Recently published data has shown that deforestation in Colombia soared last year, as a range of illegal activities drove forest loss.
Annual figures from Colombia's Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales — IDEAM) have revealed that during 2020, 171,685 hectares of forest were destroyed nationwide, an increase of around 8 percent compared to 2019.
Some 70 percent of deforestation was concentrated in just five departments (Meta, Caquetá, Guaviare, Putumayo and Antioquia) according to IDEAM’s annual findings. Besides Antioquia, each of these departments is found in Colombia’s Amazon, which retained its place as the worst affected region.
As organized crime increasingly overlaps with environmental crime, InSight Crime looks at the main activities driving deforestation across Colombia.
1. Land Grabbing
Each cause of deforestation recognized by IDEAM has ties to land grabbing. Clearing land for pasture, poor practices associated with cattle ranching; the expansion of agricultural activities into prohibited areas; irregular infrastructure construction; illicit crop cultivation; illegal mining and logging are all linked to the activity.
The departments of Guaviare, Caquetá and Meta in Colombia’s Amazon region have been deeply affected by soaring deforestation sparked by land grabbing in recent years. IDEAM reported that between January and March of 2020, 64,000 hectares of forest had been destroyed in the three departments. This marked an increase of over 80 percent compared to the same period in 2019.
Usually, swaths of forest are illegally cleared and claimed in protected areas like Tinigua National Park in Meta to make way for cattle rearing, coca crops and agriculture. Once the land has been occupied and productively used for a certain length of time, attempts are made to “legalize” claims to it.
Land grabbing is particularly difficult to combat as it is often orchestrated by powerful networks of “invisible” businessmen and politicians who rely on corruption. What’s more, local people are often too afraid to denounce those behind the crime.
2. Illegal Roads
IDEAM mapped out how the illegal construction of roads has been a driver of deforestation along the peripheries of Chiribiquete National Park in Colombia's Amazon.
Satellite images also showed how illegal trails continue to affect the Llanos del Yarí-Yaguara II Indigenous Reserve, located between the municipalities of San Vicente del Caguán (Caquetá), La Macarena (Meta) and Calamar (Guaviare).
San Vicente del Caguán – Colombia’s most deforested municipality – saw forest loss increase by some 15 percent last year, according to IDEAM's findings. Across from the municipality, there are a growing number of illegal and informal trails that attract farmers, ranchers and business interests.
These roads increase the value of nearby land. They also pave the way for other activities like coca cultivation, illegal logging and mining to occur as remote areas are more easily reached.
Irregular infrastructure has long been encouraged by both criminal groups and corrupt politicians in Amazonian departments like Guaviare. As InSight Crime reported, the former mayors of Calamar and Miraflores, Pedro Pablo Novoa Bernal and Jhonivar Cumbe, were arrested after it was revealed that during their time in office, they had encouraged illegal deforestation to build a 138-kilometer highway between their towns.
3. Crop Cultivation
Illicit crop cultivation was another driver of deforestation reported by IDEAM. In 2020, close to 13,000 hectares were cleared for coca crops in Colombia. This accounted for just under 8 percent of the nation’s total deforestation, IDEAM revealed.
The land is also cleared around coca plots so they can be more easily accessed. Over 20 percent of total deforestation in Colombia last year affected sites found less than a kilometer away from coca plantations, according to IDEAM.
Putumayo and Antioquia are among the departments most affected by illicit crop cultivation in Colombia. In 2020, Antioquia recorded a 27.5 percent rise in hectares affected by coca crops compared to 2019, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported. Meanwhile, Caquetá and Putumayo continue to battle illicit crop cultivation despite eradication efforts during lockdown.
And as InSight Crime reported, dissident FARC cells led by Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” have been ordering local communities to cut and burn trees one hectare at a time across the nation’s most deforested department, Meta. These communities are then ordered to sow coca within protected territories.
4. Illegal Mining
In 2019, the Comptroller General’s Office reported that close to 60 percent of illegal alluvial gold mining was concentrated in three departments: Chocó, Cauca and Antioquia.
IDEAM’s recent findings showed deforestation had decreased in mining hubs like the northwestern department of Chocó in 2020. However, Antioquia remains one of the country’s most deforested departments. It recorded a slight increase in forest loss last year.
As InSight Crime reported, trees are cut down and replaced by mines, ramshackle huts and criminal groups in gold rush frontier towns like Antioquia’s Buriticá. There, illegal miners also invade legal sites controlled by foreign-owned companies.
5. Timber Trafficking
IDEAM also reported illegal logging continues to drive deforestation in Colombia, particularly in the nation’s Amazon and Pacific regions. The activity accounts for around 10 percent of total deforestation in the country, according to the report.
The Amazonian departments of Putumayo, Amazonas and Caquetá are particularly affected. As InSight Crime reported, criminal networks oversee the illegal extraction, transportation, and trafficking of protected species of wood to thriving international markets.