Illegal loggers and land grabbers in Colombia have begun clearing small, isolated patches of forest to avoid being spotted from the air — a change in tactics that could make it harder for authorities to combat deforestation.
Criminal groups are clearing less than one hectare at a time, said Juan Guillermo Zuluaga, the governor of Meta department, which is home to the Sierra de La Macarena National Park, a mountain forest reserve of some 629,000 hectares. Previously, groups worked to clear larger swaths of up to 35 hectares, Zuluaga told Semana Sostenible. During helicopter flyovers, the small clearings are difficult to detect, the governor said.
Zuluaga's comments came days after Colombia's Attorney General's Office announced it had launched a two-day national offensive against deforestation and illegal mining in Colombia's protected reserves.
On February 6, authorities said they had arrested 40 suspects following six raids across the departments of Boyacá, Guaviare, Caquetá, Chocó, Antioquia and Cesar.
In Boyocá, six people were arrested on charges of running a timber trafficking network that harvested 350 hectares of forest. In San José de Guaviare, six people were also arrested on charges they cleared 800 hectares of protected land and conducted large-scale livestock rearing within the Indigenous reserve of Nukak Makú.
After the massive sweep, Zuluaga tweeted that officials in the Meta department had been cooperating with the Attorney General's Office to combat "deforestation cartels."
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The criminal groups' change in tactics, switching to smaller plots, is likely to be successful given the sheer size of the country's national parks.
Just over 15 percent of Colombia's national territory is classed as "protected," with its national parks accounting for over 14 million hectares in total. Chiribiquete National Park alone covers an area equivalent to the size of Denmark.
The remote reserves are also constantly under threat by armed groups seeking to sow coca. According to Semana Sostenible, Zuluaga said ex-FARC dissidents led by Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” have been paying up to five million pesos (around $1,400) for each hectare of forest felled and burned for coca.
Ex-FARC dissidents have also threatened park rangers, forcing them to leave their posts in the Amazon.
Besides coca growing, illegal mining and logging are also rampant in the forest reserves.
Illegal logging is known to be a leading cause of deforestation in such zones. However, land grabbers seeking to cultivate palm oil crops and rear cattle in national parks often burn down trees to clear land, to avoid the logistical difficulties of transporting illicit wood onward from remote areas.
Deforestation in the departments of Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá has escalated in recent years, according to El Espectador. Colombia's Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales — IDEAM) reported that between January and March of 2020, 64,000 hectares of forest had been destroyed in the three departments, an increase of over 80 percent compared to the same period in 2019.
Over the last year, an area equivalent to the size of Bogotá has been cleared in Colombia.