Petro Has a New Plan to Counter Deforestation in Colombia

Illegal mining in Colombia, illustrating the deforestation that affects the Amazon and that Petro is trying to combat
The deforested land at an illegal gold mining operation targeted by Colombia’s National Police and armed forces, in Magui Payan, Colombia, April 20, 2021 (AP photo by Fernando Vergara).

MESETAS, Colombia—La Macarena, a national park in Colombia on the northern fringe of the Amazon rainforest, is known for its colorful rivers, whose water refracts like a rainbow. Until the government signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 2016, the area’s dense canopy of trees provided the ideal terrain for rebels to conceal their movements. For this reason, the FARC limited deforestation in the region during its more than 50-year insurgency.

But deforestation has spiked since the peace accords were signed. In 2021 alone, 174,000 hectares were lost, with wide-reaching consequences for the environment, as well as for Indigenous and other rural communities, many of which had to flee.

As a result, the government of newly elected President Gustavo Petro listed countering deforestation as one of its top priorities. “We are going to confront the uncontrolled deforestation of our forests and promote the development of clean and renewable energies,” Petro proclaimed during his inauguration.

But those efforts promise to raise tensions between the central government and local farmers, who in recent years have been on the receiving end of heavy-handed government efforts to counter deforestation. “No one here is in favor of deforestation,” Jennyfer Martinez, an environmental activist in Mesetas, a municipality near La Macarena’s edge, told me. “But for many small-scale farmers, this is the only option to make a living.”

Past Failures

Curbing deforestation is not a new objective in Colombia. With approximately 10 percent of the Amazon rainforest, Colombia ranks as the world’s second-most biodiverse country after Brazil. And the national government has long promised to preserve the forest, designating 30 percent of its national territory as a protected area.

The administration of Petro’s predecessor, former President Ivan Duque, tried to halt deforestation through a program called Artemisa. Beginning in 2019, the plan relied primarily on a military strategy, operating in national parks and other protected areas to capture the perpetrators of environmental crimes, while confiscating the vehicles and machinery and destroying the roads they used for illegal logging.

Critics argue that despite its high costs, Artemisa had little impact. The military would consistently leave the areas in which it had intervened shortly afterward, allowing deforestation to resume after a short pause. Worse, the plan targeted the weakest link in the value chain—primarily small-scale farmers and Indigenous groups living in or near protected areas—as targeting the criminal groups actually orchestrating the deforestation would have required more time and resources. And since the military had to show results, abuses of power were rampant, including excessive use of force and arbitrary detentions of local farmers.

“Many people lost everything during the military raids,” Jennyfer told me, adding that the security forces “burnt houses and displaced entire families.”

The lack of participation by other government agencies, such as the Ministries of Agriculture and Education, led to failures in implementation around the establishment of much-needed state infrastructure, land formalization and territorial planning. Instead, the military operations left farmers, some whose families had lived in the parks for generations, without alternatives, because the Artemisa plan did not address the underlying causes of deforestation: poverty, lack of job opportunities and the lack of a state presence.

New Hopes

Following the election of Colombia’s first leftist president, hopes are high among the affected communities for a change in the government’s environmental protection policies. And the initial signs are promising. “We have high expectations,” Jennyfer says. “There have not been any raids since August, and the new government has promised to provide alternatives for farmers to make a living.”

Foreign observers as well as Colombia’s international partners share her optimism. As Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, recently put it, the fact that Petro and Vice President Francia Marquez consider themselves as environmentalists is “a huge opportunity” in the global fight against deforestation and climate change.

The initial announcements from Petro and his administration clearly indicate a different approach. He has declared environmental protection a priority and called saving the Amazon a “national security” issue. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, Petro declared, “The jungle is disappearing with all its life,” and blamed the U.S.-led war on drugs and rich countries’ thirst for natural resources for deforestation. During the U.N. COP27 Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which ended last week, he presented an initiative for a new fund through which rich countries and large corporations would compensate small-scale farmers for protecting the Amazon rainforest.

The initial announcements from Petro and his administration clearly indicate a different approach to countering deforestation. Yet, implementing those plans won’t be easy.

Likewise, Environment Minister Susana Muhamad, a former activist, has announced what had been obvious to most local environmentalists: that Artemisa’s military focus was ineffective in combating deforestation. Instead, she proposes to switch from the punitive militarization of rural areas toward greater preventative measures.

In that vein, she plans to emphasize environmental conservation and policies through which the government can provide more social and economic guarantees for small-scale farmers. “We want to establish dialogues with the communities on environmental education, so that the communities work with the state and do not deforest,” she noted in September.

While her plans still call for security forces to reassert control over rural spaces, the focus will shift more to capturing and prosecuting the heads of the criminal organizations responsible for land grabbing and deforestation. “We will tackle the drivers of deforestation and not only those who are cutting down the trees,” Muhamad said recently.

Future Challenges

Yet, implementing those plans won’t be easy. The power vacuum created by the lack of state presence in rural parts of Colombia and the FARC’s demobilization since the peace accord has been filled by multiple armed groups that now compete for coca fields, illegal mining operations and trafficking corridors. That will make nonmilitary interventions challenging.

Meanwhile, large-scale cattle farming and logging remain highly profitable, creating incentives for diverse actors to continue with deforestation. In parallel, few viable alternatives exist for small-scale farmers due to the absence of paved roads, which impedes market access to commercialize most agricultural goods.

Pacifying and transforming the Colombian countryside so that the population has economic alternatives to deforestation is also logistically tedious. The mountain ranges and rainforests that characterize Colombia’s rural areas make the construction of infrastructure an expensive and time-consuming process, one that will likely take longer than the new administration’s four-year, single-term limit.

The months ahead will give an indication of whether the political commitment Petro has expressed can be translated into concrete changes in Colombia’s environmental policy. But it will take several years to determine whether this approach results in a halt to deforestation and a sustainable transformation of Colombia’s countryside. Activists like Jennyfer in Mesetas, however, remain optimistic. “We want to work together with the new government,” she said, “and live in peace with the forest.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article described Gustavo Petro as Colombia’s first leftist president in more than 70 years. Petro is Colombia’s first-ever leftist president.

Christoph Sponsel is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on protest movements and political violence in Latin America. Besides working in the private sector, Christoph has worked at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogota, Colombia, and the German Embassy in Quito, Ecuador. He can be found on Twitter at @ChSponsel.

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