In six years since Colombia signed a peace agreement with its largest rebel movement, farmers, miners, loggers and armed groups have surged into the nation’s forests, felling trees and accelerating deforestation and its ills: a destabilized global climate and destruction of biodiversity and local communities’ habitats. As Colombia struggles to establish effective governance, the state is trying to shift away from previous reliance on military force to curb deforestation, a strategy that bred mistrust and violent conflict with local communities. Now a Colombian university is developing more effective forest-protection techniques to build sustainable solutions with those communities — an approach that can be shared globally.

Fires burn down rainforest near Caqueta, Colombia in 2021 to clear land for farming. Army-style raids to halt deforestation have failed — and led to violence. A Colombian team has built a new method with a USIP grant.
Fires burn down rainforest near Caqueta, Colombia in 2021 to clear land for farming. Army-style raids to halt deforestation have failed — and led to violence. A Colombian team has built a new method with a USIP grant. (Federico Rios/The New York Times)

‘Militarized Conservation’ Isn’t Working

Colombia’s rate of deforestation surged by 15 percent in the first half of 2022 over the same period the prior year. The U.S. and Colombian governments last month emphasized the urgency of the deeply interwoven tasks of countering environmental degradation and ending Colombia’s continued armed conflicts. A vital region for both tasks is the country’s southern third, a California-sized region that is part of the Amazon River basin. During decades of civil war, rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) tightly controlled the forest ,impeding its economic exploitation, and maintained a thick forest canopy to obscure their movements. But FARC demobilized after its 2016 peace accord with the government and state authority has failed to fill the power vacuum. Armed groups, including dissident FARC factions, continue to fight against the state. They and other illegal groups have moved into forests to extract timber, gold and other resources. Such organized groups, and local subsistence farmers, also clear forestland to grow coca, the plant base for cocaine, or to raise cattle. Cattle herding, both by peasant families and large landholding businesses, is Colombia’s single biggest cause of deforestation.

Colombia’s previous government responded to deforestation with a “militarized conservation” approach. In 2019, it launched Operation Artemisa, deploying 22,000 security officers, including troops hardened by combat during the civil war, who often helicoptered into legally protected forestland, burning homes and confiscating crops or cattle of people who had cleared land there. In a pattern similar to prior campaigns against coca farming, the state “has targeted the weaker, vulnerable parts of the problem, which are poor, rural farmers and laborers out in the forest,” said Javier Revelo-Rebolledo, a political science professor at Colombia’s Universidad del Rosario. For years, such state operations “have done relatively little investigation up the chain” in cases where business or criminal interests may be organizing the clearance of forestland, he said in an interview. Journalists’ investigations, anti-corruption monitors and environmental groups say official corruption has impeded Colombia’s efforts to target more powerful elites behind deforestation.

The state’s overly militarized response to deforestation ignited resistance among the many small farmers and peasants who were arrested or uprooted by military force. One center of both deforestation and the armed response is Caqueta, a department (province) in the south. In the 1940s, the state began urging Colombians to settle in Caqueta’s forests and “provided land, but few or no roads, education and other basic infrastructure,” said Simon Uribe, also a political scientist at Rosario. Settlers — including many poorer, Indigenous and Afro-Colombians — grew coca, among other crops, to survive, he said. In later decades, the government used military force against coca growers. That experience, and now the militarized campaign against deforestation, “has left many people feeling betrayed, in a way,” Uribe said. “They feel stigmatized by the state for growing coca or raising cattle to survive … and they mistrust the state and even its efforts to promote substitute crops” for them.

Caqueta residents displayed the intensity of popular resistance to the militarized campaigns in 2018 when the state forces mounted their biggest operation yet to destroy farms, confiscate cattle and arrest ranchers in a national park. In the vicinity of San Vicente del Caguan, “residents sympathized with the families who were being displaced, and they gathered in solidarity to actually tear up the roads to prevent the state from confiscating the cattle,” Revelo-Rebolledo said. That was a dramatic step, for the few roads are lifeline for the community, he said. The incident led to heightened local protests against the government’s campaign.

Digging to the Roots of Deforestation, Violence

Like the United States and other nations, Colombia is struggling to meet its environmental targets. Colombia’s conflicts around deforestation are rooted in a deep disconnect between the socioeconomic models shaped by Colombia’s state and elites, and the survival strategies of local, often marginalized, communities. Uribe and Revelo-Rebolledo lead Selva y Conflicto (Rainforest and Conflict), a research team responding to this disconnect by developing techniques that local governments and community organizations can use to address social and environmental disputes and reduce violence. With support from a USIP grant, they are developing a “toolbox” of these techniques. The toolbox uses in-the-field engagements with farmers and peasants on the forest boundary combined with state-of-the-art technology such as geospatial analysis and satellite imagery. By joining these data sources, the Rosario team is able to more fully and descriptively diagnose the causes of deforestation and violent conflict — and thus to equip policymakers, civil society leaders and local community members to build possible solutions.

To make its techniques readily usable by communities, the Rosario team holds training workshops for community members and local authorities. The team created a type of role-playing board game that walks participants through a process to diagnose the causes of their conflicts and then generate solutions that can resolve the disputes and prevent future violence. The Selva y Conflicto team has carried its “toolbox” on hours-long boat journeys along southern Colombia’s rivers to reach isolated jungle communities where deforestation is rapidly expanding. Their goal is to help such communities work with their departmental and municipal governments to integrate these diagnoses and solutions into official strategies to curb deforestation and conflict.

The Rosario team is working with scholars, policymakers and nongovernment organizations to increase awareness, and use, of its techniques. With the Itarka Foundation, an environmental education organization based in southern Colombia, the team is preparing a program to develop trainers who can guide communities in using its method to address deforestation conflicts. In February 2023, the Selva y Conflicto team gathered anthropologists, political scientists, economists and ecologists at Universidad del Rosario to discuss the social, ecological and conflict implications of deforestation and the state’s response to it. The breadth of participants at the conference underscored that any resolution of deforestation and its conflicts must work across disparate domains.

Uribe, Revelo-Rebolledo and their colleagues are preparing their toolbox of techniques for wider dissemination. They are expanding its distribution to communities in areas of deforestation and conflict. A website will offer an online version of the toolbox along with tutorial videos and space for users’ feedback. The team plans to send the toolbox to the project’s participants, social leaders and state authorities at the national and local levels. To reach a global audience, the team will have the online toolbox translated into English and Portuguese to be shared with others engaged in similar issues in worldwide.

Supporting a Better Strategy

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized last month that, among the issues facing the countries, the United States will support Colombia to “strengthen protection of the Amazon.” Both the Colombian and U.S. governments hope to make environmental protection and the fight against climate change the new cornerstone of bilateral relations.

As Colombia’s Environment Minister Susana Muhamad recently said, “the environmental agenda on deforestation goes hand-in-hand with the total peace process” pursued by the government. That peace effort encompasses both implementation of the FARC accord, and pursuing negotiations with other armed groups such as the National Liberation Army and FARC dissidents. As these ambitious efforts gain momentum under the current government, environmental factors will come to the fore of negotiations and implementation agendas. It is imperative that grassroots efforts such as Rosario’s are utilized to quell a new wave of social conflict related to deforestation.

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