Large swath of Colombian Amazon region being wiped out for cattle farms

By Laia Mataix Gomez

San Jose del Guaviare, Colombia, Aug 29 (EFE).- Although the Colombian government and dissident rebel groups prohibit deforestation in the Guaviare department, the Amazon jungle that once covered nearly every inch of that south-central region is slowly being burned, cleared and transformed year after year into an immense cattle pasture.

Perfect squares of burned and deforested land are visible both from the air and while driving along “trochas” (dirt roads) that connect municipalities, with the hundreds of hectares of pastureland contrasting with the small numbers of cows.

Practically all of Guaviare is protected by the so-called Second Law of 1959, which established the Amazon Forest Reserve Zone.

This is a department “of 5.5 million hectares (around 21,235 square miles), where 90 percent is untouchable on paper because it’s a peasant reserve, indigenous reservation and has three protected areas,” said Felipe Henao, founder of Digital Cobosques, an association dedicated to conserving Colombia’s rainforest.

But forcible displacements stemming from Colombia’s decades-old armed conflict pushed people to seek safety and better opportunities in this remote stretch of the country.

During the time the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group was active in that region, coca farming was the principal crop.

While there was no profit in cultivating crops like yucca and plantains due to high transportation costs, small growers were able to make a living selling coca paste to drug traffickers who came directly to them in areas controlled by the FARC.

With the arrival of peace, however, coca growing gave way to cattle farming.

“The void the FARC left in exiting the territory was never filled by the state. And since they weren’t there, it was an inducement for those who had a lot of money and also had political power,” the environmental activist told Efe.

FARC dissidents (groups that refused to lay down their arms after the Colombian peace process came into effect in 2016) say their orders are clear in Guaviare: “no forest clearing.” “Tree-felling is prohibited,” a commander of those rebels’ so-called 1st Front told Efe, adding that in nearly all cases a fine of 2 million pesos ($455) is imposed for each deforested hectare.

“In the areas we control, (deforestation) doesn’t happen. They deforest (in other areas) and the government doesn’t do anything,” the guerrilla said, explaining that poor farmers don’t have money to clear 200 or 300 hectares.

Cattle ranching has become the main economic activity in Guaviare even though the soil “doesn’t have the same productive capacity that soil suitable for agriculture or ranching has,” Jhon Jairo Moreno of the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Northern and Eastern Amazon (CDA) explained to Efe.

“(They’re) tropical rainforest soils” that are infertile even though the “forest cover seems very exuberant.”

Therefore, “you practically need one hectare for a cow (and) someone who wants to have 100 cows needs to have 100 hectares,” leading to a cultural dynamic where additional rainforest clearing has become highly common, the CDA engineer said.

Moreno also noted that deforesting a hectare of land costs between 500,000 and 700,000 pesos.

“A person who fells 100 hectares has significant resources. The average low-income farmer doesn’t have that capability,” the expert said.

Once deforested, restoring a hectare of land to its original natural condition costs approximately 10 million pesos, Moreno said. EFE


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