HomeNewsCoca Replaced by Cattle - The Shift in Southern Colombia's Deforestation

Coca Replaced by Cattle - The Shift in Southern Colombia's Deforestation


Living two weeks in the jungle wasn't bad really. While spending eight hours a day felling trees with an axe and a chainsaw wasn't exactly a holiday, it did create some sense of fulfillment.

It wasn't just hanging out with his friends in the mornings while drinking coffee or the evenings spent lying in a hammock. It wasn't just the camaraderie reinforced with every conversation about women or the town's problems.

There were also the animal footprints: finding them was his favorite part.

Fernando Duque (real name withheld), a farmer who has been living in the northern Colombian Amazon for more than forty years, has a hard time remembering that winter in 1998 when it rained and he slept in the open for fifteen days. He had gone because a commander of the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) ordered him and some others to help with a construction project.

He didn't know what this project was about, at first, but there was no way to say no. When he got out of the van, he saw a half-finished trail through the jungle and realized he had come to help complete it. Over the next several days, he learned this crude roadway was to unit his town, Calamar, in the central department of Guaviare, with Miraflores, a town more than 100 kilometers away through dense forest cover.

Both communities had been asking for that road for more than twenty years. It pleased Duque to help fulfill this wish.

*This article was originally published by La Silla Vacía. It was translated and edited for clarity and reproduced with La Silla's permission, but it does not necessarily represent the opinions of InSight Crime. Read the original article here.

Twenty-three years on, this road snakes for 162 kilometers through the rainforest of Guaviare, one of the worst areas for deforestation in the northern Amazon. Last year alone, when residents were in lockdown to avoid the COVID-19 pandemic, experts estimated that 500 hectares of trees were cut down around them.

The deforestation in this area is the result of decades of state neglect. And the road, which makes life easier for the inhabitants of southern Guaviare, is a threat to biodiversity. In just five years, it has transformed the surrounding area. Trees over twenty meters tall, musk hogs, capuchin monkeys and tapirs have disappeared, replaced by well-kept pastures, barbed wire fences and cows.

Pastures and Cows

Calamar was a village with close to 200 wooden homes with tiled roofs, when Duque arrived almost 40 years ago. Like many others, he had heard of the riches that the coca leaf supposedly promised and set off to find them. He recalls these years with caution. He speaks softly, looks to see who is nearby and sips coffee while talking. He requests that his real name not be revealed.

Talking openly about the ties between coca, deforestation, livestock ranching and landowners in the south of Guaviare is very difficult and very dangerous.

There is a fear of being targeted by Miguel Botache Santillana, alias "Gentil Duarte," a former FARC commander who now leads Colombia's largest FARC dissident group, with allies in the departments of Caquetá, Meta, Guaviare, Arauca, Cauca, Nariño and on the border with Venezuela. The group’s presence in the south of Guaviare is so strong that it is not possible to travel overland from Calamar to Miraflores without their authorization.

SEE ALSO: Politicians, Businesses in Deforestation Free-For-All in Guaviare, Colombia

But there is another risk: what one says may lead to others being punished, by those invisible forces who pay for the trees to be cleared and for the cows to be brought in.

Calamar has also changed. In 2006, its central park was renovated by the Mayor's Office, the Army and the US Embassy in Colombia — in honor of the soldiers killed in combat during decades of conflict — and now has more trees. A tower was built for the church and most of the houses in the town are made of brick with zinc roofs.

In the town center, streets are covered with terracotta dust that covers the gray pavement.

But more than Calamar’s appearance has changed: its economic engine is different. The town no longer revolves around coca, as it did for decades, as it has been replaced by cattle. Most of the money exchanged on the village streets now comes from meat and milk.

Lying on cardboard, Antonio Gaviria rubs his left leg. He basks in the few rays of sunshine that filter into the hut. For more than 20 years, he worked as a raspachín, one of the rural farmers who plucked coca leaves by hand.

He says that he became so skilled that he could collect 40 arrobas (480 kilos) a day. The figure seems exaggerated but he no longer picks anything.

Four years ago, he changed jobs and is now a chainsaw operator. Now he gets paid to transform the jungle into pasture: to cut trees, burn the remains and prepare the land for cows.

The reintegration into civilian life of former guerrillas after the FARC agreed to surrender its weapons, a process that began in 2016, completely changed Guaviare's dynamics.

When they were the highest authority in the region, the FARC set the rules for the exploitation of natural resources, actually protecting the environment. For example, the felling of trees, hunting animals to sell them, cutting the vegetation surrounding rivers, fishing for commercial purposes or throwing garbage into the water, were all forbidden by the FARC. As La Silla Vacía has explained, this not only helped protect the ecosystems in the regions they controlled but provided tree cover to help the FARC avoid being seen by the Army.

When the FARC withdrew, these rules ended and the lands were left without protection. A new process of colonization began in the south of Guaviare amid rampant destruction of the jungle. Outsiders came in to raze forests for pastures. This was only helped by the fact that the land in southern Guaviare is very cheap.

To clear one hectare of forest and turn it into pasture costs, on average, just under two million pesos ($520). So settlers hire farmers like Antonio Gaviria and pay him 130,000 pesos ($34) to clear the land using a machete or an ax to chop down smaller trees and shrubs. Felling larger trees with a chainsaw pays slightly better, 150,000 pesos ($39). Antonio does not charge for burning the land: it is included.

This is carried out during the summer months, December to March, when conditions are particularly dry. Then before the rains start, the grass seeds must be planted, at a cost of just over 100,000 pesos (about $26) per hectare. The final step is the barbed wire which varies in price depending on the land. By the following summer, the new pasture is ready to receive a herd of cattle.

The price of this operation in Guaviare contrasts with other areas where the value of a hectare of land can be between seven and 30 million pesos ($1,831-$7,850), depending on its location, the quality of the soil and its distance from a body of water or a main road.

"This is big business in a very vulnerable area. I have a friend who sold ten hectares in Arauca for 300 million pesos (approximately $7,850). With that money, he came here, bought 80 acres and invested the rest in cattle," said Francisco Samper, a rural community leader that works closely with loggers in local action committees.

After drunk two cups of coffee, Samper becomes more animated. He tells of the farming families who have been forced to sell their land because they have nothing to live on.

One element of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and thr FARC igned between the government and the FARC is the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos Ilícitos - PNIS). Broadly speaking, the idea was that the government would sign agreements with coca-growing families so that they would, voluntarily, eradicate their coca crops. In return, they would receive subsidies from the government sto develop alternative projects which would allow them to live without growing coca.

But most of these families have not received these payments from the government.

This, according to Samper, has resulted in many of these former coca-growing families having to sell their land, as they have nothing to live on. He knows more than 500 families who have turned their land over to anyone offering to pay for it. So many of these old coca farms have become grasslands.

"The driving force behind the economy was once coca but it's now cattle," said Samper.

While the number of hectares of coca has decreased in Calamar since 2016, the number of cattle has increased. And the same has happened in the neighboring town of Miraflores as the new cattle economy spans across Guaviare.

"People are coming from Arauca, Casanare and other places with a different mentality, who understand large-scale livestock farming, and showing rural farmers that cattle brings in money. Now everyone wants to have cows," explained Samper.

Antonio Gaviria agreed and stated that he had become a logger "because there is nothing else to do." He cleared land for pasture for four years until an accident while burning a field this year.  

He got up at five in the morning, as he does every day, had a coffee and was felling trees by ten. Three hours later, his chainsaw came across a laurel tree that did not fall as expected.

Instead, the tree began to break vertically and one of the halves fell on top of him. The trunk fell on his left leg and shattered his tibia and fibula. Due to the distance, he only arrived at hospital nine hours later “without any medication or anything.”

He is now focusing on his recovery but will return during the next burning season. He slides a bottle over with his foot, bringing it closer. He does his therapy alone at his house, because there are no physiotherapists in Calamar.

The Environmental Disaster

Before the cattle bonanza, deforestation was not a problem for many in Guaviare. While coca plantations did require felling some trees, this was nowhere near the pace demanded by livestock ranching.

A rural farmer can live off three or four hectares of coca. Farming cattle requires far more land as the quality of the soil is very poor in Guaviare. While in a cattle ranching village in the northern department of Córdoba,— a family can subsist on between 20 and 27 hectares, in Calamar, between 163 and 220 hectares are needed per family. Local residents calculate that only between three or four cows can live on each hectare of land in the region. But a lot more than three or four cows are needed to make a living from livestock ranching.

And in this new economy revolving around livestock, the road connecting Calamar and Miraflores that Fernando Duque helped build in 1998 has become a problem.

Roads are drivers of deforestation. Experts such as Rodrigo Botero, the director of the Conservation and Sustainable Development Foundation, or Dolores Armenteras and Nelly Rodríguez, biologists from Colombia’s Universidad Nacional, have proven this. By making secluded places accessible, roads indirectly facilitate the expansion of agricultural borders and the emergence of new fronts for cattle ranchng.

Now better connected by land, Calamar is among the ten municipalities in Colombia with the greatest level of deforestation. In 2019 alone, 5.879 hectares of forest were destroyed in Calamar. Much of this destruction happens right alongside the roat, although more towards Calamar, as can be observed using satellite imagery.

Two points along the road have changed since 2016:

The maps not only show how forest cover has decreased in these five years, they also reveal how alternate roads have been constructed, which could cause deforestation to increase exponentially.

The jungle between Calamar and Miraflores is a biological corridor and its biodiversity is under threat. A study by the Humboldt Institute in Colombia found that if the rate of deforestation in Guaviare continues at the current rate, 43.359 species would be affected.

To prevent environmental disaster, authorities in Colombia have begun to take action. At the end of 2019, the Attorney General’s Office charged the mayors of Calamar, Pedro Pablo Novoa Bernal, and Miraflores, Jhonivar Cumbe, with aggravated damage to natural resources and invasion of an area of special ecological importance. Both supported maintaining the road.

At that time, prosecutors asked for the road to be closed, as a precautionary measure to prevent deforestation, and one judge soon agreed. But last year, because of the supply problems caused by the pandemic, another judge decided to reopen the road.

SEE ALSO: 5 Reasons For Record Deforestation in Colombia

In theory, the road is passable but authorities do not maintain it. This, in practice, means that the road is closed, as the heavy winter rains of winter in the jungle deteriorate any infrastructure.

Without maintenance, the road has crumbled and it would now take a person on a motorcycle up to twelve hours to reach Miraflores. Although the deforestation happens more on the side of Calamar, the residents of Miraflores, a village on the banks of the Vaupés River that can only be reached by plane or boat, also pay the consequences of the road closure.

The Isolation of Miraflores

"People were happy when they opened that road because it used to take eight days to get to Miraflores," explained David Uribe. He has lived in Calamar for almost 30 years and, in the safety of his own home, speaks freely.

The first time he heard anyone talk about the road was in August 1998, when he traveled to Miraflores. The guerrillas had taken control of the village and three civilians and 35 soldiers were killed in the battle, while 129 others were held hostage, two of whom would be freed 14 years later when the FARC began to negotiate with the government.

At that time, he stayed a few days at a friend's farm and returned to Calamar on the banks of the Unilla River.

Not much has changed since then. Although the road exists, it's impassable. As a result, there are only two ways to get to Miraflores: by plane or boat. The plane is the same as it was 40 years ago, a DC-3 dating back to World War II, but it no longer makes daily trips.

During the coca boom, there were between 10 and 30 flights every day, and up to 19 planes were parked at the airport. But now, the DC-3 travels on Tuesdays and Saturdays, bringing passengers to San José for between 320,000 and 350,000 Colombian pesos (less than $100), depending on the season.

But the problem isn't just transportation, it's also supply. Every kilogram sent by plane costs between 1,400 and 1,500 pesos ($1). This makes bringing vegetables to Miraflores more expensive than the vegetables themselves. Therefore, most of the cargo is sent by ship, which brings other problems.

To get to Miraflores from Calamar, one must travel along the Unilla River, which merges with the Itilla River in the village of Barranquillita and forms the Vaupés River. This journey lasts between four and eight days, depending on how much water is in the Unilla River.

The ships carrying the cargo are canoes designed to carry between 45 and 50 tons, with some managing up to 90 tons when the river is deep enough.

In winter, the two kinds of canoes can leave Calamar and arrive in Miraflores in four days. The problems start in summer when the water level drops so low that larger boats cannot sail without stalling.

To be able to send the 90 tons they send in winter, the transport companies have to distribute that cargo on three smaller boats that travel to Barrancillita. Once in Vaupés, they disassemble the cargo and re-load it on the 90-ton canoe. Predictably, the ups and downs of provisions result in higher prices. While in winter sending a kilogram from Villavicencio to Miraflores costs 800 pesos, in summer it ticks up to 1,100 pesos.

This ends up impacting the lifestyle of those living in the impoverished town with an average per capita income of 240,000 pesos (around $60). It's a low-income population that pays middle-class prices for food and toiletries.

In Calamar, where you can receive supplies by land and via the road that connects with San José and where the per capita income is almost 300,000 pesos (almost $80), a lunch can cost 6,000 pesos. In Miraflores it costs 9,000.

This helps explain the fact that the road connecting the two municipalities was prioritized in 2016 by then-Governor Nebio Echevverry within the department of Guaviare’s road plan. Paving the road would make it easier to supply Miraflores and its inhabitants could have a life similar to that of other municipalities in the department.

The road closure also concerns the residents of Miraflores. And it's not just that they continue to rely on intermittent planes and boats to stock up, there's a greater threat.

Along the increasingly eroding road are schools that could be cut off if road maintenance is not completed. But that's not it. The municipal landfill is in the village of Buenos Aires, which is also accessible by that route. For this reason, the municipality's planning secretary, Óscar González, assured La Silla Vacía that he estimates that in three months the garbage trucks will not be able to pass.

The Mayor's Office does not know what to do with the garbage the day that road becomes impassable. While the state has taken action in recent years, state presence has always been lacking, leaving control of the region up to foreigners, mafias and guerrillas.

The Origins of the Road: the FARC and the Lack of a State Presence

Fernando Duque does not refer to pain or suffering when he speaks of the days he spent working in the jungle. Instead, he talks about it as if it were a vacation. He speaks of those days as "a trip," because "here one has to learn to adapt to everything, without getting bitter."

Of course, he wasn't the one who chose to eat every night under a mosquito net to keep them from devouring him. He wasn't the one who gave the order to cut the beams and build the bridges to pass the machinery, or the one who decided that he had to be cutting wood at seven in the morning, nor was he the one who decided that the end of the day would be at four in the afternoon. But none of that means he has to be bitter. When you live under somebody's own rule, you make concessions, and that includes your own will.

The same thing happened with the FARC. On the paths that were under their control, they imposed what was known as "the mandate." Basically, it consisted of each village providing a kind of social service. They took them to repair bridges, fix schools, clear weeds for planting, or in this case, build a road that would connect Calamar and Miraflores.

But to say the road was only built using the labor of rural farmers with the FARC’s oversight would be misleading. The large coca growers that remained in Miraflores also participated in providing the manpower, and some rural farmers even made the decision themselves to help build the road. Nowadays, no one in the region attributes the construction of the road to the guerrillas. Everyone says it was the community itself that built it. And it makes sense. The locals in Guaviare wanted it even before the FARC arrived.

In 1977, when the Guaviare Police Station was created (before it was part of what was known as the Gran Vaupés), the Colombian state promised to build the road.

One law signed by the heads of Congress and Alfonso López Michelsen, the president at that time, stipulated that this route would be created.

“In the budgets following the date of this law's enactment, the Government will appropriate a sum of no less than 25,000,000 pesos (around $6,500) per year for the construction and paving of the San Martín-La Concordia-San José de Guaviare-Calamar-Miraflores highway,” the document says.

But 44 years later, not even the road between San Jose and Calamar is paved. In the winter season, it takes almost three hours to cross just 66 kilometers using the trail that does exist.

The FARC and the community established the trail that the state promised but never made. It was a road that many had been waiting on for years. It was useful for moving coca, which was the bonanza economy sustaining the communities in Calamar and Miraflores before cattle. Miraflores in particular became known as the "global coca epicenter.”

The promise of getting rich in Guaviare by abusing land and destroying the jungle isn't new. The current situation with cattle is reminiscent of how it was with coca, as it was with fur trafficking in the 1960s and before then with rubber. In fact, it was rubber that led to the foundation of Calamar and Miraflores, and it was coca that led to the formation of towns. Now cattle is making many new settlers rich.

But each of those bonanzas left Guaviare without a trace. There was nothing left of those riches but the terracotta dust that covers the entire department.

This is why, Fernando Duque, like many others in the region, doesn't believe the issue of deforestation is due to the road that he helped build with his own two hands using a pike, axe, chainsaw and pure strength. Of course, the road provides access, but if there were ways to survive without livestock, the environmental degradation wouldn't be as bad.

If the 2021 bonanza was not from cows - but rather pineapple or cocoa - fewer trees would be down, ecosystems would not be burned and the Amazon would not face the same risk. If the economy continued to revolve around rubber, furs and coca, the world would be different.

Fernando misses those days in the jungle. In particular, he remembers the fear that later turned into joy every time he found animal footprints. He preferred them over the baths in the river and the meat and cigarettes provided by the FARC.

Looking up and seeing fragments of blue skies peeping through layers and layers of green leaves didn't even give him the same feeling that touching the footprints left behind by musk hogs, tapirs, lowland pacas, armadillos and jaguars did.

He says that walking through Calamar’s vast grasslands doesn't make him happy anymore


"Because the cattle leave no footprints in the fenced-in pastures."

*This article was originally published by La Silla Vacía. It was translated and edited for clarity and reproduced with La Silla's permission, but it does not necessarily represent the opinions of InSight Crime. Read the original article here.

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