swipe of a pen, former President Juan Manual Santos and FARC's chief negotiator Rodrigo Londoño, alias Timochenko, theoretically ended over half a century of internal strife. The treaty was widely applauded for charting a path to defend the environment, but deforestation rates have skyrocketed since its signing.

Historically, the FARC prohibited commercial logging and punished those who harmed the environment by imposing fines or expelling offenders. Forest conservation was mostly motivated by self-interest: The FARC needed forest cover to secretly move troops and set up camp. Deforestation quickly began to rise soon after the guerrilla—which had operated mostly from rural areas—declared a ceasefire in December 2014, and gained pace after the 2016 accord was signed.

The rebels' demobilization provided an opportunity for other insurgents and organized crime groups. With state authority in the countryside still feeble, those groups cleared land to expand their enterprises, sometimes in partnership with legal businesses. "After we handed in our weapons," a former guerrilla commander said to me, "neither the army nor the police was capable of protecting the environment."

 A military checkpoint near a river crossing
A military checkpoint near a river crossing in rural Caquetá. Bram Ebus/Crisis Group

But armed groups are not the only ones driving rising deforestation—so are their victims. In several trips to the Amazon, illegal gold mines in the Andes and cattle ranching regions on the coast, we spoke with some of Colombia's most vulnerable people, the small-hold or landless farmers who are among the millions displaced from their homes by violence over recent decades. They are now frequently the ones wielding the gasoline-fueled chainsaws that bring forests crashing down. "I can clear almost three hectares a day with one of these machines," a farmer told me while walking through a recently razed forest in the Amazon.

These subsistence farmers and miners who have often been forced off their lands by violent groups turn to cutting down forests as a means to survive in Colombia's most remote areas. They are often used as expendable labor and end up doing the bidding for armed groups that build cattle ranches or mine fragile ecosystems for gold. The Colombian government has responded to rampant land clearance by creating a special military and police campaign, Operation Artemisa, but it has taken the easy route, targeting families struggling to survive while white-collar criminal financiers behind large-scale deforestation remain untouched.

The peace accord promised sustainable development to address poverty in Colombia's most conflict-affected areas, but little has so far been done. After the government failed to fulfill its end of the bargain in a voluntary coca eradication scheme, some growers decided to turn back to the illicit crop. Others, tired of the risks of dealing with drug traffickers, opted to chop trees and rear cattle. Cows get thin when they are transported from remote jungle areas to urban buyers, a farmer complains. "But at least ... you know that cow will be sold."

Houses in Antioquia tagged by the ELN
Houses in Antioquia tagged by the ELN, Colombia's current largest guerrilla group. Bram Ebus/Crisis Group

What can be done and why should we care? If Colombia does not design law enforcement strategies that target those behind large-scale forest clearing or implement the parts of the peace agreement that will prevent victims and the rural poor from destroying jungles to make a living, deforestation will simply plough on.

The world can and should help Colombia reach its goal of halting deforestation by 2030. This means scaling up their political and financial support for environmental conservation and rural development, so that core aspects of the peace agreement, like a plan to redistribute existing cleared land that stands idle, are implemented. International buyers of products coming from illegally razed forests should clean up their supply chain. The Amazon Protection Plan proposes import bans on products from illegally deforested areas and suggests debt relief for countries that show progress on environmental protection.

 A subsistence gold miner in Antioquia
A subsistence gold miner in Antioquia. Bram Ebus/Crisis Group

The environment has been often overlooked as a factor that can make or break peace in Colombia. Ending violence and conserving forests are interconnected goals, and the stakes are high. These issues should be pushed to the top of the agendas of the Colombian government, international backers of peace and foreign governments. They should start this week at COP26, by ensuring that any climate finance there pledged to stop deforestation takes account of the conflict conditions that contribute to it.

Bram Ebus is a consultant on the Andes region for the International Crisis Group and contributed to their recent report "A Broken Canopy: Deforestation and Conflict in Colombia."

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.