Deforestation rising in Colombia 5 years after peace deal

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Deforestation has risen in Colombia since the country’s largest guerilla group signed a historic peace deal with the government five years ago and withdrew from remote areas of the country, a report by the International Crisis Group found.

The report published on Thursday said that cattle ranchers, loggers, miners, subsistence farmers and criminal groups have moved into areas formerly controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and are burning down forests to make way for legal and illegal businesses.

“The FARC imposed restrictions on logging in areas under their control because they needed the forest cover to move their troops and build camps without being noticed from the air” said Bram Ebus, the report’s author, referring to the group by its Spanish initials.

“But when the FARC left its vast territories throughout Colombia, the state did not show up with law enforcement or development projects. So other armed groups and criminal organizations filled the void left by the FARC and started to incentivize deforestation to expand their illicit economies.”

According to data compiled by the Crisis Group, Colombian municipalities where FARC guerrillas had a presence lost 0.5% of their forest cover between 2010 and 2014. But after the FARC ceased military operations in 2015, signed a peace deal and withdrew from those areas, deforestation picked up.

The data compiled by ICG shows that from 2015 to 2019, the same municipalities lost 1.1% of their forest cover.

According to Colombia’s National Institute for Environmental Studies, the South American nation lost 747,000 hectares (2,885 square miles) of forest during the four years that followed the 2016 peace deal — an area about 10 times the size of New York City's land.

The Institute’s records show that Colombia lost approximately 562,000 hectares (2,170 square miles) of forest in the four years leading up to 2016, when the FARC was still active in many parts of the country.

Ebus said that deforestation in Colombia is not just driven by criminal groups setting up mines, coca fields and illegal logging operations, but also by small farmers displaced from their territories by Colombia’s conflict.

The peace deal calls for the creation of a national land registry and for arable land to be distributed to these farmers. But these provisions of the peace deal have not been fully implemented.

“The lands that should be available for redistribution to victims are already occupied and taken, sometimes illegally” Ebus said. “This means that the landless need to go to forested areas, and raze forests to look for a new way to subsist.”

At the U.N. climate change summit in Glasgow, Colombian President Iván Duque promised to turn 30% of the country’s land into protected areas by the end of his administration. He also said that by 2050, the country will be carbon-neutral.

Ebus argued that Colombia will have to halt its deforestation rate in order to meet that target. The ICG report calls on the government to fully implement the peace deal’s land distribution schemes and to make greater efforts to target criminals who are financing deforestation.