Serranía de Chiribiquete


Amidst the erratic movements of a small plane navigating low-altitude turbulence, Rodrigo Botero, a conservationist, gestures toward the scars etched into Colombia’s landscape—testament to the nation’s struggle against surging deforestation in the Amazon rainforest over the past six years.

Gazing through the window, he highlights uniform pastures, once verdant, now levelled for cattle ranching, their earthy scent mingling with plumes of gray smoke drifting skyward from undergrowth ablaze. This landscape, ravaged by unchecked deforestation, stands as a consequence of the turmoil that followed a 2016 peace accord, which, while ending decades of internal conflict, triggered a race to exploit Colombia’s forests.

“A year ago the columns of smoke were so great that we couldn’t even breathe in the cockpit,” recalls Botero, who is leading an aerial survey of Colombia’s Amazon rainforest and directs the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).

Within this tumult, a glimmer of hope emerges. Rodrigo Botero, aboard the wobbling plane, addresses a delegation of Norwegian officials, conveying that Colombia might be steering the tide against deforestation in the Amazon.

“This is really dramatic,” he says excitedly. “It’s the highest reduction in deforestation and forest fires that there has been in two decades.”

Government data, released recently, points to a nationwide decline in deforestation, registering a 26% drop in the Colombian Amazon and a 29% decrease across the entire country.

The conservation gains for 2022 amount to preserving 50,000 hectares of forest—an early outcome, born from a unique peace process placing environmental conservation at its core.

“This is just the beginning,” Colombia’s environment minister, Susana Muhamad, said while visiting the southern state of Guaviare. “I think that Colombia can [overcome] deforestation in the Amazon and turn this all around.”

Colombia’s peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in 2016 not only marked the end of a conflict claiming 450,000 lives but also inadvertently led to forest devastation. In the absence of the Farc, other armed factions seized the opportunity, felling vast expanses for land seizures. Despite military interventions and global pressures, curbing deforestation, particularly in the Amazon, remained elusive.

Critics of the 2016 accord’s implementation pinpointed the oversight of environmental concerns. The environment was perceived as a potential beneficiary of peace, rather than an integral element of the peace agreement.

“The consequence of the peace process has been a great environmental disaster,” said Muhamad, a former environmental activist.

Norway’s environment minister, Espen Barth Eide, admitted in retrospect that more emphasis should have been placed on environmental preservation during the initial negotiations.

“With hindsight, we probably should have put more emphasis on that in the early negotiations,” Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s environment minister, said while on a recent trip to Colombia’s jungle frontier.

Under the leadership of President Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first leftist head of state, a fresh approach is unfolding. Petro’s vision for “total peace” hinges on dialogue with an array of armed groups that have risen or regrouped post-Farc era. This effort towards peace extends to protecting the environment.

“Unlike the previous peace process, the environment will be a protagonist in these peace agreements,” Muhamad said.

In the heart of this endeavour lies Guaviare state, a focal point for peace negotiations and a battleground in the fight to save the Amazon. Here, arid plains morph into the lush expanse of the Amazon rainforest, home to diverse species and uncontacted tribes. The region gained global attention when four children survived for 40 days alone after a plane crash.

Remarkably, deforestation dwindled due to the directives of the Central Command (EMC), a dissident faction composed of former Farc combatants. Seeking reconciliation with the Petro government, the EMC compelled local farmers to halt deforestation—a “peaceful gesture.” Though the negotiations have a long journey ahead, the logging moratorium signals optimism.

Colombia’s high peace commissioner reported progress in informal talks with the EMC, hinting at forthcoming formal peace negotiations. An agreement with the EMC could significantly curb Amazon deforestation, as the group holds sway over vast expanses across multiple states and even into Venezuela.

“It’s unprecedented,” he says. “We’ve never had this as the first step in negotiations.”

As environmental gains are consolidated, remote regions are gaining attention from leaders like Muhamad. Plans for reforestation extend beyond mere bans on logging; discussions encompass monthly incentives for non-deforestation and training in sustainable practices.

Muhamad is visiting remote regions like Guaviare that have been largely ignored by the governments of the past. “Please excuse us for talking so long, but we’ve never had this opportunity,” one community leader says three hours into a public meeting attended by Muhamad and the high peace commissioner, Danilo Rueda. “Normally they just come, they take their photos and they leave.”

While optimism is warranted by the EMC’s voluntary moratorium, the complexity of Colombia’s situation is evident. The idea came from the dissidents themselves – a sign that the warring factions, like local communities, are increasingly understanding the need to protect local biodiversity.

“What I’m hearing, seeing and feeling in these meetings is that there is an enhanced understanding that you cannot build a new Colombia on the basis of the further deterioration of nature, so you have to find an economic, social, political, inclusive process that is more respectful towards nature than before,” Barth says.

In Colombia’s countryside, numerous players vie for control. Approximately 15,000 fighters spread among five armed groups and twenty gangs, many of which maintain a grip on criminal enterprises, complicating efforts for a lasting peace. The government’s suspension of its ceasefire with the Clan del Golfo, Colombia’s largest drug cartel, underscores the persistent challenges.

“It’s like a chess game being played on several different boards simultaneously, each one with its own enormous complexity,” says Diego Alejandro Restrepo, at the Bogotá-based peacebuilding thinktank Pares.

As the plane ventures deeper into the Amazon, the intricacies of Colombia’s “total peace” blueprint come to light. Within Chiribiquete National Park, an untouched realm akin to something from “Avatar,” sprawling clearings reveal the complexity. Despite EMC’s public directives, covert activities—land grabs and ranching—persist, blurring the line between peace and exploitation.

“We need to keep a close eye on this,” Botero says. “It can’t be that campesinos don’t burn, clear or anything at all while these great estates keep growing.”



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