Two years after the signing of a peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC, Colombia’s forests are under siege and experiencing heightened levels of deforestation promoted by various criminal actors looking to expand their illicit revenue streams.

The alarming levels of deforestation, with over 200,000 hectares lost in 2017  — a 23 percent increase from 2016 – have raised the alarm bells of authorities who recently announced the creation of a new specialized team of national prosecutors who will investigate crimes like land grabbing, wood trafficking, illegal mining and drug trafficking in the Amazon region, all of which have led to increased deforestation.

These crimes are mainly being carried out by varying criminal outfits such as dissident groups of the largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), Los Puntilleros and other smaller groups, according to Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office.

Below, InSight Crime analyzes the three main activities along with the underlying criminal dynamics and criminal actors that, according to the government, are the main drivers behind the deforestation boom.

Land Grabbing

Prior to the 2016 peace agreement, the FARC guerrilla group had put limits on deforestation in many of the regions they controlled. Rebels sought to halt the expansion of agriculture and cattle ranching in order to better conceal themselves and their drug plantations from the Colombian Air Force.

However, since the FARC left their territory, widespread land grabs have occurred in regions previously barely touched due to conflict. In fact, this activity accounts for between 60 to 65 percent of all deforestation in Colombia, according to the Ministry of Environment.

The practice usually begins when wealthy landowners invest in large-scale land acquisitions both legally and illegally. These landowners will then finance local community members to cut down vast areas of timber, which are then often used for cattle ranching, César Meléndez the Director of the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Northern and Eastern Amazon (Corporación para el Desarrollo Sostenible del Norte y el Oriente Amazónico – CDA), told InSight Crime.

But previously FARC-held territory is also increasingly falling under the control of ex-FARC dissident groups that currently operate in around 19 departments across the country.

     SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ex-FARC Mafia

In fact, in some areas, the increase in deforestation can be connected to criminal groups allied with FARC dissidents. These are promoting deforestation and inciting families to move to previously untouched regions and pressure the regional government authorities to give them land titles, said former Minister of the Environment, Luis Gilberto Murillo in a recent interview with El Tiempo.

In other cases, criminal groups, like the FARC dissidents, take advantage of deforestation by extorting landowners. For example, the 1st Front Dissidence reportedly charges community members in specific municipalities in the southeastern department of Guaviare an extortion fee of about $320 per hectare logged, along with about $10 per head of cattle.

The 1st Front Dissidence has also been responsible for prohibiting regional forest officials from carrying out inspections in Guaviare, and there have even been reports of forest officials being attacked, according to Meléndez.

Illicit Crops

Criminal syndicates are also increasingly promoting deforestation by clear-cutting forests to make room for illicit coca cultivations, a dynamic mirrored by the country’s continuous increase in cocaine production. In fact, the Ministry of Environment has suggested that between 20 and 22 percent of deforestation is caused by illicit crop cultivation.

Departments such as Nariño, Putumayo, and Antioquia have all seen significant upticks in illicit crop cultivation and have also seen similar trends in deforestation.

Most recently, the northeastern department of Norte de Santander, more specifically in the northern municipality of Tibú, has been hit hard by deforestation, in part, due to coca cultivation, according to three 2018 Early Warning (Alertas Tempranas) reports by the Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales – IDEAM).

In 2017 – which is the most recent year for data on coca cultivations in Colombia – Norte de Santander recorded 28,244 hectares of coca, the third highest figure in the country and a 12 percent increase from 2016.

Other licit and illicit activities such as legal agriculture, illegal logging for commercialization, informal timber extraction, illegal mining, and cattle ranching also play a role in deforestation within the region.

The trend in heightened deforestation to provide room for coca may well continue to grow, as Colombian criminal groups are continually seeking to expand into lucrative markets like Europe and Asia. Furthermore, the growing presence of Mexican cartels trying to guarantee cocaine supply in Colombia’s key coca production zones, might also drive increasing cultivation.

Illegal Mining

Illegal mining continues to serve as a key source of illegal profits and as an efficient money-laundering method for criminal groups operating across the country. And according to the Colombian government, it is the third most important driver of deforestation nationally, representing around 8 percent of all deforestation.

In general, criminal groups promote widespread deforestation via illegal mining in two ways. The first is simply clear-cutting large areas of forest to construct new mining areas. Many of these mines have become a principal source of illicit income for organized crime, and are either directly controlled by criminal groups or are extorted by them.

The department of Chocó serves as an example of this phenomenon. In the municipalities of Union Panamericana, Istmina, Condotó, Opogodó and Nóvita along the San Juan River, 90 percent of the large-scale gold and platinum mining carried out in part by Brazilian nationals is said to be illegal, according to Yoileth Mosquera, the Deputy Director of Sustainable Development for the department’s environmental authority (Corporación Autónoma Regional para el Desarrollo Sostenible del Chocó – CODECHOCÓ), who spoke to InSight Crime. This is having a devastating effect on the region’s forests.

     SEE ALSO: Coverage of Illegal Mining

The second way in which criminal actors involved in illegal mining are promoting deforestation is through the use of wood as a key resource for the construction and proper functioning of mines, specifically coal mines. Forests located in coal-rich mining regions, such as the northeastern subregion Catatumbo, have been decimated due to this type of mining, along with other reasons such as using timber to construct roads and expand other infrastructure projects.

The increasing trend in deforestation specifically caused by illegal mining may also persist for some time, as Colombian organized crime groups continue to diversify their criminal portfolios.

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