Colombia’s new security policy has put the fight against deforestation front and center, but several challenges loom ahead of its implementation.
The “Security, Defense and Citizen Coexistence Policy,” presented April 25 by the Ministry of Defense, has broadened the definition of security to include environmental protection, Defense Minister Iván Velásquez announced. Curbing deforestation, managing climate change, and fighting illegal mining are the primary aims.
Local communities will be placed at the forefront of the fight against deforestation. Rather than prosecuting small farmers, authorities will focus their attention on those who finance deforestation.
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The policy states that controls of materials used in illegal mining, including explosives and mercury, will be reconsidered, alongside a focus on improving authorities’ understanding of the ways that illegal mining groups operate. The armed forces and the national police will enhance efforts to prosecute criminal groups and destroy heavy machinery, like backhoes and dredges, used on illegal mining operations, said the report.
The announcement came at a trying time for Colombia’s environment. Figures from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales - IDEAM) published by Mongabay show that the rate of deforestation grew by almost 2% between 2020 and 2021, with 174,103 hectares of forest destroyed. Among the main causes are extensive illicit cattle ranching practices, the planting of illicit crops, and illegal mining.
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While Colombia’s environmental aims are commendable, they must overcome three main challenges.
The first is that capturing and prosecuting the major actors behind deforestation is an arduous task. These actors are camouflaged amid major economic sectors, including cattle ranching and palm cultivation.
In 2020, InSight Crime reported on the strong links between politicians in the eastern department of Guaviare and the illegal appropriation of land for the development of agribusiness projects. Investigations into these ties have moved slowly and no verdict has yet been given on this case.
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While making communities active agents in conservation is a necessary step, security for those communities must be considered. Criminal groups that profit from environmental destruction, including illegal mining groups and drug traffickers, could target those communities. Indeed, Colombia is the second-most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists in 2021 according to Global Witness report published at the end of last year. In 2020, Colombia was the most dangerous country on the planet for environmental activists, according to the NGO.
Destroying heavy machinery used in illegal gold mining has sparked unrest in the past. Earlier this year in the Bajo Cauca region of northern Colombia, a mining strike supported by the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), brought the region to a standstill for several days. This led President Gustavo Petro to suspend the ceasefire decree he had put in place with the AGC as part of efforts toward "Total Peace.”
On a visit to Leticia, the capital of Amazonas department, security forces and government officials told InSight Crime it is difficult to destroy mining machinery. Getting to illegal mining dredges on the Pureté River, one of the river arteries connecting Colombia to Brazil, takes six days from Leticia. This time can be even longer if forces need to cross into Brazil, which requires high-level coordination between the two countries.
Without coordination with Brazilian authorities, dredge destruction operations can be a waste of time. Upon security forces eventually reaching the Pureté River, the dredgers can easily escape by simply crossing the border, the security forces official explained.