By: María Paula Murcia Huertas | MUTANTE
Posted: April 22, 2020
Since the signing of the Peace Agreements with the former FARC guerrillas, Felipe Henao has devoted himself to leading a communication and environmental education project in the third most deforested department in the country: Guaviare. As a result of this leadership, his life is in danger.
“That’s where many of our videos begin,” says Felipe Henao, while pointing to a thin strip of land covered with vegetation that divides the Calamar and Unilla rivers in the Guaviare department. The strip used to be wider, but the rivers themselves have stolen parts of the land over the years: one on each side, until it became a narrow passage.
On one side of the passage, the plank houses in a small street called “El Embudo” are colored with sunset-orange light. On the other side, the Unilla River flows serenely, fed by the rain after 15 days of summer.
As if drawing a metaphor for his life in the last few months, Felipe Henao walks across that strip of land from the last house to a clearing on the river bank. This is the transition that this 25-year-old young man decided to make when he chose to leave his family and his village, Calamar, rather than abandon his project: ‘Pipe Q-ida’, a collective of young people that promotes environmental education, conservation and recovery of the Amazon forest through social networks.
On the road connecting San Jose del Guaviare, capital of one of the border departments of the Colombian Amazon, with Calamar, a police station barricaded behind green canvas sacks marks the beginning of the urban area. After this first building, the next ones are almost all color-painted, single-level plank houses. Like many villages in Colombia, most of their roads are dirt roads. In the case of this municipality, these dirt roads are made of red soil that paints the white public buses traversing them.
Calamar is a small municipality. The 2018 census reported 8,648 inhabitants, the lowest figure among Guaviare’s four municipalities. It is located on the banks of the Unilla River, three hours from San Jose del Guaviare, near the northern border of one of the country’s greatest natural jewels. “We are a quintessentially green municipality, the northern gateway to the Colombian Amazon and the gateway to Chiribiquete,” Felipe explains. For him, his municipality “is the best place to live in the world.”
Calamar is indeed a municipality with an enormous natural and cultural wealth. As limit of the Chiribiquete National Natural Park, it is one of the municipalities guarding this territory declared as mixed -cultural and natural- UNESCO World Heritage on June 1, 2018, due to its privileged location among the Amazon basin, the Guiana Shield and the Andean piedmont, which favors the conditions for very high biodiversity.
It is the largest national park in Colombia and the second largest in South America, home of at least three indigenous communities in voluntary isolation: Carijona, Urumi and Uitoto, with over 75,000 cave paintings on its tepuis, some of which date back more than 20,000 years. Although it was declared a park in 1989, its existence remained secret for decades and even today tourism is prohibited within its boundaries. Only scientific expeditions are allowed to enter and, even so, over half of its territory remains unexplored.
The Chiribiquete protected territory occupies over 20% of Guaviare’s total 5.5 million hectares. Its total area – 4,268,095 hectares – divided between Guaviare and its neighboring department – Caqueta – is equal to Denmark’s size.
Its delimitation is very clear, although it changed in 2018 when it was extended for the second time in the last five years. The Itilla River, which marks a section of the park’s northern boundary, is the obvious limit: both a barrier and a meeting place between the plains that expand from the north and the forest that defends itself from such advances.
The exploitation of the park is forbidden. Tourists can pay visits only by flying over the park, a very incipient activity that the National Parks Unit just regulated in 2019. But even within its territory, which enjoys such high levels of protection, there is deforestation. According to data from the Amazon Andes Monitoring Project (MAAP,) between 2018 and 2019 this territory lost 2,200 hectares of forest. It is the third most deforested protected area in the country, after the Tinigua and La Macarena national parks, both located in the transition between the Andes and the Amazon.
The outlook is worse in the surrounding region, which consists of unprotected areas. Deforestation is consuming Guaviare.
Until 2016, the former FARC guerrillas controlled logging in Guaviare. Anyone who wanted to cut down trees had to ask for its authorization and usually the only logging allowed was in small land areas that peasant families used for their own subsistence. If these rules were broken, guerrillas imposed fines on offenders.
This informal exercise of environmental authority – also related to a military strategy – mitigated the advances of deforestation in the department for decades, until the signing of the Peace Agreements in November 2016 that led to the disarmament of 13,000 of its members. However, its interest was not purely conservationist: keeping these forests standing ensured that the guerrillas – who in other regions of the country had no problem destroying pipelines and causing serious oil spills in water sources – had places to hide from the National Army.
“We knew what was coming to this territory the moment the Peace Agreements left us unprotected,” Felipe explains. That is why, in early 2016, he decided to found Pipe Q-ida. “Our intention was to raise awareness on the importance of preserving what was going to be left unprotected,” he says. Guaviare natives and peasants’ intuition was sadly correct: the FARC’s departure left the forest at greater risk. “Today we see disastrous results in deforestation, land grabbing, extensive livestock farming and the expansion of agricultural frontiers in the territory,” the activist says.
A look at the side of the road connecting San Jose del Guaviare with Calamar confirms this. Where the dense forest used to thrive, today extensive barren pastures grow. The stumps of the felled trees stick out of the ground like graves.
Felipe expresses himself fluently. He speaks clearly and loudly. As he talks, he gestures and moves his body decisively. He is a persuasive young man. He started being passionate about communication ten years ago, when he set up a small radio station in a corner of his school – the Carlos Mauro Hoyos Educational Institution – where he charged 500 pesos to broadcast messages from students via the radio.
Over time, his projects grew more ambitious. He started to produce tv content for the Calamar community channel and later founded Videoclip, a show that broadcast modern music videos that people did not know, since there was no internet. “Then I got connected to the hospital’s internet, which only the manager had access to. I asked him for the password to download videos from 1:00 to 4:00 a.m., because the internet connection was awful,” he remembers and laughs, “and that’s when I started to study at the distance-learning university.”
With Videoclip, while studying Social Communication, Felipe started using technology and media to talk about conservation. In intervals between videos, he did interviews and reflected on caring for the environment. Even today, he still keeps habits from that time, such as taking pictures with his cell phone, which he handles like a camera with great skill, in all the places and situations he is in. That was the germ of what today is his conservation project.
Pipe Q-ida was born around the natural and cultural paradise which entrance is Calamar: its motto is #SomosGuardianesDeChiribiquete (We are Chiribiquete’s guardians) and it is presented as a platform to drive change. Today, this project – founded by Felipe in 2016 – has 220 young people from the municipality who he trains – or facilitates their training – in different trades to generate an environmental conservation movement. In this way, they coordinate processes on different fronts such as art, tourism, environmental education and digital communication to raise awareness about the importance of conservation.
Felipe is a thin, dark-skinned boy with short, black, curly hair who walks around the village with the confidence of someone in his own back yard. As he walks, he identifies some villagers who are participating in one of the Pipe Q-ida’s projects: “Don Pedro lives here. His son was part of our process, but he had to go to the Navy. The one who is drawing a graffiti over there was trained in that by the organization. That is Fabio, who works with Pipe Q-ida in the Environments for Peace project.” In the village, he is greeted warmly.
“It’s the young activists who become the target of threats because young people are the workforce of illegal activities and desiring to have a different future is frowned upon in the territory,” says Yanneth Bagarozza, who works in the Ministry of Environment’s Heart of the Amazon program to stop deforestation at critical points, especially near Chiribiquete Park. For her, young people are not taken into account in institutional decision-making, nor are there often programs catering specifically to them.
That’s the gap that Felipe has tried to fill.
“Our work is focused on stopping the deforestation figures, and that means doing it with young people from the countryside, from schools, from the city. We put ourselves in the eye of the hurricane,” Felipe explains, given that it is a territory full of illegal stakeholders with interests in logging. “In 2017, I began to receive threats from, apparently, groups outside the law. I have received them in writing, by telephone, verbally; some with firearms. They forced us to finish the rural education project we had in schools throughout the municipality, where deforestation was occurring,” he recounts.
The work with Pipe Q-ida meant exile for Felipe. In 2018, he was held by three men, alleged members of the FARC’s dissident First Front, downtown Calamar. They took him at night near the central square, violently put him in a vehicle and covered his head and took him to a small village. There, they told him he had three options: stop doing his work, leave or get killed. Then, in the early hours of the morning, they took him back downtown. More than a year later, Felipe had to leave the municipality and move to San Jose del Guaviare, where he feels like “an eternal tourist.” But even this displacement did not make him abandon his calling as an environmental leader.
“Now we are starting another process with around 80 children from rural schools who are going to receive training from Pipe Q-ida to restore nurseries, reforest the buffer zone and work on drinking water access issues,” Felipe says. Digital communication through social networks is a strong arm of the organization, where it publishes its environmental management and spreads its urgent message of forest protection.
They are also working on the management of a boat-restaurant as part of the tourism circuit being proposed by members of ‘Environments for Peace: Dignified Life and Rapprochement,’ a project of the Ministry of Environment and the Norwegian Government, which seeks to support reincorporation processes for former FARC members and to contribute to the mitigation and adaptation to climate change through an effort to reduce deforestation.
No one seems to be from Guaviare. The settlement of this territory is the result of multiple bonanzas that, throughout history, have attracted outsiders. From rubber in the 19th century, the tigrilladas – the boom in the trade of wild cat and other feline skins – in the ‘70s and coca in the past 30 years, to the ‘Return to the Countryside’ policies that encouraged settlements and began during the Carlos Lleras Restrepo’s administration.
As the northern gateway to the Amazon, Guaviare is a border area, not only in terms of geography and ecosystem, but also in terms of identity, between plains and forest. Although the law establishes that most of the territory there comprises protected areas, today the plains and grasslands have replaced the forest almost to the border with Chiribiquete National Park.
“People here feel more Plainsmen than Amazonian,” says Luz Amparo Sanchez, a journalist who was born and lives in San Jose del Guaviare. As she speaks, typical plains music plays in the background. “The Amazon region is related to the indigenous people, and they don’t feel indigenous. When the Nukak arrive, they stay in the park [of the city] and people say they are dirtying the city.”
A 2010 report by the Amazon Institute for Scientific Research (Sinchi) explains it this way: “The indigenous population has subsistence systems that do not require major environmental interventions to meet their needs and requirements. But, on the other hand, the mestizo population that has arrived in the region comes from the Eastern Plains and the Huila and Tolima departments, with a strong livestock tradition, which has led them to replicate such models.”
The Orinoquia region has four million hectares dedicated to livestock, according to the Agustin Codazzi Geographic Institute. The Amazon region has zero. And although Guaviare belongs to the latter region, the 2008 livestock census conducted by the Colombian Agricultural Institute reported 169,000 heads of cattle. By the first half of 2019, according to the most recent version of the same census, the figure had increased to 443,633 animals. In other words, in 11 years the number of cows nearly tripled. Today, there are six times more cows than people.
Livestock farming has become so common in the department that the conventional wisdom already sets an estimate of the land required for stockbreeding. Many agree that the average is one hectare of pasture per animal. But the figure issued by the Corporation for Sustainable Development of the Northern and Eastern Amazon (CDA in Spanish,) the regional environmental authority, shows that stock farming is even more extensive at 0.6 animals per hectare.
That is why livestock farming is now the most intense engine of deforestation in the department. It replaced the Amazonian logic of the chagra with one of praderization. The chagra has traditionally been the place where the indigenous communities grow food for each family’s subsistence. They slash and burn small portions of the forest, where they plant what they will subsequently eat. But the fragile forest soil is not suitable for agricultural crops and cannot withstand prolonged planting. That’s why the communities have learned to rotate their chagras, so everyone wins: people eat, the land rests and the forest regenerates.
Livestock farming does not work the same: according to conventional logic, for each cow you have to cut down a hectare of forest and turn it into a pasture. It involves massive burning to clear the land and get more room for the animals. Although there are more sustainable and productive models, based on practices such as planting live fences, interspersing cows with trees and rotating pastures, these are barely seen in Guaviare.
Jhon Perdomo is a neighbor of Felipe’s family in “El Embudo”. He is a big man and a good conversationalist. He spends his days commanding the volunteer firefighting unit in Calamar. “We classify fires in two types: natural and man-made,” Perdomo explains. All fires we put out are man-made and related to deforestation,” he adds.
The figures confirm it. Year after year, especially after the signing of the Peace Agreements, deforestation has been increasing in the department. In 2015, the Ideam reported 9,634 hectares affected by deforestation. In 2016, the figure was 11,456. By 2017, it had increased to 38,221. In 2018, 34,527 were reported, and although the consolidated figures for 2019 have not been published yet, the CDA expects about 40,000 affected hectares. In the last five years, a portion of the Guaviare forest’s territory equivalent to more than three times the area of Medellin has been extirpated.
Deforestation in Guaviare did not start with livestock farming. Before cows, coca was the main reason for forest destruction. Trees were cut down to cultivate the plant in order to produce the white gold that became the region’s currency, which attracted people from all over the country looking for fortune. Pedro Padua, an indigenous Tukano grandfather, remembers that around 1970 people began to cut down trees to plant illicit crops in the rural area of Calamar. According to data from the UN Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System (Simci in Spanish), in 1999 Guaviare was the second department in Colombia with the largest number of planted coca hectares, after Putumayo. By March of that year, 28,435 hectares were reported.
Felipe was born in 1994, several years after the coca farming bonanza began to have an impact on deforestation, but he experienced it as well: as a child, he asked his father for a piece of land to cultivate the bush on the farm where they lived. “At seven years old, I already knew how to process coca, because I was my father’s assistant.” But in 1999, with the implementation of Plan Colombia’s eradication policies, aerial spraying of glyphosate cut his aspirations short. “One thing I am grateful for to glyphosate is that today I am not a coca grower or a raspacho (coca picker),” he says.
“When there was coca, there weren’t so many fires,” fireman Perdomo says. “We used to go out and fight very small fires. Now those small fires started turning into big ones.”
Carlos Perdomo, John’s brother and also a fireman, arrived in Guaviare in 1980, at the peak of the coca boom. Carlos says that at that time a day laborer needed 15 days of work with an axe to cut down a hectare of forest. Today, with a chainsaw, that job takes a day or less. According to estimates from the region, the profit produced by 300 hectares devoted to livestock farming is equivalent to the profit produced by two or three hectares of coca at that time.
“That’s why livestock farming is a landowner’s problem. Peasants don’t have the capacity to clear a thousand hectares,” says Jorge Avendaño, a Bogota native who has lived in Calamar for 20 years and works as an overseer to preserve the Unilla River, surrounding the municipality. Through his work, he has made reports about waste dumping and excess boat capacity in the river. He has also received threats.
“But the CDA doesn’t reach those places,” Felipe adds. There is a common perception that the department’s environmental authority is not doing its job. “They apprehend a farmer who cuts down two trees, but they don’t do anything against those who deforests the whole farm.”
For Fernanda Calderon, director of the CDA-Guaviare section, these accusations are normal. But she says they simply do not have the capacity to go any further. They have six permanent officials, but only one directly deals with to the deforestation problem, and a technical team of seven people, hired by Vision Amazonia, to protect the 5.5 million hectares that comprise Guaviare.
“Deforestation sites are in forest reserve areas where no titles are granted. These are the nation’s vacant lands. So, when we come to address a report, we try to identify who the offender is, because the one we generally find is the day laborer who is being paid to cut down trees,” says Calderon.
“Selflessness, courage and discipline” is the motto of the volunteer firefighters of Calamar. Precariousness is their daily routine, but in the village everyone trusts the work of these people who try to mitigate the environmental effects of logging. “We have no equipment or personnel to respond to the increase in fires. We have to multiply because we are only 20 active volunteer firefighters. There should be at least 35, all salaried,” John Perdomo says.
Felipe is one of the active volunteers. Hanging around his neck, under his t-shirt, he always carries his fireman license. “I never go out without my license. I can forget my wallet, my cell phone, but never my license,” he proudly says.
The station is a large warehouse with an office, a dining area, a few rooms and parking space for the three vehicles they use: an overworked red four-wheel drive pickup, an 800-gallon capacity tanker truck that already falls short for them to deal with fires, and a white four-wheel drive truck that they hardly use, even though it is much newer, because it only holds 55 gallons of water and, since it does not belong to them, they cannot modify it.
In addition to fire trucks, these vehicles are used as ambulances because the Calamar hospital does not have one. Firemen also have to carry out the transfers of dead, injured and sick people, which have also increased with fires.
The last threats Felipe received were in November 2019. They came from men he did not know, but from whom he recognized a foreign accent. By that time, the National Protection Unit had already granted him a security scheme, one year after alleged members of the FARC dissidents – who abandoned the peace agreements and kept up their arms – kidnapped him. His kidnappers then gave him three options: leave Calamar, stop doing his conservation work or die.
The scheme consists of an armed man, a bulletproof vest and a cell phone, all three always with him. Despite this, the young activist continued to receive threats. Armed men stood in front of his house for hours pretending to talk on the phone while watching him. That’s why he moved to the department capital.
Felipe received precarious protection from the State, and officials have re-victimized him. “After being kidnapped, I had to go to the Mayor’s office to report the case. The mayor who has just left office [Pedro Pablo Novoa, charged by the Prosecutor’s Office in December 2019 with environmental crimes for the construction of an illegal road] called for an extraordinary security council and said: ‘Ah, that happens to you because you oppose development. And, besides, we all receive threats,” Felipe says.
Although he is perhaps the most protected environmental leader in Calamar, he is not the only one who needs protection. Others also receive constant threats. Jorge Avendaño, the overseer of the Unilla River, has been threatened by phone, insulted in the street and even had his workshop – where he works as a boatyard in Calamar cargo port – tore down with stones.
Last year, a pamphlet signed by “FARC-EP Dissidents ” appeared in these people’s houses: “This notice is directed to all social leaders, environmentalists, community leaders and other social organizations that conduct activities in the municipalities of Retorno, Calamar, Miraflores and San Jose del Guaviare. As of the first day of June this year, you will once again be considered a military target by our men. Today, more than ever, the FARC guerrillas continue to fight against the oppressive model of the Colombian government and its strategic allies who seek to combat our men,” the threatening pamphlet said.
Days later, via WhatsApp, some of the threatened leaders received a longer notice, also signed by the extinct FARC-EP, which seemed to contradict the previous one: “The cynicism of this oligarchy [the ruling classes and the government] gives them a backwards mind, justifying the repression against social protest throughout the national territory. This stigmatization of social protest, social organizations and their leaders is complemented by judicial false positives against social leaders, political leaders, leftist parties, students, indigenous people and peasant families,” it says.
The lack of coherence in the messages may be a symptom of what has been said about dissidents: they do not have a command and act like disaggregated cells. However, some of the leaders who have received these messages prefer to doubt their true origin. Felipe, for example, says he cannot claim that his kidnappers were actually dissident FARC members.
“Before the kidnapping, I hadn’t reported the situations, because here leaders are afraid of the State system. It’s not safe,” Felipe says. Although he says he has spoken to the regional Ombudsman’s office in San Jose del Guaviare, when asked about his case, officials said they were not aware of it. The origin of the threats has never been clarified. Many in the region blame FARC dissidents, but no one has been able to prove such claims. A good clue lies behind the question that Guaviare activists are asking themselves:
Who is uncomfortable with environmental leadership?
Entering Chiribiquete Park, after crossing so many pastures, is impressive. It is a very thick forest, with little light, where you feel a different heat: a steam of humidity that sprouts from so many plants gathered together.
It is difficult to walk through the profusion of trunks, thorns, roots and leaves. There are no trails and no grass, because the taller vegetation absorbs all the sun that it would need to thrive. The forest and the plains cannot coexist. A cow would not survive in this environment.
Protecting this forest is Felipe and his allies’ primary purpose. On the edge in front of an expanding plain, Chiribiquete is still a hope for conservation. Losing this territory due to the flames, in the words of Gonzalo Andrade – a professor at the National University’s Institute of Natural Sciences, a butterfly expert and one of the scientists who has studied the mountain range the most – would mean “ending life itself”.
“It’s a territory that performs very important ecological and environmental functions. It is a climate and water regulator, it makes air changes and provides aerial rivers, because, just as there is water below, there is also water above moving with evaporation. Furthermore, it preserves a very high percentage of the planet’s biodiversity and this is fundamental for supporting life and ecosystems,” explains Bagarozza, member of the Corazon de la Amazonia (Heart of the Amazon) program, about the importance of the Amazon rainforest.
Therefore, in addition to his videos, and disregarding the threats that forced him to go into exile, Felipe has devoted his life to managing resources to reforest the land that has been converted into pastures in Guaviare. Through Pipe Q-ida, 25 hectares have been reforested near the urban area of Calamar with native trees. Inhabitants of the village, traders, CDA, Sinchi, private nurseries, community leaders and Police and Army officers have participated in the reforestation activities.
Everyone decides to participate as they can: donating time, money, plants, hydration, work. Felipe coordinates everything and has managed to conduct such activities by explaining to everyone what is lost if deforestation continues to consume the forest in Chiribiquete.
The last activity was performed on November 27 – 29. “We planted 1,400 trees, and then I left Calamar,” Felipe explains with a shy smile trying to hide what exile means to him.
He looks away when he knows he’s being discovered. Having left his village hurts. “I need it. I want to go back. I hope I can do it soon,” he says.