FARC peace deal in Colombia sparked war on forests, report says

  • The Colombian government’s 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was supposed to correct land ownership inequality and tackle deforestation goal.
  • However, dissident guerrilla groups have filled the power gap left by the FARC, making it increasingly difficult to carry out some of the peace deal’s most basic initiatives.
  • In a new report, international peacekeeping organization Crisis Group recommends that the Colombian government increase its efforts to dismantle non-state armed groups and find better ways to help internally displaced families.

The 2016 peace deal that the Colombian government reached with the country’s largest and oldest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was also heralded as being strikingly “green.” The agreement set out to correct unequal land use caused by internal displacement while also investing in the management of protected reserves.

But five years since the agreement’s signing, and seven years since the FARC first agreed to a cease-fire, deforestation continues to be exacerbated by violent internal conflicts. Now it even threatens Colombia’s 2030 zero-deforestation goal, according to a new report from the Crisis Group, an international peacekeeping organization.

“It’s unusual that we look at issues of the environment in this way,” said Bram Ebus, Crisis Group investigator. “But it’s becoming harder to ignore the fact that conflict and the environment and climate change are interrelated.”

Between 1964 and 2016, the FARC razed forests as a means of expanding territorial control, while also engaging in cattle ranching, mining and the cultivation of coca crops — all drivers of deforestation in their own right — in order to finance its operations.

Nevertheless, destruction of the rainforest appears to have worsened in the years since the guerrilla group disbanded, the report said. Deforestation rates rose in 2015 during the peace deal negotiations and have remained high ever since.

The report identifies several conflict-related factors that might explain this unexpected trend, including the government’s failure to implement parts of the peace deal and ongoing competition between non-state armed groups that have tried filling the power gap left by the FARC.

Before and after the peace deal

For all the damage that the FARC did to the environment, the guerrilla group also had roots in agrarian reform and saw itself as an advocate of the rural poor. In some areas of Colombia, it was known to limit the amount of land that local communities could deforest for farming, as well as to place restrictions on logging and mining.

After the 2016 peace deal, many of the 10,000 FARC guerrillas refused to put down their weapons and instead formed dissident groups that are still active today, albeit with much less power. Some organizations estimate that there are as many as 25 different dissident groups totaling around 4,600 members.

These groups, the Crisis Group report noted, are less ideologically driven and rarely take steps to enforce environmental regulations. In fact, in some cases, they appear to be encouraging locals to partake in cattle ranching, logging and coca cultivation.

“Dissident groups are much smaller and have a less coherent structure than the former FARC,” Ebus said. “So they need to present themselves again to the local population in these rural areas, and they don’t want to start off on the wrong foot by imposing environmental regulations.”

The FARC also protected certain forests for strategic reasons, Ebus said, such as taking advantage of the canopy cover to move troops around without being spotted from above. New dissident groups and paramilitaries are too small to need that kind of protection, so they can deforest as they see fit.

Cattle in Colombia
Cattle approach a fence on deforested land in Colombia. Image by Neil Palmer/Flickr.

This dynamic, combined with the absence of government action in rural areas, has complicated initiatives laid out in the peace deal to increase protections of new and existing natural reserves.

“When the peace agreements started, there was an opportunity for biologists to go to some of these [conflict] areas. In only a couple of years, they managed to come away with some big findings,” said Luis Alfonso Ortega, director of environmental group Fundación Ecohabitats. “But then these new groups came in looking to take control.”

Until the government can better hold non-state armed groups responsible for criminal activity, the report said, vital ecosystems will continue to be replaced with coca, cattle ranching and mining.

Struggling to implement peace

The peace deal agreed to in 2016 was also designed to correct the extreme rates of land ownership inequality that resulted from millions of rural residents being internally displaced by violence.

As of November 2020, only 4% of these goals were fulfilled, according to the Kroc Institute, which monitors the progress of the peace deal. Another 18% of goals have not even begun.

Officials in charge of implementing the deal, such as Emilio Archila, the presidential adviser for stabilization and peace, said in September that Colombia has not “underfunded peace” and that the country is far better off than it was five years ago.

But the report pointed out that some projects are underfunded by at least 50%. Last month, Colombia’s comptroller general estimated that, at the current rate of implementation, all facets of the peace deal would not be complete for another 26 years.

Logging in Colombia
A logger works in Caquetá, Colombia. Image by Bram Ebus/Crisis Group.

“There’s a lack of funds and capacity and a lack of political will, and a lack of understanding the territory by the central government in Bogotá,” Ebus said. “The reality on the deforestation frontier is so different than what politicians know. Solutions that might seem easy on paper are very difficult to carry out.”

One goal of the agreement was to establish a registry to clarify land ownership and land use, which would help government bodies like the National Land Agency better track agricultural activity.

However, only 15% of the country’s land has so far been entered into the registry, according to the Agustín Codazzi State Geographic Institute, which carries out geographic and agricultural analysis. In rural areas with high rates of internal displacement, it is sometimes extremely difficult to determine who should and should not have ownership rights.

In its recommendations, the Crisis Group report said taking care of displaced residents should be a top priority for the government. Because they find themselves living in extreme poverty on informal land, most people have no choice but to expand the agricultural frontier with environmentally harmful activities.

“If these victims of violence can return to their homes, or are given other suitable arable lands,” the report said, “Colombia will move in the direction of robust legal defense for the environment and improved security.”

Editor’s note: Bram Ebus was previously a Mongabay contributor.

Banner image: Deforestation in Antioquia, Colombia. Image by Bram Ebus/Crisis Group.

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