The new rebels of Colombia’s forests


Lucy Sherriff is a freelance journalist and documentary producer based in Colombia.

MAGDALENA RIVER VALLEY, Colombia — For Colombia, peace has come with caveats. In 2016, guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) finally laid down their weapons, ending over half a century of conflict. Thousands of fighters had spent decades occupying Colombia’s forests, and most got up and left their secret mountain hideouts. Families who had fled the fighting started to return. Old farms re-opened, and new ones sprang up. Gold and coal miners moved in.

The forests had protected the FARC fighters from attacks and surveillance. In turn, FARC’s presence in the Magdalena River Valley, nestled between the central and eastern Andes, kept the forests intact. At the end of the conflict in 2016, with the signing and ratification of a historic peace deal, that started to change.

Between 2015 and 2016, deforestation rose by 44 percent. Once inaccessible land is now up for grabs, and trees are being felled to make way for mines, cattle ranches and farms. The government has been slow to react. Former President Juan Manuel Santos tripled protected areas during his presidency, but conservation is not strictly enforced. Miners and farmers face few deterrents or consequences for clearing land. The budget for Colombia’s National Environment System was slashed for 2019 to around 0.3 percent of government expenditures. There is only one park ranger for every 50,000 hectares. (The international standard is around one for every 100 hectares..

Colombia’s forests are critical for protecting the country against natural disasters. In April 2017, Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s minister of environment and sustainable development, said 12 million Colombians were at risk from calamities like flooding and landslides. Earlier that month, more than 200 people died in landslides in Putumayo province after heavy rains caused rivers to burst their banks. That area is also one of the worst-hit by deforestation. And deforestation, particularly in mountainous and jungle regions, is key to preventing landslides.

Here in the Magdalena valley, the powerful Magdalena River carves its way through rugged terrain toward the Caribbean. Scientists from the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, a scientific research organization based in Bogotá, are working in this region on innovative methods to curb deforestation. José Manuel Ochoa Quintero is the head of Humboldt’s biodiversity monitoring program, and his team has been working closely with farmers in the valley and the surrounding region for the past two years.

“Colombians do not have a great awareness about the environment,” he explained when I met him in April. “It is mostly due to a lack of education and the fact that they have had to worry about more pressing issues, such as the war. It is difficult to get people to prioritize caring about the environment when they are worried for their lives.”

Since the peace agreement, Quintero and his team of scientists have moved into regions that were previously inaccessible to set up small, experimental education programs. “It’s important to be realistic,” he said. “We cannot expect people to make sacrifices to benefit the environment when they have little resources to begin with. Deforestation can provide lucrative financial gains, and so we have to try and match that.

Quintero’s program offers financial rewards to farmers who keep their land forested and who plant new seedlings. It also teaches farmers about birds and wildlife, provides them with binoculars and tablets to track different species and encourages them to open their land to visiting birdwatchers. Colombia has incredible avian biodiversity, and this province is a hotspot for birdwatching.

At Balneario Los Monos, a family farm in eastern Antioquia, the owners recently built a small guesthouse where they can host tourists. They’ve already started receiving guests, and they guide birdwatching tours. Their profits are sufficient so that they have no need to clear their land for cattle.

“It is a great way for us to make money,” said Juan David Cardenas who co-owns the farm along with his uncle Alejandro Cardenas. He pointed out recently planted trees and talked of the many more he plans to plant in the future. “We have learned so much about nature [thanks to Humboldt’s program]. We now know that we have to help the forest and keep it alive so that we can help the birds and the other wildlife here. Now even our children love to go out and watch the birds. The next generation will grow up knowing what they need to do to save the environment.

But driving through the valley, the scars of deforestation are striking: vast swathes of mountainsides are bare, a stark contrast to areas that have escaped the ax. Millions of trees have been felled.

The country’s new president, Iván Duque, elected in June, has departed from his predecessor’s efforts to protect the environment. He blames the government for failing to enforce its environmental protection laws and educate Colombians on the need to preserve forests. “This is not happening,” he said, “and I do not see this happening any time soon.

“We do not yet know whether environmental policy will be a priority for the new government,” Quintero said. “Even though [former President] Santos expanded the protection of the national parks, this has had little effect at the local level.

He remains hopeful, however. “We have been happy with the success we have had so far,” he said. “And although we know there is much more work to be done, we are hoping to reach as many farmers as we can.

This story was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post. It was supported by a grant from The Lookout Station.