Deforestation: The Colombian Amazon Burns | Climate and Environment


The flames devour, once again, the Colombian Amazon. A few minutes after the plane takes off from the Villavicencio airport, the gateway to the immensity of the plains that dominate the southern half of Colombia, the copious columns of smoke begin to be observed. It is just the preamble to the alarming landscape left by deforestation, intensified in the new year, in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. The intense burnings – pushed by mafias, land grabbers, armed groups and landowners – are already encircling nature reserves and indigenous reservations. As you approach the Sierra de la Macarena park, the gaps in the forest layer multiply. Many pieces of what used to be the Amazon rainforest have been reduced to ashes.

Aerial view of the affected area.
Aerial view of the affected area. COURTESY FCDS

Even as the six-seat Cessna Centurion remains more than a quarter mile above the ground, choking smoke from the fires permeates the cramped cabin. The sky is loaded with those particles. “They are putting fire under the forest,” says Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), from the co-pilot’s seat, with his trained eye. Since 2015 he has been doing these overflights, armed with cameras, tablets and satellite maps, to monitor and document these holes in the jungle.

During the nearly five-hour journey, last Friday, the plane later entered Chiribiquete, the largest natural park in Colombia, declared a cultural and natural heritage of humanity and famous for its tepuyes dotted with thousands of cave paintings. In the heart of the park, in the middle of that sea of ​​jungle that extends as far as the eye can see, there is also an enormous scar of felled and crushed trees, an operation that requires expensive machinery. “Half a million hectares of forest, and in all of half, this,” laments Botero when pointing to that portion. Beneath the treetops and foliage, imperceptible to the eye, run illegal highways that the FARC guerrillas opened before laying down their arms five years ago.

“Despite the fact that there are already sites with few remnants of forest, the size of deforestation and burning is still enormous. There are sites that are experiencing a definitive change in coverage, some of them correspond to ecological connectivity corridors that were crucial,” explains Botero, already on the ground, at the FCDS headquarters in San José del Guaviare, as a balance. “We are entering a turning point. It is possible that there has been more deforested area before, but not necessarily with this intensity.”

Natural forests cover about 60 million hectares in Colombia, and deforestation is what contributes the most to climate change in the country. The burning occurs in the so-called arc of deforestation, which extends through the departments of Caquetá, Meta and Guaviare. The phenomenon seeps into the natural national parks and the Amazon jungle. These forests guarantee, among many other things, the regulation of the climate and the supply of water in the Andean zone, through the so-called “flying rivers”. The parks constitute a biological corridor between the Amazon and the Andes. However, unchecked deforestation, which did not stop even during the pandemic, does not let up in the new year either. Environmentalists have set off all the alarms.

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Aerial view of an active fire.
Aerial view of an active fire. COURTESY FCDS

The first few months are the season with less rain in the forest systems, floodplains and wetlands that connect the Amazon with the Colombian Orinoquía. That dry season – which begins in December and runs through March – has been particularly harsh in 2022. The heat is oppressive in San José del Guaviare, where it did not rain in all of January, when the highest number of hot spots was recorded in the Colombia’s Amazon biome in the last 10 years, according to the Ministry of the Environment. Throughout the national territory, between December 15 and February 5, there were 1,950 forest fires and prohibited burnings, according to data from the Ministry of the Interior. In Guaviare, a red alert was declared due to the fires that consume thousands of hectares, and in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, some 400 kilometers away, an environmental alert was also activated due to air quality.

The high expectations regarding the environmental dividends of the peace agreement signed at the end of 2016 have not materialized. The former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), today disarmed and converted into a political party, had a historic presence in these territories. The guerrillas restricted deforestation, in part because the treetops made it difficult for the Army to identify their camps from the air. Today, the abandonment of the state is palpable where the authorities have not filled the void left by the departure of the rebels. Other armed actors have emerged, mainly the dissidents that backed away from the negotiations. The legacy of war still weighs heavily, accompanied by the threat of new cycles of violence. The plane also flew over the rural area where two weeks ago the dissidents burned two vehicles of the UN Verification Mission.

The panorama is alarming, with environmental, diplomatic and security implications. The Government of Iván Duque – a critic of the agreements that have militarized environmental policy – ​​initially set out to maintain the annual loss of forests at the record level of 2017, around 220,000 hectares. However, with the support of Germany, the United Kingdom and Norway –Colombia’s largest environmental cooperator–, it established more aggressive goals, up to 100,000 hectares or less by 2025, and 155,000 hectares or less by 2022. Driven by cattle ranching, land grabbing, illegal mining and coca cultivation, among other causes, deforestation increased by 8% to 171,685 hectares in 2020.

The data for 2021 will be known in July. The structural lag with the delivery of the consolidated figures only makes it possible to know those of one year until the middle of the next. The current crisis, for example, can be measured in 18 months, in the middle of 2023. For this reason, environmentalists and aid workers resort to early warning signs such as the so-called hot spots, which on the ground are equivalent to fires and burnings. “It is not possible for a system to depend exclusively on official figures. What has happened during this four-year period confirms that it is necessary to strengthen the capacity of civil society to maintain parallel systems with reliable, truthful and real-time information, so that the State can move”, says Botero. The highways – legal and illegal – that open the agricultural frontier and from the sky look like orange lines that cut the landscape, are directly related to the felling of trees and are another warning of what is coming in the coming years.

Fire and deforested area.
Fire and deforested area. COURTESY FCDS

Colombia’s commitments last November at the climate summit in Glasgow, COP26, will be impossible to fulfill without a more determined implementation of the “greener” aspects of the peace agreement, which are largely stalled and underfunded, he warned. a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG). Among them, stopping the agricultural frontier, reintegrating ex-combatants into sustainable rural economies, projects for the substitution of illicit crops or rural development projects in the municipalities hardest hit by the war. The document also pointed out that the government must redirect its efforts against environmental crimes towards the economic actors that drive the destruction of forests, instead of the poorest loggers. Although there is already a new environmental crime law, so far no big determiner has been caught.

“The actions must be preventive, not reactive. This is a tragedy foretold and year after year in the dry season we see, with impotence and pain, the Amazon burning”, point out more than 180 Colombian academics in a public letter to Duque and his Environment Minister, Carlos Correa. Three months before the presidential elections, the next president will have to address the emergency in places like Chiribiquete with surgical precision. The matter has come up in the campaign. Two of the best-known candidates, Gustavo Petro and Alejandro Gaviria, already flew over the arc of deforestation at the end of last year, and others intend to do so in the coming days.

“Most of the hundreds of thousands of hectares of Amazon rainforest destroyed since Duque governs, is due to large capitals, local politicians, who monopolize depredated land to sell them in the future,” he declared. Petro at the time. “We can’t keep pushing [embustes] out of our commitment to climate change while we do nothing to prevent the burning of the Amazon”, manifested for his part, Gaviria over the weekend, when he once again promoted the issue in the public debate. “Deforestation is destroying our forests, our biodiversity, which makes us unique in the world. This has to stop”.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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