70% of deforestation in this country is concentrated in the Amazon and, since the departure of the FARC, this has increased by 44%. A journalistic team traveled to some regions and documented how illegal mining and forest fires for the sale of land is accelerating the destruction of Colombian forests.
#MaderaSucia is a transnational journalistic investigation coordinated by OjoPúblico and Mongabay Latam in alliance with El Espectador, Semana, Connectas, El Deber, Vistazo Magazine and InfoAmazonía in whose first installment 11 investigative journalists from the region participated.
Every three months Colombia receives bad news about its forests. In bulletins of two or three pages the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam) warns what has already become commonplace: the country is destroying its forests.
The red dots that indicate the main sources of deforestation vary in these documents. Sometimes they are located in the southwest or north, close to Venezuela. Sometimes, they move to the foothills of the Andean mountain range or to a municipality in the Pacific. But they are always in the Amazon. It is as if an epidemic had spread, devastating thousands of hectares of forests and it was impossible to contain it.
Only in 2016, 178,597 hectares disappeared. It is like collapsing just over half the city of Lima at once or destroying the whole of Bogotá in one year.
The evil of the Pacific
To get to Río Quito, in the center of the department of Chocó, one of the Colombian regions most affected by illegal gold mining, you have to take a boat on a dirty and unmade beach in Quibdó, the capital. The $ 20 we pay after crossing a street with damp dirt and wooden houses guarantees us a place in a motorized boat. 15 people are accommodated on the cracked boards that serve as chairs. Sometimes 20. Some manage to take refuge completely under the canvas; others must endure the scorching Pacific sun as the boat pulls away from Quibdó. We sail slowly against the current of the Atrato, the mightiest river in Colombia.
The journey takes about an hour and is the best example that Freddy Palacios, a community leader, can find to explain why, since 2017, his municipality began to appear frequently in the Ideam deforestation bulletins. A decade ago, he says, to make that same trip it took about three hours and there was no choice but to be patient while the boat was leaving passengers in hamlets of dusty streets. Since then, things began to change when the rumor of the existence of gold reached the ears of Brazilian, Peruvian and Venezuelan miners. As metal prices surpassed historical limits in the international market, backhoes were entering the jungle of Río Quito.
Little by little, with the protection of paramilitary groups, they began to bite her and remove the banks of the rivers. There is no precise calculation of the impact, but the channel today is deformed. Multiple paths have been opened to navigate, in which even the most skilled boatman can get lost.
In his motorboat Freddy takes us between countless sand mounds and extensive mudflats. It is not easy to get around them. We get lost more than once and run aground on several occasions. He has no alternative but to get off and push the boat in the water up to his waist.
A 28-year-old, broad-backed and black-skinned, he cares little about what scientists have warned the more than eight thousand inhabitants of Río Quito: the water is full of mercury and is best avoided. "How are we going to do it?" He asks, laughing. "We have always lived off the river."
Although the cravings for gold arrived several centuries ago in Chocoano territory, the dredges that arrived at the beginning of the 21st accelerated the destruction of forests at a dizzying rate. While in 2001 the hectares devastated by mining reached 637 in Chocó, in 2014 that number had grown alarmingly: 24,450 hectares. Two years later, the destruction of 40 thousand hectares (of the 8 million hectares of humid forests that they have) revealed that the problem was getting out of hand.
If you had come twenty or thirty years earlier - tells us a resident of Río Quito who prefers to remain anonymous - you would have found a river with fruit trees side by side. Oranges, bananas, borojó, chontaduro. There was everything. We weren't rich, but we had something to eat. Sometimes we would put a bunch of bananas or whatever in the canoe and in any hamlet we would exchange it for other fruits or fish. But that is over for a long time ”.
Before it was over, the men of Río Quito also used to go into the jungle for a week or two to extract wood with axes and machetes and then sell it in Quibdó. “It was a way of subsistence, but now the backhoes cut down the trees with machinery so that the Brazilians build the dredges. With these devices they remove all the water and the earth in search of gold ”, says Freddy while pointing to a dredge corroded by time. It is a construction of planks and iron rods on the Quito River that is the height of a three-story building. Some fifteen or twenty people usually work there day and night. They don't rest until the tubes suck in tons of sludge that the mercury then helps them convert into grams of gold.
The scenario of this municipality, which, according to the last census, is the place with the highest percentage of unsatisfied basic needs (98%), is repeated in various parts of Colombia. The list is long but the bleak images of southern Bolívar, northern Cauca, and eastern Antioquia also show how the obsession with gold and the lack of state regulation (according to the Government, about 80% of the mineral extraction is does illegally) have wiped out thousands of hectares of forest.
In all there are mud craters and workers looking for golden nuggets. Most of those who oppose have sometimes received threats from paramilitary groups that arrive in the form of leaflets under the doors of houses or with calls or text messages.
The inhabitants of Río Quito received the last threat in mid-February 2018. It was signed by a group of dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). "We invite you to be part of this proletarian and peasant army that allows us to defend ourselves from the criminal and bloodthirsty regime," they warned in a brochure.
Although its presence has not been as notable as that of paramilitary groups or criminal gangs, gold has also represented a mechanism to increase the income of these guerrilla groups. In addition, having control of the territory has always been a key issue for any armed actor: the proximity of that area to the Pacific Ocean has made it a privileged corridor for cocaine trafficking.
The point of no return
Thomas Lovejoy is one of the most authoritative people to speak about the Amazon. Since 1965 he began to study that jungle in Brazil as a biologist, his voice and his studies, which showed how this ecosystem was being fragmented, now take on more force. Today, after having been an advisor on biodiversity issues at the Smithsonian, the UN and the World Bank, he is a professor at George Manson University in the United States. "The godfather of biodiversity", some call him.
At the end of February 2018 Lovejoy published a short article in the magazineScience Advances. In it he launched a disturbing alert: the Amazon is approaching a point of no return. Their calculations indicated that, in the last 50 years, this entire region shared by nine countries had lost 17% of its vegetation. If that figure reaches 20%, he warned, that forest will no longer be sustainable. The first consequences, related to the hydrological cycle, will be felt by the inhabitants of the Southern Cone.
"The will to preserve the Amazon is not reflected in political actions," declared Lovejoy. The text was also signed by Carlos Nobre, another of the researchers who has investigated the most about this ecosystem. The two scientists made reference to the fact that, if greater efforts are not made to stop phenomena such as indiscriminate logging, this ecosystem will end up becoming a "vast savanna".
Since the peace agreement with the FARC was signed in November 2016, in Colombia there are more and more traces of the loss of these forests. Paradoxically, as the troops left the jungles to begin a process of reintegration into civilian life, the roars of chainsaws and fires multiplied in the Amazon.
The figures from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam) are conclusive: 70% of deforestation is concentrated in the Amazon and, since the departure of the militias, it has increased 44%. The municipalities where the most forests are destroyed are also municipalities where the guerrillas took refuge for many decades: San Vicente del Caguán and Cartagena del Chairá, in Caquetá; La Macarena, in Meta; Puerto Guzmán and Puerto Asís, in Putumayo, and San José del Guaviare, in Guaviare.
We landed in two of those municipalities that were controlled by the FARC in June 2015, when the beginning of the peace process with the FARC was about to turn three years old. After flying for more than an hour in a fragile five-seat plane, we arrived at “Uribe”. Not far from the urban area was Casa Verde, a historic guerrilla camp in which several attempts at peace had begun in the 1980s, but which the government decided to bomb after multiple setbacks.
On that hot June morning, Alirio told us the details of how the bullets and bombings could be heard from his home. He laughed out loud. He was then 60 years old and, like most inhabitants, he had come to that region chasing riches when he was still a teenager. He had all the bonanzas: tiger skins, which in some way amounted to trafficking in species, wood, marijuana, coca and cattle.
He was a settler living in the Tinigua National Natural Park. But over time he had learned that he could not continue to be part of a chain that was destroying the jungle. "Today we have clear rules: we no longer allow colonization and it is forbidden to cut down more than 10 hectares per year," he told us. He coolly acknowledged that the FARC had devised a mechanism to protect natural resources. Ever since that guerrilla group had entered the region, it had implemented a rigorous mechanism to prevent overexploitation of the forest. All the peasants had to obey them. Failure to comply with them meant fines and sometimes expulsion from the territory.
As we flew from Uribe to La Macarena in another plane that threatened to collapse with each current of air, it was possible to see a dense jungle where peasants like Alirio lived. Any absence of forest, no matter how small, was noticeable in the midst of that vast vegetation. There were more than 3 million 800 thousand hectares in which four National Parks were united: Tinigua, Picachos, Sierra de La Macarena and Sumapaz. An area so large that the whole of Switzerland could fit.
The white dots on the forest that we noticed that day have multiplied in the last year. The FARC's departure from those territories motivated new actors to take over the land illegally. Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), confirms this with some stark figures: the so-called “Green Belt”, a strip created to intensify protection, lost 90 thousand hectares between 2017 and 2018. A This rate of forest loss, the 2,500,000 hectares of preservation, will not withstand even three decades.
What are the reasons behind this reality? Who are to blame for the environmental disaster? Why is it so difficult to stop it?
Botero's satellite records show that in 2017 livestock deforested more than one and a half million hectares of forests. A year earlier, new illegal groups had razed 3,235 hectares to replace them with coca leaf plantations. In that same period, the fires accelerated the destruction of other areas: in the first three months of 2018, 2,900 were reported. Declaring "public calamity" was the only alternative for local leaders to attract the attention of the Government.
Although cows and coca appear to be doing a great deal to overcome the limit drawn by Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, there is another disturbing cause. As the FARC's rifles were withdrawn, a land grab began that no one had predicted. José Yunis Mebarak, director of Vision Amazonía, the initiative that Colombia created to fulfill the promise of reducing deforestation in the region to zero by 2020, summarized what was happening in a text published in the newspaperThe viewerin March 2018:
“We are witnessing an arboricide, an animalicide. Ideology left, capital entered. There is a frenzy for cheap land. We are destroying with such impudence, ease and ferocity that we do not even use the wood. We are just burning everything. If you are wealthy, you buy entire trails and have 200 to 500 hectares deforested from a single sawmill. If you are humble, from 1 to 15 hectares (…) El Guaviare is the same size as Costa Rica, 5.5 million hectares. Unlike that country, it is not populated by five million but barely 120,000 people. However, he has already burned and converted 500,000 hectares of forest into pastures where 250,000 cattle graze and his ambition and plan is to continue felling, hopefully another 400,000 or 1 million hectares, to put mainly cows and the occasional crop, perhaps rubber or cocoa ”.
The millionaire business of setting fire to the forests
It must have been a difficult couple of years for Luis Gilberto Murillo. Since he assumed his position as former Colombian Minister of the Environment in April 2016, one of his main tasks was to fulfill the pact that the country had signed months before at the Paris Climate Change Summit. The country had pledged to achieve a zero deforestation rate in the Amazon and, in return, Germany, the UK and Norway would give it $ 100 million. The goal, Murillo himself said in February 2018, will be impossible to meet. As an alternative, he proposed to extend the term until 2022 or 2025.
The announcement was made when much of the Amazon region was on fire. In Guaviare, the same department that worried José Yunis, the fire had devoured about 20 thousand hectares. In La Sierra de La Macarena it ended with another 1,035. For Murillo, unlike what was happening in his native Chocó - where illegal mining was destroying the forests - in the south of the country there were even more powerful forces behind the burning.
“To tear down and burn a forest can cost between 333 and 1,000 dollars. A peasant cannot pay that ”, he warned. According to the Amazon Institute for Scientific Studies (SINCHI), in the second week of February 2018 there were already 2,035 fires spreading in the region.
The hypotheses to explain why they are setting fire to the forests of southern Colombia are multiple. One of the people who has tried the most to understand these reasons is Dolores Armenteras. Catalan, biologist and geographer, for about 15 years she has focused her work on understanding the reasons behind the burns.
In 2013, after crossing a lot of data and analyzing satellite images, he published a study that shed light on what had happened in that region over a decade. Along with Liliana Dávalos, a biologist at Stony Brook University; Jennifer Holmes, an economist at the University of Texas; and Nelly Rodríguez, a forestry engineer, concluded that the multiple fires had been motivated by the acquisition of land. After verifying that the number of cattle had not increased between 2000 and 2009 and that the value of meat had remained constant, the hypothesis that cattle was the main culprit of the destruction of the Amazon collapsed.
His most recent research yielded another disturbing conclusion. After comparing satellite data from Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, collected over 12 years, Armenteras observed that there is another factor that affects the spread of fire in the Amazon: the construction of communication routes. Roads, essentially.
One fact sums up the role of the authorities in the control of forests: after the publication of a journalistic report on this bleak scenario in 2016, we received a call from the Environmental Crimes Unit of the Prosecutor's Office. An official explained to the author of the report that they had no idea what was happening with the illegal roads and wanted to start gathering clues. The journalist was to be one of his sources.
If the destruction does not stop, data from the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development holds that the loss of natural forest by 2020 will grow 200%. The deforestation epidemic will continue its course without anyone being able to contain it.
By Sergio Silva and Helena Calle (El Espectador)