Deforestation & Conservation
SOCIO-ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICTS IN THE AMAZON
The 2018 declaration of the Colombian Amazon as a subject of legal rights (STC 4360) brought hope for a better future for forest conservation throughout the region. Governmental authorities were ordered to create plans to eliminate deforestation, but the timelines established by the court and the limited budgets and technical support provided to municipal and regional authorities have been largely unrealistic. Furthermore, indigenous peoples and rural communities argue that their voices, visions, and ancestral know-how need to be incorporated into the implementation of the court orders in good faith as well as in all territorial ordinance and conservation plans developed for the region. There is a decades-long history of international aid programs and government-sponsored projects being imposed upon the Amazon and its inhabitants rather than the prioritization of local communities as protagonists of their realities. Differential regional needs and nuances that would support agro-ecologically appropriate transitions to sustainable economies have often been ignored, including
Amazonian saberes (wisdom and know-how). As a reaction to these structural failures and a history of unkept state promises, many social organizations and rural families are working to transform their relationships with the territory to build more sustainable presents and futures.
In this section, we highlight only a few examples from the department of Putumayo of the many community proposals and citizen-based initiatives that are dedicated to reducing deforestation, promoting conservation, and fomenting "buen vivir" (living well) in the Colombian Amazon.
Iván Melo, Jorge Luis Guzmán, and Kristina Lyons share their visions for better Amazonian futures. Kristina calls for structural change and wishes for the State to learn how to listen. Jorge Luis shares how he finds meaning in caring for forests. He also reflects on the impossibility of doing nothing, and finds hope in a new generation, reimagined relationships, and more capacious social contracts.
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EXAMPLES OF CITIZEN & COMMUNITY-LED INITIATIVES
Alianza de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida (Alliance of Women Weavers of Life)
Alianza de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida or Alliance of Women Weavers of Life is a women’s alliance founded in the department of Putumayo in 2005 based on the conviction that women have a unique ability to restore the peaceful social fabric that existed prior to the presence of armed conflict in the territory. Today, Tejedoras is an umbrella organization that unites women from a variety of organizations across Putumayo.
One of their many initiatives, Las Guardianas del Agua or Guardians of Water, is an alliance that empowers female leaders to advocate for environmental justice. After a massive debris flow in 2016 that destroyed much of Mocoa, the capital city of Putumayo, the Guardianas began to organize community workshops on climate change in relation to floods and landslides. Recognizing that Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental activist, the Tejedoras engage in advocacy work for the protection of environmental and social leaders. They understand the construction of peace to be inextricably connected to environmental struggles. The Tejedoras also raise awareness about violence against women's bodies, femicide, and violence against the territory.
Images of Tejedoras de Vida organizing against femicide and in defense of women's rights; training in rural sustainable tourism; and organizing a tribute for Gloria Ocampo, a social leader assassinated in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo in January 2020.
The Guardianas recognize that they are confronting a deep-rooted culture of extractivism and a regional economy that centers around illicit coca production. When we spoke with Juliana Rincón, the granddaughter of the alliance’s founder, Fátima Muriel, she highlighted ideas for supporting more sustainable economic activities in Putumayo, including scientific tourism and bird watching, wellness tourism, and the promotion of legal uses of coca leaves for medicinal and food purposes.
Fundación ItarKa is a family-based nonprofit in the municipality of Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo. The foundation was created in 2017 based on the legacy of Sinaí Rocha and Jorge Julio Guzmán, the founders of Puerto Guzmán who settled in the area in 1958. Sinaí and Jorge Julio were local leaders who organized and funded many infrastructural initiatives, including the construction of a school, hospital, health clinic, major road, electrical plant, and recreational center, which facilitated the creation of the Inspection of Puerto Guzmán on May 1, 1975. Despite their positive social impact, Sinaí and Jorge Julio, like many other colonos arriving in the Amazon from the Andean regions of the country, deforested land for cattle-ranching and agriculture, unaware of the unique forest vocation of the soils of the Amazon.
Today, led by the current generation of the Guzmán Rocha family, ItarKa strives to remedy this deforestation through the rehabilitation of 18 hectares of their farm, La Sinita, where they practice silviculture "a lo Amazónico" (the Amazonian way) by working with native species, such as Achapo, Arenillo, Gomo, Marfil, and Granadillo, for sustainable timber production. Importantly, this reforestation is achieved by working with the selva, whose regenerative ability is emphasized and respected by the Foundation. For example, Jorge Luis Guzmán, Sinaí and Jorge Julio's son, shared with us that in areas that were deforested to create feed for cattle, the selva has been able to self-regenerate without the need for technological intervention. This is in contrast to land that was used for cattle grazing, where the soil is much more compacted and degraded and where more intensive human cultivation practices have been necessary to aid the regrowth of forest.
ItarKa continues to work to improve the quality of life in Puerto Guzmán by promoting silviculture and reforestation, environmental education, and sustainable peri-urban planning. Current initiatives include: a scholarship for local students to learn audiovisual environmental tools; collaborative research projects on the history and the formation of Puerto Guzmán with the Urban Development Department at Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá; a project to support community-based territorial ordinance of a watershed in Puerto Guzmán with the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania; and financial support for the Alternativa Mutumbajoy
Photo of Braulia Gómez, Pedro Pablo Mutumbajoy´s mother, and Jorge Julio Guzmán; image of entrance to La Sinita silvicultural plantation; photo of La Sinita; and image of Jorge Luis Guzmán and Pedro Pablo Mutumbajoy.
The Alternativa Mutumbajoy is a proposal designed and implemented by Pedro Pablo Mutumbajoy, a former
cocalero (coca grower) in Puerto Guzmán, to support the reforesting of his family’s illegal coca fields. Originally growing coca out of economic necessity, when market prices fell and aerial fumigation with glyphosate intensified,
Pedro Pablo and his family changed paths, choosing to reforest their farm, La Esperanza (Hope). In time, Pedro Pablo began advocating for other cocaleros to follow in his footsteps, though his proposal extends to all campesinos working in territories damaged by war and extractivism. Having experienced the difficulty of starting a reforestation project without any external support, he crafted a proposal for sustainable forest regrowth and protection that he presented to representatives of the government.
The Mutumbajoy Alternative is a payment for ecosystem services strategy that addresses deforestation and illicit crop substitution in the Colombian Amazon.
The Alternative proposes that rural families commit to:
The recovery and rehabilitation of illicit coca fields and other deforested areas.
Reforestation through the cultivation of native timber trees.
The long-term sustainable use and conservation of newly forested land.
The requests made to the state are:
A minimum wage guaranteed for 10 years, social security benefits, and loans for coca growing or former coca growing families to financially support their transition to silvicultural practices and forest conservation.
Professional and technical assistance for rural families to facilitate their silvicultural transition.
Despite the national government’s commitment to provide economic assistance for the substitution of illicit crops as part of the 2016 peace accords and its official commitment to fight deforestation in the Amazon, Pedro Pablo’s proposal has not found any purchase with regional or national state authorities.
He has been able to sustain the project with funding from two international NGOs, Association SelvaViva and Soroptimist International in France, and one citizen donor from Germany, and has thus far recovered 10 hectares of his family’s land. However, these donations are insufficient.
The subsidy he proposes would amount to $37,400 USD (141 million Colombian pesos) per family over 10 years, and would be enough for them to rehabilitate, cultivate, and protect 15 hectares of forest. To put this in perspective, if the United States and Colombian governments had invested just $7.5 million USD of the total they spent on the forced eradication of 2.3 million hectares of illicit crops over 22 years, to date there would be 160,000 families sustainably managing 2.6 million hectares of Amazonian forest.
Jorge Luis Guzmán and Pedro Pablo Mutumbajoy share Pedro Pablo's story of transition from illicit coca cultivation to silviculture. Pedro Pablo discusses his work as a former cocalero (coca grower) and, the impacts of Plan Colombia and the armed conflict in El Trébol, a rural settlement in the municipality of Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo where his family has their silviculture plantation.
Filming by Luisa Soss
RENAF (National Network of Family Agriculture)
RENAF (National Network of Family Agriculture) is a network of more than 140 civil society organizations working to promote family agriculture in Colombia. Though not formalized until 2016, RENAF evolves from a long history of agrarian struggles, including the defense of rural territories against extractive-based development projects. For RENAF, family agriculture in Colombia rejects the neoliberal model for socioeconomic and cultural organization promoted by the state through trade liberalization and industrial agricultural policies centered around profit and competitivity. In this context, RENAF Nodes emerge as grassroots alternatives for organizing landholdings, production, and commercialization. The nodes privilege small property and/or community held property, and promote the use of traditional seeds, recovery of food autonomy, campesino markets, non-monetary modes of exchange, collective labor practices, and sustainable agriculture. RENAF Nodes organize markets, fairs, and festivals to shorten commercialization chains and establish direct producer-consumer relations that focus on the wellbeing and dignity of campesino families.
In our conversation with Abner Ortiz from the Mocoa RENAF Node in Putumayo, he explained that adopting the frameworks of family agriculture has led to a revalorization of food security and autonomy among the community. RENAF fairs and markets subvert the profit-maximization model in which campesinos produce as much as possible for commercialization (typically an export-oriented monocrop) and keep very little for themselves, opting instead for a diet based on the cheapest processed commercial options. The fair prices and shorter distribution chains enabled by the RENAF markets, fairs, and festivals encourage campesinos to “eat first, and then commercialize.” There is also a pedagogical component to these spaces; they seek to recover and circulate Amazonian saberes (ancestral knowledges) and principles of agroecology, which are incorporated into the community guidelines for participation in the network.
RENAF-Mocoa, for example, prioritizes the use of native Amazonian seeds, encourages the recovery of agro-biodiversity, requires all products to be free of agrotoxins, and has banned the use of plastic at the fairs. Another important aspect of these community markets is that buyers are encouraged to visit campesinos’ farms through agro-ecological tours that explain the labor and life cycle of each product and their particular uses and meanings in the territory. Under their permanent campaign “Planting PEACE with Family Agriculture,” RENAF also seeks to strengthen different forms of social belonging and the empowerment of local communities with the goal of cultivating a buen vivir (living well) in the Amazon.