As the Amazon burns, Colombia’s forests decimated for cattle and coca
A new deforestation analysis shows a disturbing trend of forest loss inside national parks such as Sierra de la Macarena, Tinigua, Chiribiquete and Nukak. by Antonio José Paz Cardona on 26 September 2019 | Translated by Romina Castagnino
- The environmental corridor that connects the Amazon, the Orinoquía and the Andes mountain range is in danger as a result of the ongoing deforestation.
- Tinigua National Natural Park lost 16,000 hectares (39,500 acres) between 2017 and July 2019, almost all of it primary forest, while the other parks also lost significant amounts of forest.
- The analysis identifies the main cause of the deforestation as the conversion of forests to pastures for land grabbing and livestock ranching, by invaders taking advantage of the scant government presence in the region.
The last few weeks have been critical for the Amazon in Brazil and Bolivia. Fires in August razed thousands of hectares of forest and drew the attention of the international community.
Neighboring Colombia hasn’t been spared either. Although the fire season here usually occurs in January and February, there has been a surge in deforestation, especially in the country’s northwestern Amazon region. Protected areas of vital importance to indigenous communities and the Andes-Amazon-Orinoquía ecological corridor have also been affected.
Deforestation has strongly impacted national parks such as Sierra de la Macarena, Tinigua, Chiribiquete and Nukak, according to the latest report from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), an initiative of the Amazon Conservation Association (ACCA) in collaboration with the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) in Colombia.
Colombia lost nearly 200,000 hectares (almost 500,000 acres) of forest in 2018, according to the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (known by its Spanish acronym IDEAM). And while that figure is down 10 percent from 2017, national parks are still in danger. The municipality of La Macarena, for example, registered the greatest surge in deforestation in the whole country (an increase of 26 percent), with almost half “occurring inside Tinigua park,” says Rodrigo Botero, director of the FCDS.
Loss of primary forest
The drop in deforestation in 2018 doesn’t mask the fact that 478,000 hectares (1.18 million acres) of forest were lost in the Colombian Amazon in the three years between 2016 and 2018. Nearly three-quarters of this was primary forest.
According to GLAD alerts from satellite data collated by the University of Maryland, another 60,600 hectares [150,000 acres] were lost during the first seven months of 2019. Of that, 75 percent was primary forest. The MAAP report shows that this year’s loss of forest has occurred mainly inside four protected areas in the northwest of the Colombian Amazon: Tinigua, Serranía de Chiribiquete and Sierra de la Macarena national parks, and Nukak National Natural Reserve.
Among the highlights of the study: 29,000 hectares (71,700 acres) deforested in the four protected areas from 2016 to 2018; 4,300 hectares (10,600 acres) cleared by the end of July 2019
Tinigua National Park was the hardest hit: 16,000 hectares (39,500 acres) were lost between 2017 and July 2019, with a peak in 2018. Chiribiquete lost 2,600 hectares (6,400 acres) since its expansion in July 2018, 96 percent of it primary forest.
A large proportion of deforestation occurs in pristine forests where the flora and fauna are usually poorly studied. According to experts, these areas can take centuries to recover, if at all.
“Primary forest, in this case, is described as a mature natural tropical rainforest that has not been completely cleared or has been regenerated in recent history (30-50 years). In reality, and most cases, they are probably forests that have never been cleared. So, we are talking about super-intact forests with all its biodiversity which if lost, may never be replaced,” says Matt Finer, director of the MAAP.
The question now is why this is happening in protected areas of great biological and ecological importance. After the signing of a peace agreement between guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government in 2016, he guerrilla groups left the Amazon. Their departure and the lack of government presence in these areas facilitated land grabbing by large landowners and other illegal armed groups.
“The highest rates of deforestation in Amazonian national parks are found in ones with no presence of park officials. They have either been displaced from the area or evacuated due to threats against them,” says Botero from the FCDS.
The environmental sector has weak governance, he says, which limits park monitoring by officials and their work with communities. These factors “enable deforestation in these areas,” Botero says. One of the most worrisome things for experts is seeing illegal land transactions within indigenous areas, national parks, forest reserves and community reserves.
Andes-Amazon-Orinoquía corridor in danger
The MAAP analysis identifies three critical deforestation areas in the northwestern Colombian Amazon: the convergence zone between Tinigua, La Macarena and Chiribiquete national parks; the western sector of the Chiribiquete park expansion zone; and the northwestern segment of Nukak National Natural Reserve.
In all cases, there is a common deforestation driver. “The main cause in the region is the conversion to pastures for land grabbing and livestock,” Finer says.
According to the FCDS, the southern area of Tinigua National Natural Park has been persistently encroached on during the past three years. The best preserved area is located north of the Guayabero River. However, this small fragment of forest owes part of its conservation to the presence of armed groups — the FARC previously, and dissidents today. That’s why this area has not yet been colonized or destroyed.
Loss of primary forest in Tinigua jumped by nearly 400 percent between 2017 and 2018, to almost 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres), according to a graph in the MAAP report. There’s been a consistent increase in forest loss in Sierra de la Macarena since 2016, and the trend seems to have caught on in Tinigua, leading to the fragmentation of the Andes-Amazon-Orinoquía corridor.
“In La Macarena, the deforestation axis has [been] heavily concentrated along the cattle trail. This generates disconnection between the Amazonian plain — between the Guayabero and Cafre rivers — and the mountain range,” Botero says. For him, the negative impacts are getting bigger, not only because they obstruct species migration but also because they damage environmental services, affecting rainfall and water regulation capacity. “We are already seeing droughts and a decrease in surface runoff in the area.”
Overflights and satellite data have been essential in evaluating the speed at which the expansion of the agricultural frontier in Tinigua and La Macarena is occurring, especially areas targeted for medium and large-scale livestock ranching. Coca crops are also present in some sectors of La Macarena; the illicit crops have also been found in the Nukak reserve, surrounding the Inírida River. The environmental damage in this area is not only due to deforestation but also to water contamination by chemical waste dumping into the river.
For Botero, Colombia is not in the clear even though deforestation in the Amazon decreased by nearly 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) between 2017 and 2018, according to IDEAM data. The decrease, however, is still very small compared to the 138,176 hectares (341,440 acres) that were lost last year. “Because every year we have less forest, the impact of deforestation is increasing,” he says. “The question is: has the forest been recovering?”
Deforestation in Colombia, coupled with the fires in the Bolivian and Brazilian Amazon, poses new challenges for all countries that share the biome. In Colombia, experts believe that fighting deforestation is a governance issue that cannot be solved solely through the military-led enforcement approach of Operation Artemisa. The critical issue, they say, is access to land.
“If you do not recover the lands from the people who grabbed more than half a million hectares of the Amazon in recent years, then impunity becomes a stimulus for crime, and therefore, thousands of hectares will continue to enter the illegal land market in Colombia,” Botero says.
Banner image of burned land in the Colombian Amazon, where the fire season usually occurs between January and February. Image courtesy of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).
This is a translated version of a story that was first published in Spanish on Aug. 26, 2019.
Article published by Genevieve Belmaker