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Deforestation & Conservation



Contemporary deforestation in the Colombian Amazon is entangled with changing power structures and territorial reconfigurations in the history of the region. In order to understand the primary roots of deforestation, it is necessary to consider how forest clearance has been impacted by histories of colonization, armed conflict, imperialism, state abandonment, and exploitative economic models.

Caring for forests may heal historical woundsÁngela Jiménez
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Iván Melo and Carlos Becerra share their Amazonian origins. Juliana Rincón discusses how caring for nature can heal war wounds. Ángela Jiménez considers what drew her to the Amazon. Interspersed between these Amazonian voices, Kristina Lyons reflects on the contradictions of state conservation strategies and the devastating impacts of the prevailing extractive-based economic model.


While only 8 million hectares of land have been deemed agro-ecologically

appropriate for cattle ranching and grazing, this activity occupied 38 million hectares of land in the country in 2016.

Colonization, Displacement and Early Extractivism  


Colonization in the Colombian Amazon dates back to the 1600s with the arrival of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries who would have long-lasting consequences on the region, especially for indigenous communities and their ancestral territories. Later, the Colombian rubber boom (1881-1930), spearheaded by the Peruvian Amazon Company, a British firm locally known as Casa Arana, which depended on indigenous enslavement and indentured labor, also provoked massive territorial reconfigurations and atrocities against the region’s indigenous peoples. Beginning in the 1930s, waves of settlers began to arrive in the territory to construct the first roadway connecting the Amazon to the Andes; displaced by La Violencia in the interior of the country; through state-directed colonization projects that treated the land as tierras baldías (empty or public lands); or motivated by a protracted series of boom-and-bust extractive economies, such as timber, skins, and gold.  

The domination of unsustainable extractive-based projects has contributed to the region’s economic marginalization, lack of state support for viable conservation strategies, and the exclusion of local communities’ visions for the care of and cohabitation with Amazonian forests.


Transandino pipeline is a 305-kilometer (190 mi) long crude oil pipeline that transports oil from Orito, Putumayo, to the Pacific port of Tumaco in Nariño.


83% of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon between 2001-2015 occurred in only 48% of the forested area. During these same years, non-indigenous territories in the Amazon experienced a rate of deforestation 537% higher than in indigenous territories.

Oil Exploitation and Extensive Cattle Ranching 


Oil was first discovered in the Colombian Amazon in the 1940s, coinciding with dramatic increases in automotive ownership in the United States and Great Britain. In 1957, the Colombian government sold oil rights in Orito, Putumayo to Texaco, an U.S. oil company, beginning an extractive process which solidified by the mid-1960s. Over the next decade, Texaco displaced multiple indigenous communities (enabled by the passage of Law 81), reshaped agrarian dynamics, and instigated clearcutting needed to install oil wells, build access roads, and construct an oil pipeline leading from Putumayo to the Pacific Coast.  


By the 1980s, oil had become one of Colombia’s top three national exports. Currently there are 51 active oil contracts in the Colombian Amazon alone, some of which overlap with indigenous resguardos. Even though many hopeful individuals moved closer to Texaco wells in pursuit of employment, oil production presents limited opportunities for local workers. Despite the environmental damage, oil extraction continues to have a strong hold in the Amazon. It is tied to the fiscal sustenance of the local public sector via taxes and dividends as well as receipt of a certain amount of oil profits.   

The Colombian Amazon has also been affected by a long history of extensive cattle ranching, requiring the clearing of trees in large numbers, most notably in the department of Caquetá. In the mid-twentieth century, there were several government-sponsored programs, such as INCORA and SINIGAN, that “assisted” farmers to transition from subsistence agriculture to cattle ranching. The increased funding for ranching helped launch this industry, which developed even further through the investments of private corporations. Additionally, cattle ranching has been viewed as a mechanism for acquiring land rights and stabilizing property because land ownership has been preferentially granted to those who engage in significant land-clearance.

Over the last 50 years, cattle ranching has increased in the Amazon Basin, and the amount of land dedicated to ranching has approximately doubled. This has increased due to the power vacuum left by the official demobilization of the FARC-EP as previously occupied lands have become open for large-scale deforesters to expand their presence.  

Images of cattle grazing on pastures in the Andean-Amazon foothills region of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá; deforestation due to coca cultivation and urban expansion; and timber extraction in the Colombian Amazon.


More than $8 billion of US money was spent on Plan Colombia between 2000-201280% of these funds were invested in strengthening the Colombian military and police to increase counter-narcotics efforts. 

Armed conflict, coca cultivation, and the U.S.-Colombia war on drugs 


The country´s western Amazon has also been transformed by decades of armed conflict and drug-trafficking. Dating as far back as the Constitution of 1886, which centralized power in the capital and marginalized frontier regions and less densely populated territories by categorizing them as territorios nacionales

(national territories), the Amazon has suffered from State neglect. Later, as Colombia consolidated its National Parks system, Law 2 of 1959 redefined the region as Forest Reserve, a model that further ignored the social reality of the region as inhabited by ancestral communities and campesinos. The lack of the presence of a social-democratic state - as exemplified by the lack of public services and infrastructure - allowed the FARC-EP to establish control over many Amazonian territories in the 1980s and created conditions for the development of illicit coca production linked to narcotrafficking structures.  


The 1990s saw a surge in cocaine imports to the United States from South America. U.S. efforts to control the expanding cocaine industry originally concentrated on Bolivia and Peru, but soon the war on drugs pushed the entire production and commercialization chain into Colombia. By the early 2000s, as Colombia came to be the dominant cocaine producer in the world, over 40% of the country’s illicit coca was grown in the department of Putumayo, converting the western Amazon into the epicenter of the U.S.-Colombia war on drugs. Plan Colombia, the bilateral U.S.-Colombia counternarcotic strategy, sought to eradicate coca production through the aerial fumigation of not only suspected illicit crops with a concentrated formula of Monsanto’s glyphosate, but also soils, watersheds, forests, pastures, subsistence crops, and local populations. Both the cultivation of commercial coca and forced eradication policies have propelled deforestation in the region. With no viable alternative livelihood, coca farmers who have lost their crops are forced to further deforest and continue the expansion of the agricultural frontier or switch to other illicit activities, such as illegal gold mining, which provokes the sedimentation and contamination of rivers and watersheds.

Aerial fumigation with glyphosate, a central strategy of Plan Colombia, posed risks for human health. Yaneth Valderrama died 20 years ago after being fumigated with glyphosate by National Police crop duster planes. Her husband fought a court battle, and the case reached the International Commission of Human Rights. The Court's ruling could set a precedent for new strategies for dealing with illicit crops.

In 2013, the women in this video lost over 15 hectares of pineapple crops after their fields were aerially fumigated with glyphosate by National Police in Oroyaco, Putumayo in the context of the U.S.-Colombia war on drugs. The glyphosate destroyed their only sustenance, leaving them without the expected income from the harvest. Source: vibilizarTV









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Listen to a podcast by the NGO Ambiente y Sociedad about the implications of oil spills on the Mocoa and Caquetá Rivers in the Colombian Amazon. November 13, 2020.

Watch this documentary directed by Gerard Ungerman and Audrey Brohy on the U.S.-Colombia war on drugs. It highlights the human and ecological costs and ineffectiveness of this ongoing war.


Listen to this soundscape about life in the midst of armed conflict and daily resistance on the part of communities in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo. This sound installation was made by the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH) in Colombia, and was launched during the exhibition "Voices to Transform Colombia" in 2018. 

More about Monsanto's glyphosate:

Glyphosate is a widely used commercial herbicide, and it kills plants by blocking an enzyme essential for their growth. In humans, it is readily absorbed through the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts, but poorly absorbed through the skin.  Once absorbed it is distributed to the kidney, liver and brain, but is not currently known to accumulate in the body.


Concentrated glyphosate formulations used for aerial spraying in Colombia also contained a surfactant, POEA, known to be toxic to aquatic life and mammals, which may runoff into waterways after aerial spraying or due to spray drift. Outside of the context of the war on drugs in Colombia, agricultural workers likely have the greatest exposure to glyphosate.  

Epidemiologic studies of farmers have shown rhinitis (runny nose), asthma, and wheezing. Animal studies have shown impacts on developing fetuses.  

Epidemiologic studies in Colombia 

have shown an association between aerial fumigation and dermatologic and respiratory problems and miscarriages. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as probably carcinogenic to humans. Although the science is still controversial, the large number of studies that have shown associations between glyphosate exposure and human health and environmental effects should compel the application of the precautionary principle.

Deforestation & Conservation


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