In Colombia’s third most deforested department, peasants and settlers are promoting initiatives for the conservation and sustainable use of the Amazon rainforest, against the backdrop of the most profitable and popular activities, which at the same time are also the most harmful: extensive cattle ranching and coca cultivation.
Four years ago, Maria Gaitan would not cut down a tree. She did it when she bought her farm and brought in cattle, and others for whom she worked picking coca leaves. Now she retains a jungle enclave that resists cattle ranching and illicit crops, the main economic activities in Guaviare, one of Colombia’s Amazon departments with the most deforestation.
“That’s what we were taught and that was our way of living: because others were doing it. This thing that looks at pastures was all jungle. This wasn’t a clear-cut pasture,” says the 35-year-old woman looking at the landscape where she lives, an area adjacent to rocky outcrops of high tourist value that rise amid “a diverse mosaic of forests, savannas and bushes that house elements of the Orinoco, the Andes, the Amazon and the Guiana Shield,” as described in a quick inventory made by scientists from different institutions and social organizations in 2017.
It is precisely because of her knowledge of her surroundings that today Maria leads, together with her partner, Olmes Rodriguez, a project of conservation and sustainable use of the forest from their farm, El Sinai.
“I was also a jungle knocker. I made contracts to cut down 10, 12, 15 hectares and to cut down trees with a chainsaw,” says Rodriguez, who arrived at the age of 17 in Guaviare from San Pedro de Jagua, in the rural area of Ubala, Cundinamarca, in the center of the country, attracted by the “coca ambition.” First, he scraped the coca leaves. Then he started “chemo” to transform them into cocaine base paste. Finally, he had a field where he planted coca bushes.
But betting on conservation and sustainable uses of the territory also implies threats, stigmatization and risks for the peasants that sometimes seek to dissuade them from denouncing crimes and others discourage their efforts to protect the forest ecosystems in which they live.
To get to the El Sinai farm, in the Tortugas township, you have to travel three hours by motorcycle from San José del Guaviare, the departmental capital, and cross the El Capricho village, along dirt roads that can be a torture in winter. Cattle ranches dominate the landscape, except for a stretch in the Serrania de La Lindosa that is characterized by its imposing stone formations, pre-Hispanic cave paintings and spouts with crimson water plants that have become tourist destinations.
The same happens in two other important routes: the one that goes to the south of San Jose towards the Calamar municipality and the one that joins Calamar with Miraflores. Extensive cattle ranching covers almost everything, and the land grabbing lurks with new settlers. Everything in the middle of the Colombian Amazon.
The State’s messages regarding Guaviare have been historically ambiguous. On the one hand, it ordered everything that today is the department as a forest reserve area covered by the Second Law in 1959; on the other hand, it pushed for peasant colonization towards the reserve, as it is also stated in the quick inventory, where it is explained that “the current population has been in this region for 100 years or less” of El Capricho and that its “most important population occurred from 1968, when the National Government promoted the directed colonization, with the purpose of populating wide waste territories of the nation.”
The Line Between Conservation and Colonization
Maria Gaitan and Olmes Rodriguez talk about their past of small-scale logging from a piece of virgin forest that she keeps in the middle of her own paddocks and neighboring cattle ranches.
They also talk about their future: community forestry, as it is known, is the sustainable way to use the forest for profit. They just started in 2018 and already work with 110 families from seven villages in the police district.
Before becoming a couple, the two were already in leadership positions. Gaitan as coordinator of the Network of Communal Women of El Capricho, and Rodriguez as president of the Association of Communal Action Boards of the same town. But it was last year, at a conservation meeting, that their concern for the environment brought them together.
Surrounded by asai, seje, abarco and achapo trees, all native species of the Amazon, the couple talk about setting up a nursery and recovering the forest they cut down. Not far from there, you can hear a chainsaw.
These are the two faces of the department, which reached its highest peak of deforestation in 2017 when it registered 38,221 hectares cut down, according to data from Ideam’s Forest and Carbon Monitoring System. That historic record occurred exactly one year after the signing of the peace agreement between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrilla group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The figure represented an increase of 233% over the previous year and a total of 17% of what was counted in the whole country that year (220,000 hectares). These alarming numbers placed Guaviare as the second most deforested department, only after Caqueta, with which it shares a border.
Since then, the figures continue to be worrisome. In 2018 the estimate dropped to 34,527 hectares and by 2019 there are still no official figures, although the Amazon Conservation-ACCA MAAP initiative estimates that these will account for a “possible large decline in the Colombian Amazon after a recent deforestation boom”
These are high rates of deforestation, when in Guaviare – by regulation – conservation should be prioritized. Other special areas were later removed from the forest reserve zone established in 1959: a peasant reserve zone, several indigenous reserves and two national parks, Nukak and Serrania de Chiribiquete. The latter, a mountain range that forms part of the Guiana Shield and is one of the oldest on the planet, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in July 2018 for its natural and archaeological value.
Angelica Rojas, regional coordinator for Guaviare and southern Meta of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), points out that the ordinance “basically determines two uses for this territory: either one lives off the forest economy or one conserves it.” At least, that is what is on paper.
Rojas explains that of Guaviare’s 5.4 million hectares, only 7% -or 400,000 hectares- are titled. That is, only there can settlers legalize their property. This titled area is the largest peasant reserve area in the country: a figure created by Colombian law in the 1990s to promote the peasant economy and that, precisely for this reason, is the shield against land grabbing, since only land the size of a Family Agricultural Unit (FAU) is awarded, which is what at least one family needs to survive with dignity, and which in all cases is of less than 200 hectares.
Still, land titles for farmers in this area are few, while land grabbing is high. This is another reason why occupation, deforestation, cows and coca have moved beyond these boundaries into environmentally protected areas of Guaviare.
One of the most dramatic examples of the failure to comply with these norms is that of the Nukak indigenous people, who remained uncontacted until 1988 and who were declared “at risk of ethnic and cultural extermination” by the Constitutional Court in a notorious 2009 ruling. The Nukak have been forcibly displaced from their legally constituted reservation due to these dynamics of colonization, deforestation and illicit crops. Many of them live in precarious conditions today, in the urban area of San Jose.
In April 2018, the Supreme Court of Justice declared the Colombian Amazon – including Guaviare – as a subject of rights and ordered, through sentence STC 4360 of 2018, that mechanisms be put in place to stop deforestation.
In terms of justice, this meant that the Prosecutor’s Office had a group of eight prosecutors to investigate crimes such as land grabbing, timber trafficking, illegal mining and drug trafficking in the seven departments that comprise this region. Guaviare went from only four judicial processes in 2018 to 191 in 2019 for nine crimes related to the environment, according to the Prosecutor’s Office. Of the total, 70% (136) are under investigation and 24% (48) are in the judicial stage. The institution reserved the name of those involved because no process has been completed.
The Army also became involved in new tasks. In April 2019 it launched Operation Artemis as an offensive against deforestation. In that year, it captured 48 people in Guaviare alone. No big fish among them. Colonel Norberto Salgado himself, commander of the 22nd Brigade, said in January 2020 that they were campesinos with chainsaws who were earning a living, “knocking down three, four, five, 10, 15, 20 hectares.” He insisted that “most of the hectares that are being cut down are being used for new coca crops,” although the rest of the sources consulted for this report point to extensive cattle ranching as the main factor in deforestation.
There are no large deforesters arrested or identified. In this scenario, the campesinos fear that denouncing implies risks and that the authorities are permissive.
Is It Better to Keep Quiet?
JJairo Sedano is the owner of the El Diamante de las Aguas nature reserve and environmental watchdog of the Guaviare en Paz Citizen Watch Network. He was a cattle rancher “very strong, a defender of cattle ranching, in the Serrania de La Lindosa”, he remembers. He had 65 heads of cattle, but the discourse on conservation and training in environmental issues began to take hold. 14 years ago he decided to take out all the cattle and dedicate himself to recovering what he had cut down. Today he has 31.5 hectares of natural reserve and he managed to repopulate his property with species such as seje, asai, abarco, macano, cachicamo and guayabeto. The place also serves as a field for university students.
In early 2020 Sedano heard “a chainsaw running for eight days” near his property and, weeks later, recorded on video the logging in a wetland near San Jose del Guaviare by developers.
He knows that speaking up has its price. “For defending life, you end up singled out, excluded from society (…) Conserving in Guaviare is difficult,” says this man who arrived from Santander, in north-central Colombia, 35 years ago. Today, he is a vocal advocate for conservation despite the fact that he believes there are few incentives. Along with other members of the observer network, Sedano is always aware of the environmental impact of public and private works and follows up on plans and projects in the department.
“What they tell you the most is: ‘Why do you get involved in what’s not your business?’ That’s where we, who live in the territory, are driven to be afraid, to feel that we are being singled out. But singled out for what? Because the institutions don’t want to do the work, because the institutions are permissive.”
The desire for conservation, which is the banner of Gaitan, Rodriguez and Sedano, is not the rule but the exception among Guaviare’s farmers and new landowners. Convincing them “to change the chip” is not easy and even “there are people who don’t like conservation” and prefer to extend their pastures on end, says Rodriguez.
Added to this is the resentment of going against the tide: “’See, Maria is already with the idea of not knocking over, of taking care… She may suddenly sack us (give us away), this, that. She’s already in that story. I’ve already been told that,” says Gaitán. His partner, Rodriguez, admits to feeling “fear” for defending the forest. “I haven’t received any direct threats, at most a comment here and there. There are people who say, accusing you, that you’re the one talking about those who are deforesting when that’s a lie. I haven’t denounced any of them, they are people who talk without any arguments, but a comment like that can hurt you,” he adds.
In Calamar, Jorge Avendaño, a social leader, citizen watcher and welder by trade, has been living in Guaviare for 20 years, but only since 2016 has he started receiving threats and intimidation. The latest episode came through a pamphlet with the FARC logo that was left at his home in July 2018, which said that he was a “military target” and that he should “keep his distance from current events.”
As part of his tasks as a monitor and leader, he has denounced the lack of action by local authorities to address the region’s problems and the mismanagement of public resources. “It seems that there is business between the (municipal) administrations and the people who are invading” lands, says Avendaño, who denounced the threats in the Prosecutor’s Office and then received a cell phone, an emergency button and a bulletproof vest.
The silence that reigns in Guaviare in the face of those responsible for deforestation, which – he insists – are not the small farmers, can be explained as follows: “Those who have these large extensions of land are powerful. Who is going to denounce them if they know that they will get killed for it? So, in Colombia we are used to living: ‘better to stay quiet and alive’. That’s why nothing happens and those who have the weapons do not take action (…) As there is no one to control, everyone easily took land and deforested”.
The Centrality of Coca
In Guaviare, for decades, the Farc was the law and controlled everything, even deforestation. With their disarmament, after the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016, a vacuum was left that the State has not been able to fill and that has been taken advantage of by those who cut down trees. In addition, the dissident groups that departed from the agreement took up arms again and continue to define themselves as “guerrillas”, impose themselves in extensive areas far from urban centers. In the department, the First Front under the command of ‘Ivan Mordisco’ and the Seventh Front headed by ‘Gentil Duarte’ operate. Criminal gangs (or bacrim) made up of former members of paramilitary groups are also present.
FARC dissidents “benefit from deforestation by extorting money from landowners,” with a fee charged per hectare felled and per head of cattle, according to an Insight Crime report. In addition, they continue to control illicit coca crops and drug trafficking routes in the region.
The cocalero economy flourished in Guaviare in the 1990s under the FARC administration and by 1997 it had attracted the paramilitaries of the Centauros Block of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The two sides clashed in a chapter of the armed conflict that remained etched in the memory of the locals. In 2006, the “paras” demobilized and violence became less general, but coca remained.
According to figures from the United Nations Integrated Monitoring System for Illicit Crops, in 2006 Guaviare registered a peak of 9,477 hectares planted with coca. By 2018 the figure had dropped to 4,340. One of the reasons for the reduction was the implementation of the National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS), which was born after the peace agreement signed in 2016, aiming to insert farmers into a legal economy with a commitment not to return to coca.
A total of 7,251 families took advantage of the program in Guaviare and eradicated their crops manually and voluntarily, as Olmes Rodriguez did, the leader of El Capricho who now wants to dedicate himself to conservation.
“People were convinced and tore out their bushes. Most of us who had bushes pulled them out. We signed a substitution agreement where they gave us two million COP (USD 586 as of February 2020) in the first payment and we had 60 days to pull out,” he says. Then other resources would be provided for a food security project, which 62% (4,490) of Guaviare’s families received by October of last year, according to the latest United Nations monitoring report.
Payment for this concept to the remaining families and the delivery of resources for productive projects have not been completed. Such delays have motivated complaints of the peasants, who have eradicated 1,481 hectares of coca leaf from the total 3,019 that were identified, according to UN data. This means that this illegal economy sustained over 7,000 families with an environmental impact of 1,481 hectares of cut down forest.
The missing compensations have forced farm workers to look for other legal options to support themselves. “That’s why cattle ranching has increased, because people have already left coca” and have no alternatives, explains Rodriguez. He also says that growing food to sell is not profitable because of the poor road conditions and the distances involved. “People live on milk and cattle, on milking, from which they get their cheese. People buy that,” he explains.
The councilman of Calamar, Mateo Federico Cruz, who was an environmental observer before taking office, agrees: “Almost all those people who have been tearing out (coca) have done so to implement models of livestock, fattening and dual purpose (meat and milk).”
Livestock Gobbling up the Jungle
“Cattle ranching is one of the main motors of deforestation, because here what they do is to turn forest into pasture: they knock down, burn and plant grass to later bring cows,” explains Andrea Fernanda Calderon Caycedo, director of the Guaviare section of the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Northern and Eastern Amazon (CDA), the environmental authority in the area. This is happening even in protected areas.
Aldemar Galeano, responsible for the technical and administrative affairs of the Guaviare Livestock Committee, describes the cattle-coca relationship as follows: “After coca, the most profitable activity here is cattle raising. And where are many of these people able to raise cattle? Where they used to have coca plantations.”
People chose to buy farms and cattle, and the number began to grow. Currently, the capacity of cattle farms in Guaviare is one cow per hectare, or even less. According to the numbers Galeano holds as person in charge of cattle vaccination in the entire department, the number of cows in Guaviare amounts to 450,000 heads of cattle. That is, 450,000 hectares of cattle pasture in Amazon territory, which is equivalent to the entire area available to farmers. If all the land the cows walk on were legalized, no one else would be able to live in the department.
But much of that land is not titled and many of those pastures are new. The CDA regional director reports that her work is hindered by the institution’s unpopularity among neighbors and armed groups. “Our technical team has suffered attacks by the community, which refuses to receive them and sabotages them and, on the other hand, retentions by illegal groups,” she warns.
The most serious precedent was recorded in March 2015 when Ricardo Molina, a CDA official, was killed by hitmen when he left the entity. He was controlling illegal mining. Today, as with National Parks, environmental officials are prohibited from entering areas where they should be exercising control due to threats from armed groups. Since the signing of the peace agreement, two murders of social leaders have been recorded in Guaviare (in June and October 2017) according to information from the Ombudsman’s Office and the organization Somos Defensores.
The CDA’s sectional director also regrets that the entity’s work is not “well received” among the community because “its economic measures” focus on in extensive cattle ranching, which contravenes the use of land in Guaviare.
“I know cattle breeders from more than 15 years ago, who started with 10 heads of cattle and now have 500,” says Galeano, from the Cattle Committee. “So that’s where the issue of deforestation comes in: a rancher starts with 10 hectares of pasture, but the next year, as he had five calves, he goes and cuts down another five hectares. And that’s how it got bigger and bigger, until it got to where it is today.”
Following this logic, deforestation for livestock would be local and would obey the subsistence economy of the locals, as it is also their most viable alternative to avoid returning to coca. For Angelica Rojas, however, the constant overflights for vegetation monitoring she does as part of her work with FCDS show that, while it is true that the locals own livestock, they are not the main problem. “The focus should be on large deforesters, the ones people call ‘Caqueteños,’ ‘Gorgojos’ and a whole series of names, and who are basically cartels of land misappropriation and misuse,” she says.
Heydeer Palacio, governor of Guaviare since January 2020, agrees that “it is outsiders who have come and made these improper bad interventions.” He affirms they are people with money coming from Bogota, Arauca, Boyaca and Bucaramanga who buy outside the peasant reserve area. These are black market sales, because officially everything outside the peasant reserve is the nation’s inalienable property.
No one dares to name those responsible, but in conversations they do speak of the “tree graves” to describe the deposits of fallen trees after the logging.
On the institutional side, identifying culprits is not easy. The director of the environmental authority looks for a map of the department to explain herself and shows the area where deforestation is focused. “That is the nation’s uncultivated land, which has no owner and is not subject to title. Tell me, as CDA, how do I identify the owner of that land if it’s supposed to be the Nation?,” she says.
Issues arise when farmers do not see sanctions for large deforestation but for smaller-scale logging. “If you have money, the law won’t bother you and vice versa (…) That’s is what most people disagree with,” complains Olmes Rodriguez. Small loggers are usually taken on the spot, while large deforesters require intelligence work that so far has not been successful, Calderon Caycedo explains.
The official details that local peasants who cut down are found first. They then begin to defend themselves and point to another who hired them. In turn, that other person points to someone else, who finally says: “No, this is the boss, from Bogota.” But this last person doesn’t shows up at Guaviare. “If I check the database, the public instruments, this area is the Nation’s,” she says. That is to say no owner of that land appears, but possession is made effective through logging.
Although the CDA applies financial penalties to individuals, the director acknowledges that the compliance level “is low.” She does the same work with institutions. In 2019, she imposed fines on the Governor’s Office and the mayor’s offices in three of the Guaviare’s four municipalities – Calamar, Miraflores, and El Retorno – for actions against the environment. In the case of Pedro Pablo Novoa and Jhonivar Cumbelos, mayors of the first two municipalities who held office until the end of 2019, the Prosecutor’s Office is also investigating them “as allegedly responsible for the crimes of aggravated damage to natural resources and invasion of an area of special ecological importance.” Oscar Ospina, mayor of El Retorno, was suspended from office and remains under house arrest “for alleged liability in environmental crimes and acts of corruption.”
Angelica Rojas, the FCDS land expert, explains that between the days of clearing forest, sowing grass and settling the cows, which is how the land grabbing cycle works, “there are waiting times to see if someone comes to fight: the (environmental) corporation, the police or the army, someone who comes to complain about the cleared area,” she says.
She explains that, when no one says anything, the occupation is consolidated, adding that the new occupants “are not interested in the land, they do not want to keep the land. They know that at some point they are going to be thrown out, what they want is to take advantage of it and use that land while someone orders them to leave, which can take a year, 50 years or never happen at all.”
From Settlers to Reforesters
The current wave of settlement is only the most recent. The first began in the mid-20th century, led by the State, which baptized the newcomers as “settlers.”
“A settler is fundamentally a displaced farmer,” said Alfredo Molano, a writer and researcher on the Colombian conflict, in an exhibition on coca. In Southeastern Colombia, Molano explains, “it was a real feat to cut down a hectare with an axe at that time. A truly titanic task. And that’s what settlers did: they went in, tore down the jungle and immediately burned it and planted corn.”
“Settlers were given the status of “civilizers” of empty lands, and their farms were valued as the places where the capitalist economy and progress were made,” explain anthropologists Carlos Del Cairo and Ivan Montenegro-Perini, in the article ‘Spaces, Peasants and Environmental Subjectivities in Guaviare.’
Even today, in San Jose one can see a sense of heroism when the neighbors present themselves as ‘settlers’ who came from all corners of Colombia. In fact, every year in August the Settlement Festival is celebrated, promoted by the Governor’s Office.
That generation had a totally detached relationship with Guaviare conditioned by extractivism. Before, it was rubber, wood, skins and, more recently, marijuana, coca and cattle, explains Angelica Rojas.
“Since forever, the use has been: ‘What can I take out so I can leave? Not ‘What can I leave on the soil? Not ‘How can I best relate to this?’“ she adds.
But a new generation of Guaviare’s inhabitants, more rooted to the territory and even born in this Amazon region, seem to defy this heartless tradition. Although tensions persist and cattle and coca have not left, from Gaitan and Rodriguez’s El Sinai farm or from Jairo Sedano’s El Diamante de las Aguas farm, small or large gestures of conservation are made to further express their intention to remain in the territory.
Before, Maria says, “we were cruel to the jungle (…) We pummeled away at the jungle without compassion. Today it hurts, it hurts to cut down a tree” and she remembers her children. “That mentality I had, they don’t. The girl, the boy (…) they eat a seed and plant a tree or say: ‘mommy, take one to the farm and sow it.’”