Deforestation & Conservation
SOCIO-ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICTS IN THE AMAZON
GROWING SOCIO-ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICTS RELATED TO DEFORESTATION
Deforestation in the Colombian Amazon is advancing at an alarming rate, principally due to legal and illegal extractive-based economic activities with complex histories. Expanding and long-standing extractive practices, such as extensive cattle ranching, logging, illicit coca growing, oil drilling, and illegal gold mining collectively drive forest clearance and further encroachment into the selva, especially in the Amazonian departments of Caquetá, Putumayo, and Guaviare. The loss of forest has severe socio-ecological consequences: at stake are Colombia’s biodiversity, the fate of campesino, Afro-Colombian, and indigenous populations, and planetary climate health.
Iván Melo, Kristina Lyons, and Ángela Jiménez highlight the stakes of socio-environmental conflicts in the Colombian Amazon: the present and future of water systems, biodiversity, and Afro-descendent, indigenous and campesino communities. Jorge Luis Guzmán speaks alongside Kristina about the enmeshed actors and layered histories involved in deforestation, particularly in regards to community voices and knowledges that are so often ignored by state actors and development agendas.
Roughly 1/3 of the country’s territory is estimated to be a part of the larger Amazon Basin.
Current deforestation in the Amazon has been compounded by the signing of a peace accord in 2016 between the Colombian government and FARC-EP, which officially disbanded the largest and most powerful leftist guerrilla organization in the country. The FARC’s historical occupation of areas of the Amazon at times led to environmental conservation both by impeding the presence of extractive industries and by discouraging the removal of forest cover, which served as aerial protection during the war. In other instances, once narcotrafficking, illicit coca cultivation, and illegal mining began to finance the armed conflict, certain areas were deforested among other forms of environmental degradation.
It is estimated that the entire Amazon Basin contains
90-140 billion tons of carbon alone in its trees, which, if felled, could release the equivalent of 90-140 years of carbon that humans produce annually.
In a post-peace accord era, adequate conservation leadership is especially urgent in the Amazon. The power vacuum left by the demobilization of the FARC is increasingly being filled by reconfigured groups of armed actors, criminal networks, and extractive industries. Intensified presence of these industries reflects the state’s ongoing extractive-based relation to many areas of the Amazon, including overlaps of oil concessions with indigenous resguardos. Deforestation is occurring despite international and national commitments that the country has made to stop it and to mitigate climate change. Consequently, between 2016 and 2017, one year after the peace accords, deforestation in the Colombian Amazon increased by 44%.
Deforestation provoked by clearing for cattle ranching, the impacts of mechanized illegal gold mining, and the aerial fumigation of illicit coca crops in the context of the U.S.-Colombia war on drugs.
Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world. However, much of this
biodiversity is threatened by increased deforestation.
In reaction to the state’s failure to mitigate deforestation, and in recognition of the immeasurable value of the Amazon, a group of young Colombians organized a class action lawsuit against the government. In response, the Supreme Court of Justice issued a landmark sentence (STC 4360) in 2018 that recognized the Amazon as a subject of rights. While groundbreaking, the sentence’s aspirations have proven difficult to realize, and many governmental actions remain misguided, underenforced, or fail to recognize the needs of local inhabitants, including the incorporation of indigenous jurisprudence, territorial wisdom, and community environmental governance strategies. Additionally, questions over land ownership, distribution, and meaning remain controversial, creating obstacles to establish sustainable rural economies and paving the way for continued environmental degradation.
In 2017, the World Wildlife Fund reported that between 40-50% of Colombia’s timber is harvested illegally.
In this context, and due to a growing speculative market, land-grabbing through the introduction of cattle ranching, which is identified as the primary cause of current rates of deforestation, is only predicted to rise. As rural families return to the region or move into areas previously inaccessible, they continue to become implicated in arboreally-destructive activities, such as extensive cattle ranching, coca cultivation, illegal gold mining, and illegal logging. It is imperative that conservation efforts become more participatory and address the structural problems fomenting deforestation. Small-scale deforestation is criminalized by the state, yet the government is failing to provide viable economic options for local communities to conserve forest and engage in ecologically-appropriate agricultural and livestock practices. At the same time, large-scale deforestation advances with impunity and concessions to multinational mining and oil companies continue to be granted. This contradictory governmental approach will only exacerbate the high costs of the tragic felling of the forest and the levels of socio-environmental conflict in the region.
This video depicts tree cover changes in the Colombian Amazon from 2001-2019. The pink indicates loss of forest cover and the blue indicates forest growth. This video is sourced from Global Forest Watch-World Resources Institute (2014).
This is a news report covered by the journalistic program,
Zona Franca, on deforestation in Guaviare, the second most deforested department in the country in 2019. It is an investigation into the land grabbing that fuels deforestation.
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Sentence 4360 / 2018
25 Colombian youth, with the support of Dejusticia, a social justice and human rights “think-do-tank", sued the government claiming that their rights to a healthy environment, life, food, access to water, and health were threatened by the government’s failure to control deforestation. They also emphasized that despite Colombia’s national and international obligations and voluntary commitments made in climate summits, the country was still contributing to climate change.
The plaintiffs argued that the government was obligated to reduce deforestation through at least three commitments:
the Paris Agreement committed Colombia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
a Joint Statement of Colombia, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom bound the government to reach zero net deforestation in the Amazon by 2020
domestic law 1753 (passed in 2015) required the government to reduce the national annual rate of deforestation
The Supreme Court of Justice examined the 1991 Constitution and found that its concepts, along with previous jurisprudence, international law, and academic scholarship, elevated a healthy environment to a fundamental right. It also determined that the government had indeed not dealt effectively with the problems of deforestation and climate change despite its obligations. It then ordered the government to develop a series of action plans within five months of its decision. These included:
an Intergenerational Pact for the Life of the Colombian Amazon (PIVAC)
strategies to reduce deforestation to net zero
strategies to combat greenhouse gas emissions
updated municipal territorial ordinance plans throughout the Basin
By declaring the country’s Amazon, a subject of rights, the Court sought to advance the emerging field of biocultural rights. While this legal ruling was extremely innovative, governmental institutions have failed to fulfill their duties to create and implement appropriate action plans.
At the same time, there are opportunities to improve the implementation of the sentence on the part of civil society. According to Dejusticia, the Tribunal of Bogotá, in charge of tracking the implementation of STC 4360, has cited 94 government entities in 12 audiences (as of November 2020) to demand for accountability and to reorient the implementation of the sentence. This is something that has never occurred before even in the tracking processes of the Constitutional Court.
Deforestation & Conservation
SOCIO-ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICTS IN THE AMAZON