Crime & Justice

Colombia’s lungs trying to win battle against deforestation

By Irene Escudero

La Macarena, Colombia, Aug 2 (EFE).- There are areas in the Sierra de la Macarena, one of Colombia’s biggest forest “lungs,” where it’s easy to forget that this is the beginning of the Amazon jungle and, with precise sections of forest either razed or burned, it seems as if deforestation has won the battle.

You need only overfly this vast mountainous zone or travel along one of the few unpaved roads providing access to it to see the havoc that indiscriminate logging has caused in recent years, where a record number of trees were cut down in 2017 and where such environmental destruction is continuing.

“The year 2020 was the one with the most deforestation, at least over the past three or four years,” Sergio Ivan Nuñez, the environment secretary for Meta province, where the National Nature Park is located, told EFE.

In 2020, according to government figures, Colombia lost 171,685 hectares (about 430,000 acres) of forest, an area greater than the land area covered by cities like Rio de Janeiro or Medellin, and the majority of those trees were concentrated in the country’s south-central belt in the provinces of Meta, Caqueta and Guaviare.

Meta was where the problem was the worst, with more than 35,500 hectares of woodlands cut down, an 8 percent increase over earlier years, when the trend was actually on the downswing.

As Nuñez said, a paradox has resulted: “While the world locked itself down (due to the Covid-19 pandemic), in the most isolated zones negative effects were being generated in the environmental area.”

The initial forecast for Meta was for 54,000 hectares to be cut down and the final figure was 35,556, and Nuñez said: “It’s an enormous quantity, 36,000 hectares is really a lot of forest that we lost, but it could have been worse.”

La Macarena is a dense forest that links Amazonia, the Andes mountain range and the Orinoco region, most of it virgin woodland, where only birds, crocodiles, small mammals and more exotic species like anteaters and jaguars live, but which also has extensive zones of scrubland and stubble that catch fire easily.

The road linking the wild Guayabero River with one of the main attractions in the nature park – Caño Cristales, or the “river of five colors” – is a dirt track built by the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and is a reflection of the exploitation. On either side there is nothing more than a plain of dry scrub, an effort by nature to try and retake the space that was decimated years ago.

That’s why the simplest manner of deforestation is to start fires, called “descole” (cutting the tail off). “In dry times this is fuel for the big trees. You simply start a fire and huge quantities of forest burn,” Nuñez said.

Doing things this way is economical and is the quickest way to clear wide swaths of land for cattleraising.

The government says that “criminals” are behind this activity, the same ones that dominate the drug trafficking routes passing through this strategic zone in the shape of an arc from the Pacific to Venezuela.

Some dissident factions of the FARC still retain control over this area since it’s so difficult to move within.

But companies are also involved in deforesting La Macarena. “To deforest 200,000 hectares in less than nine years, you need a lot of money and the peasants and the people of the region don’t have that. The powerful people have it, and those are the ones who are behind this,” Meta Gov Juan Guillermo Zuluaga said.

To fight against deforestation – and Colombia is one of the countries most affected by this problem – the government has mounted a huge military operation. Operation Artemisa has been criticized for arresting peasants on false charges, but it deploys drones and other remotely piloted vehicles to monitor the area in real time, provided the weather is not cloudy, along with manned helicopters and small planes.

However, the authorities feel that education is what is needed to teach people how and why to preserve the forests and to convince communities to opt for engaging in activities like ecotourism.

This year, local authorities say, the scenario is looking better: despite the fact that 15,400 hectares were cut down in Meta during the first quarter of 2021, that figure is 36 percent lower than during the same period last year.

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