A new law in Colombia aims to address widespread impunity in cases of environmental crime and curb escalating rates of deforestation.
The legislation, which took effect last August, comes at a time when deforestation continues to climb in Colombia, where more than 171,000 hectares (423,000 acres) were cleared in 2020.
Human rights groups and environmentalists have expressed concern that law enforcement may use the new legislation to target vulnerable communities instead of the financiers of deforestation.
Last year, when Colombia’s parliament approved a reform of the nation’s environmental crime laws, the legislation received stark opposition from a surprising assortment of environmentalists, human rights activists and smallholder farmers.
The environmental crime bill, which went into effect in August 2021, tacks on longer jail sentences and heftier fines for five environmental crimes already in the penal code and creates six new crimes altogether. It covers a wide gamut of environmental offenses, from wildlife trafficking to fossil fuel pollution, and lays out specific provisions targeting the deforestation crisis, an issue that has been exacerbated by the reconfiguration of the armed conflict in recent years.
“The new law of environmental crimes carries fundamental tools for the fight against deforestation in Colombia, starting with the creation of deforestation and the financing and promotion of deforestation,” Juan Carlos Losada, the member of parliament who authored the bill, told Mongabay. “These are non-bailable offenses, meaning, we’re going to be putting the criminal gangs that deforest in Colombia behind bars.”
The new legislation is expected to bolster the government’s ongoing anti-deforestation efforts, primarily the flagship Operation Artemis, a military-led campaign targeting deforestation gangs that was launched in 2019.
But some environmentalists and human rights groups are waiting to see how the law is implemented, particularly as Operation Artemis restarts in 2022. They warn that if past military actions are any indication, the law is likely to be used against poor farmers living along the agricultural frontiers rather than the higher-ups that finance the destruction.
“It all depends on how [the law] is used. This will determine whether it is good or not,” Camilo Prieto, head of the Colombian Environmental Movement Foundation, told Mongabay. “If it’s used adequately, it can be used to go after the [deforestation] cartels. If it’s used against farmers and displaced populations, it’s mad.”
Deforestation is on the rise in Colombia. At least 171,685 hectares (424,243 acres) of forest were cleared in 2020, about an 8% increase from the year before and a 38% increase compared to 2015, the year before a peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ended the decades-long civil war. The FARC was known to restrict deforestation in order to preserve the canopies that shielded its fighters from aerial detection. But old and new criminal actors who have taken their place have taken a different tack, profiting from destructive activities that are expanding the agricultural frontier.
At its core, the legal reform has reignited debate over how to effectively combat rampant deforestation while addressing impunity in cases of environmental crime.
Since its launch, Operation Artemis has deployed more than 23,000 members of the armed forces to capture criminal gangs operating in protected areas, such as nature reserves and national parks. According to official figures, more than 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) of forest have been restored and 96 people have been arrested since 2019. Still, critics allege that many of those prosecuted are poor farmers who clear land for a subsistence living, not the intellectual authors of deforestation.
“We’re talking about rural people, people without land, poor, who depend on agricultural activities and cattle ranching to survive,” Jhenifer Mojica, director of Prodeter, a nonprofit that has worked with farming communities targeted by Operation Artemis, told Mongabay. “They are people who usually lack adequate legal defense and advice.”
Mojica said the crackdown on farmers could intensify under the new anti-deforestation legislation, which makes it a crime to clear more than 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of forest without approval from the authorities or in violation of norms.
“The new law aggravates penalties and creates new crimes, which means there are now three or four new options under which someone can be prosecuted,” Mojica said.
These fears were heightened in September when three men, including an Indigenous Nasa leader, were arrested during a military operation in Chiribiquete National Natural Park, a protected area in the Amazon where they’ve lived for the past six years after being forcibly displaced by the armed conflict. Their lawyer, Ivan Montenegro, who was hired by a nonprofit, said the initial charges included deforestation, a crime that is now punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
“The Attorney General’s Office initially pretended to charge them with various crimes, among them deforestation. Because of the work we did, we were able to get them charged exclusively with invasion of an ecologically important area,” Montenegro told Mongabay.
“Our defense pointed out that it didn’t make sense to charge them, given that criminal law should be the last resort for the state to get citizens to comply with the norms. But if these people had been negotiating with the government for the past few years to legalize their permanence in these protected areas, then why did we have to deprive them of their freedom?” Montenegro added.
Losada said the new environmental crime law is intended to address the root causes of deforestation and the intellectual authors of the crime. The law outlines harsher penalties for the financiers of deforestation than for those hired to clear forests, and makes it a crime to appropriate unused public lands — a practice known to drive deforestation for the purpose of land speculation.
But Losada also shared concerns over how the reform may be enforced. He said the ruling party, the right-wing Democratic Center, had a track record of pursuing smallholder farmers to show results in its fight against deforestation and impunity, but that those proven to promote deforestation, such as the cattle ranching and palm oil associations, continued to operate untouched due to their financial support for the party.
“We hope that the next administrations will be ones that truly want to fight deforestation at their root causes and will capture the ones actually responsible for deforestation,” Losada, from the Colombian Liberal Party, said in reference to the presidential and congressional elections scheduled for later this year.
The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for data on the number of people arrested under the new anti-deforestation law.
Poor farmers are sometimes hired by illegal armed actors and wealthy landowners to log trees to expand the agricultural frontier for both illicit and licit economies, such as cattle ranching, logging, coca cultivation, and mining. Critics say these arrests do little to solve the deforestation crisis, yet seriously alter the lives of poor farmers and fray their relationships with the government.
Prieto said the militarized anti-deforestation model spearheaded by the government is not likely to work without the involvement of farming and Indigenous communities, who have only grown increasingly wary of the state due to military operations.
“We have to think, ‘What is the best way to fight deforestation?’” Prieto said. “What we’re seeing is that the government is excluding another ingredient that is indispensable, which is communities, who must be included as conservationists.”
Banner image: Lemur Tree Frog (Agalychnis lemur) in the forest in Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.