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Deforestation in Colombia's Amazon: Outlining the Problem

COCA / 1 SEP 2021 BY KATIE JONES AND MARÍA FERNANDA RAMÍREZ* EN

Deforestation is the most visible face of environmental crime in Colombia’s Amazon.

From around 2016, the region’s forests registered accelerating encroachment and destruction. According to the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales — IDEAM), in 2013, just 120,933 hectares of forest were destroyed when the agency began producing its annual deforestation monitoring report.

However, in 2017, a record high of 219,973 hectares was deforested in Colombia, up 23 percent from 2016.

Since then, deforestation rates have stabilized, dipping to 197,159 hectares cleared in 2018, and just under 158,894 hectares lost the following year. However, the country’s Amazon continues to be targeted by those profiting from illegal logging, land grabbing and illicit crop cultivation. Between 2012 and 2017, in just the Amazonian departments of Caquetá, Putumayo and Amazonas, 359,223 cubic meters of trees were destroyed.

*InSight Crime has joined forces with the Igarapé Institute – an independent think tank headquartered in Brazil, that focuses on emerging development, security and climate issues – to map out environmental crime in the Amazon Basin. Further instalments of the investigation will be published throughout September. Read all chapters here.

Four of the departments most consistently affected by deforestation in Colombia (Caquetá, Meta, Guaviare and Putumayo) are located in its Amazon, home to 66 percent of its forests. While in 2018, 138,176 hectares of forest were destroyed across the region, the following year, this fell to 98,256 hectares. Despite this decline, between July and September of 2020, 60 percent of total deforestation affecting Colombia was concentrated in its Amazon region.

Soaring deforestation in the country’s Amazonian departments from 2016 onward can be at least partly explained by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) withdrawing from the region’s jungles, the result of a peace agreement signed with the government.

While this has not been the sole factor behind increased deforestation, it is significant. Before 2016, guerrilla fighters actively discouraged activities leading to the destruction of forests, the habitat in which they hid and which provided a strategic advantage to the guerrilla army.

From 2016, however, guerrilla troops began to withdraw, opening up protected territories across the Amazon region, like Tinigua National Natural Park, to cattle ranchers and a new wave of settlers who were able to move in as conflict in the region decreased. In some cases, former FARC dissidents who refused to demobilize shifted into illegal logging and land grabbing to supplement income made from the drug trade. Such activities continue to fuel deforestation.

Main motors of deforestation

IDEAM recognizes seven motors of total deforestation in Colombia. These include: i) “praderización,” or clearing land for pastures; ii) irregular infrastructure development; iii) the expansion of agricultural activities into prohibited areas; iv) extensive cattle farming; v) illicit crop cultivation; vi) illegal logging and vii) illegal mining.

Each driver of deforestation recognized by IDEAM – aside from illegal logging and mining – maintains strong links to land grabbing.

Land Grabbing

Land grabbing typically consists of purchasing or leasing large areas of land by outside entities like governments or corporations, often to facilitate food production. While in some cases, the activity uses legal loopholes, it is often simply illegal.

In Colombia’s Amazon region, land grabbing principally targets territories inalienably owned by the State (forest reserves, national parks, Indigenous reserves, that cannot be legally appropriated in any way. The departments of Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá have been those principally affected by this activity, with Tinigua National Park, the Yarí savannas and the Nukak National Natural Reserve all facing constant encroachment.

The activity unfolds through three stages: clearing, occupation and commercialization.

The clearing stage usually begins once a road has been cut in a strategic location, like the 138-kilometer illegal track connecting the Amazonian municipalities of Calamar and Miraflores, in Guaviare, for example. Local people cut and burn flora in a designated protected area nearby. Often, multiple chainsaws are used simultaneously to clear tracks through the Amazonian Forest.

SEE ALSO: 5 Reasons For Record Deforestation in Colombia

Then, the illegally claimed land is occupied, or productive activities are set up on it. New homes are established in national parks like Tinigua; cattle are reared in Indigenous reserves, and African palm oil is cultivated in protected forest reserves to prove the land is being "occupied.” Alternatively, coca crops are cultivated on the territory, as has been the case within the Nukak Makú Indigenous Reservation.

Once proven that the land has been worked on for a certain period of time, ownership can be claimed. When an initially illicit claim is legalized, the land is often sold on.

Illegal Crop Cultivation

Meanwhile, illegal crop cultivation in the Amazonian departments of Vichada, Putumayo, Guaviare and Caquetá feeds international cocaine pipelines. The cultivation and processing of such crops are having a detrimental environmental impact across the region. Toxic precursor chemicals – used to process the drugs – pollute rivers. Swathes of forest are cleared to make way for coca plantations.

Forest on protected land is cut and burned by local people employed by local illegal groups to make fields. Ex-FARC dissidents led by Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” have reportedly been paying families based in Tinigua National Park up to five million pesos (just over $1,400) per hectare to carve out fields for coca cultivation. Then, dissidents order local people to sow coca, as has been the case in Tinigua.

When harvested, coca leaves are then transported to nearby, rudimentary processing laboratories spread across Colombia’s Amazon. These facilities are known as cocinas (kitchens), where coca leaf is processed into coca base, the raw material necessary for cocaine production.

In 2020, 267 labs of this kind were intercepted by authorities across the Amazonian department of Caquetá. On site, authorities typically seize toxic chemicals, including gasoline and sulfuric acid, used for processing.

Illegal Logging

Much like coca cultivation and land grabbing, illegal logging is rampant in protected areas. Loggers loot expanses of forest in Indigenous territories, national parks and peasant collectives across Putumayo, Amazonas and Caquetá.

They seek out everything from low-grade softwoods, such as Cow tree wood (Couma macrocarpa) and Virola plywood (Licania spp) to scarce, lucrative dark species, like Cedar (Cedrus) and Tornillo wood (Cedrelinga cateniformis).

These activities contribute to 10 percent of Colombia’s overall deforestation, stoke biodiversity loss, and are the principal driver of forest degradation, the effects of which are increasingly visible in the Amazon region.

It unfolds through three stages: extraction, transportation, and transformation. First, members of local communities chop down trees, most notably in forests located in the departments of Amazonas and Putumayo.

The activity occurs where the Putumayo and Cotuhé Rivers meet in Amazonas, in the municipality of Puerto Nariño, on the northern shore of the Amazon River, and in the municipality of Puerto Alegría in western Amazonas.

Illegal logging has also been detected in borderland zones of the department, including in the municipality of Tarapacá in southeastern Amazonas, close to the Colombia-Brazil border and in the city of Leticia, at Colombia’s Tri-Border Area with Brazil and Peru. Protected areas like the Amacayacu National Natural Park in southeastern Amazonas have also served as extraction points.

As for Putumayo, illegal logging has affected a number of sites that sit along the Putumayo River. These sites have been found in the city of Puerto Asís, located on the river’s west bank, in southwestern Putumayo; the municipality of Puerto Caicedo; and the municipality of Puerto Leguízamo, on its north bank, close to the department’s southern border with Peru. The activity has also affected the municipality of Orito, north of the Colombia-Ecuador border, and the municipality of Villagarzón, in northwestern Putumayo.

Some 186 species of timber extracted from Colombia’s Amazon are sold both legally and illegally. However, nine coveted species represent half of all wood traded when measured in terms of its volume.

The three main types of timber traded are Tornillo wood or “Achapo” (Cedrelina catenaeformis), Virola or “Sangre toro” (Virola sebifera) and Cow tree wood or “Perillo” (Couma macrocarpa).

Using transit permits, known as salvoconductos (safe-conducts), the wood makes its way to collection hubs first in the Amazon region and then in Colombia’s largest cities, traveling either overland or onboard vessels traversing the Amazon and Putumayo rivers.

Finally, the timber is sent on to primary sawmills and secondary transformation plants where its illicit Amazonian origins are concealed. In primary sawmills, timber is cut into boards, beams, and planks. Otherwise, in secondary processing plants, it is carved into a final product – like wooden tables or chairs – ready to be sold on legally.

"When timber enters sawmills, it is practically impossible to determine its illegal origin," according to Rubén Darío Moreno, a forestry expert at the department of Risaralda’s Autonomous Regional Corporation for Sustainable Development, a public body charged with managing the use of natural resources, including wood. “From that point onward, illegally sourced timber is considered as legal wood.”

Timber illegally sourced from Colombia’s Amazon finds its way on to legal domestic and international markets, where it is used in construction or sold in the form of furniture. High-end species are particularly sought after in that they are more durable and resistant to fungal and insect attacks.

More than 90 percent of wood sourced in Colombia is used domestically, although a small percentage supplies international markets. In such cases, the wood is taken to ports such as Buenaventura on the Pacific Coast. From there, it is transported to the United States, to India and to China, the world's largest timber importer.

The main timber products exported out of the country are planks and sawn tropical wood. This occurs despite national regulations prohibiting the export of timber that has not passed through secondary processing plants.

Hiding in the Shadows? The Actors Feeding Deforestation

At each stage, environmental crimes like land grabbing, coca cultivation and illegal logging count on the participation of a number of actors. Groups and individuals with diverse motives are involved, from the local farmer cutting down trees in his neighbor’s yard to the wealthy governor financing forest clearance in national parks.

Not all environmental crime stoking deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon is driven by organized crime groups. Nonetheless, organized crime has undeniably been a promoter of such activity.

The actors involved can be broken down into four principal categories: criminal networks/entrepreneurs; Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs); labor force; and facilitators/legal actors.

Criminal Networks/Entrepreneurs

From start to finish, criminal networks and entrepreneurs typically sit at the top of the chain, financing and orchestrating illegal logging and land grabbing. They wield the most influence and economic power in each activity and often act from the shadows as "invisibles."

Such actors typically form loose networks dedicated to criminal activities. They may not control territory and are not necessarily recognized as a named criminal structure. The figures at the top of these networks finance and orchestrate the operation of a given criminal activity at various stages.

Land grabbing in protected areas of Colombia’s Amazon region is principally financed and orchestrated by invisible criminal entrepreneurs called “appropriators.”

In some cases, mayors, governors, and government officials may take on this role. In 2019, the former governor of Guaviare, Nebio Echeverry Cadavid, a large-scale landowner and two other “businessmen” were accused of land grabbing in the department after they allegedly pressured peasant families to sell their land ahead of using such territory for palm oil cultivation.

Such actors are typically national, regional, or local economic or political elites who oversee land grabbing from urban areas like Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Arauca. They employ a range of actors based close to the land they want to appropriate in Colombia’s Amazonian departments.

Other kinds of entrepreneurs, including suppliers and intermediary landholders, are working in collaboration with appropriators, who facilitate the clearing and illegal occupation of protected territories.

Suppliers provide chainsaws and other tools necessary to clear and occupy swaths of Amazonian Forest. They also provide cattle used to occupy the land.

Intermediary landholders are employed by appropriators and non-state armed groups to occupy illegally claimed land, care for cattle, and sow crops on the territory.

Meanwhile, local intermediaries that communities in Colombia’s Amazon region called patrones (bosses) – also known as gasteros (spenders) – orchestrate illegal logging. Such actors finance the illicit activity and facilitate the sale of timber.

To launder illicitly sourced timber, patrones obtain forest permits issued by Autonomous Regional Corporations for Sustainable Development (CARs), which are overseen by Colombia's Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (Minambiente). CARs are public, regional bodies that are responsible for administering the use of natural resources in their area of jurisdiction and promoting sustainable development nationwide.

The Corporation for Sustainable Development of the South of the Amazon (Corpoamazonia) is charged with carrying out these functions in the Amazon region.

Using “proper” documentation, even if it contains false information, is the key to laundering illegally sourced timber. “CAR officials sell (forest) management plans to the bosses. These plans are required to fell timber,” said a forestry expert. “The patrones also use cloned forest management plans or download plans from other countries from the internet.”

Otherwise, René López Camacho, a professor and forestry expert at the District University of Francisco José de Caldas (Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas), explained how patrones work beyond the limits of legally obtained forest permits. They order others to extract coveted species not recognized by the documentation, in zones that are off-limits to loggers and in quantities far exceeding those permitted.

SEE ALSO: How Colombia Regulators Became Purveyors of Illegal Wood

According to Ruben Moreno, "since there are no mechanisms to track timber, patrones easily violate restrictions laid out by permits." As such, they are able to continue disguising the illicit origin of wood from the moment it is cut.

After “laundering” illicitly felled timber, patrones sell the wood to wholesalers based at distribution and processing centers in the Amazon, such as in the southern municipality of Puerto Asís, in Putumayo, and larger cities like Bogotá, Cali and Medellín. The patrones manage timber trafficking at every stage, making them the most important – and influential – actors in the trade.

Working alongside patrones are other intermediary actors known as “fixers,” or entrepreneurs who principally coordinate shipments and sales of timber through social media platforms like WhatsApp. "Some timber transactions are handled via this application," said César Rey, an expert in Colombia’s forestry sector. "A client writes to the intermediary [the fixer] that he needs a certain amount of tornillo wood, for example, and he [the fixer] is in charge of obtaining it throughout the region."

Fixers then oversee the onward transport of wood illegally sourced from Colombia’s Amazon. They use transit permits to move timber through regions and in volumes not authorized by these permits. Inside trucks, illegal wood is mixed with legally sourced timber as it is moved.

Non-state armed groups (NSAGs)

In an environmental crime context, NSAGs work with criminal networks and entrepreneurs to oversee the operation of criminal economies driving deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon region. NSAGs are clearly defined, organized criminal associations, including militia and guerrilla groups, primarily funded by illicit activities.

Such groups have four defining features: a known name, a defined leadership, territorial control, and identifiable membership. These groups include former FARC dissidents and descendants of paramilitary groups. Where Colombia’s Amazon is concerned, NSAGs are largely made up of former FARC dissidents who use violence and military capacity to their advantage.

Ex-FARC dissidents of the 1st and 7th Fronts are based in Guaviare, southern Meta and Caquetá, and orchestrate land grabbing in Colombia’s Amazon. Such groups typically use violence and threats to claim and occupy protected zones on behalf of wealthy appropriators, in exchange for a fee.

NSAGs are also behind coca cultivation and processing in the region. The Acacio Medina Front and ex-FARC 16th Front led by Géner García Molina, alias "John 40" (Vichada); ex-FARC 1st Front led by Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias “Ivan Mordisco”; ex-FARC 7th Front, led by Gentil Duarte (Guaviare and Caquetá); the ex-FARC 62nd Front (Caquetá); the 1st Front (Putumayo) oversees each stage of coca production from the coca leaf’s cultivation to its processing, and the later sale of base paste.

La Constru, a network descended from right-wing paramilitary groups, also maintains a heavy presence in Putumayo, after having allied with the ex-FARC 48th Front and formed a new organization called the Border Command. These actors connect the small-scale farmers growing coca crops in an impoverished municipality of Colombia’s Amazon to national and international markets for cocaine. But, as in other activities driving deforestation, it is the non-state armed groups that profit most.

NSAGs like the ex-FARC Mafia’s 1st and 48th Fronts do not appear to be directly involved in illegal logging in the region. They do, however, charge a fee for wood to be transported through territories they control. A timber trafficking researcher for Neotropical Primate Conservation (NPC), an organization dedicated to the conservation of primates and their habitats, observed how “rivers and roads are controlled by illegal groups, so to move wood [via river or road] a kind of toll must be paid to the group that controls the territory.”

These NSAGs also provide security services to ensure the smooth transit of timber shipments out of the region, especially when drugs are concealed inside. According to a forestry expert from an international organization, timber is a perfect hiding place for the cocaine NSAGs want to transport. It is heavy, difficult to maneuver and hard to inspect.

Labor Force

Members of criminal networks and NSAGs rarely provide the physical labor necessary for environmental crimes to occur. They often employ or threaten local people into doing this. Socio-economically disadvantaged local people, making up a "labor force," get roped into environmental crime in Colombia’s Amazon through a lack of economic alternatives or because they are threatened by local criminal groups.

They sit at the bottom rung of the supply chain of each activity and provide the manual labor for basic tasks such as logging, as well as planting and harvesting coca crops. They may be employees – but not necessarily members – of criminal networks and armed groups, or they may be contractors or independent workers who interact with the criminal actors that operate further up the supply chain.

The labor force is frequently constituted of informal workers rather than criminals. They may also be victims of criminal actors as forced labor or suffering human trafficking and extortion.

At the lowest rung of the chain for land grabbing are the “clearers,” local people employed to clear forest. They provide the manual labor for land grabbing to occur. Clearers often act under threat or out of economic necessity. They are paid by NSAGs or appropriators to cut and burn forest, ahead of a protected zone’s illegal occupation.

Cocaleros (coca farmers) and raspachines (harvesters) either work independently or on behalf of NSAGs, often within protected territories like Tinigua National Park. Farmers who form part of local labor forces may also process their coca into “base,” which can then be transformed into crystallized cocaine, either individually or by pooling their harvests, often under the watch of NSAGs.

Meanwhile, timber trafficking relies on the manual labor of monteros (trackers) and corteros (cutters), who are usually locals and Indigenous people in charge of sourcing, identifying, and chopping coveted species of wood across Colombia’s Amazon.

Although their activities are illicit, these actors are not criminals. They fell trees on behalf of criminal networks, often under deplorable working conditions. It is important to note that local people might also cut down forest cover in nearby areas for economic subsistence.

The labor force is the actor that earns the least in all of the environmental crime activities but is at the greatest risk of being captured by authorities. This trend translates across to other activities like illegal mining.

Facilitators/legal actors are individuals and networks that use corruption to ensure the smooth operation of environmental crimes. They may be state authorities or legally registered enterprises.

The role of facilitators/legal actors in these crimes will be explored later in the corruption chapter.

*InSight Crime has joined forces with the Igarapé Institute – an independent think tank headquartered in Brazil, that focuses on emerging development, security and climate issues – to map out environmental crime in the Amazon Basin. Further instalments of the investigation will be published throughout September. Read all chapters here.

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