Peasants or illegal loggers? The militarization of Colombia’s forests

By Laia Mataix Gomez

San Jose del Guaviare, Colombia, Sep 2 (EFE).- Peasants who take down trees to clear land for planting and illegal loggers who clear-cut forests is the dichotomy created by Operation Artemis, an initiative of the Colombian armed forces that has divided the south-central province of Guaviare.

Launched by the previous right-wing government, Operation Artemis is hanging by a thread with the advent of the leftist administration of Gustavo Petro, who said during the campaign that he would end the militarization of the struggle against deforestation.

Named for the Greek goddess of forests and wildlife, the program aims to protect the environment, foster reforestation and promote the substitution of legal crops for coca, the raw material of cocaine.

The overarching goal is “to safeguard one of the country’s most important strategic assets, its biodiversity.”

But part of the army’s approach to crop substitution, the forced eradication of coca, drove Pedro “Tita” Mosquera to join a 2021 protest near the town of El Retorno that was intended to halt the operation.

“I wasn’t fighting. They attacked us five minutes after we arrived,” Tita tells Efe, recounting that the bullet that struck him as he was trying to flee the shooting ended up costing him his leg.

The soldiers who shot him did not render first aid and it took Mosquera nearly a day to reach a hospital.

Year to date, according to Col. Giovanni Tauta Ramirez of the army’s 32nd Jungle Brigade, Operation Artemis has planted 29,300 trees, eradicated 4,700 hectares (11,604 acres) of coca and preserved more than 2,000 hectares from deforestation.

But peasants in Guaviare say only one of the 107 people detained in the province as part of Artemis is a major figure in environmental crime: Reinel Gaitan Tangarife, alias “El Gurre” (The Armadillo), who authorities accuse of bearing major responsibility for the deforestation of nearly 1,000 hectares in Nukak National Nature Park.

And while Operation Artemis is delivering impressive results on paper, the latest data from Colombia’s Ideam environmental studies institute show a much different picture.

Deforestation nationwide increased 1.5 percent last year and the rate of forest loss in Serrania de Chiribiquete National Park, which includes parts of Guaviare and neighboring Caqueta province, soared by 13 percent.

Critics also question the wisdom of the operation in cost-benefit terms.

A recent Artemis foray in Guaviare involved the use of 150 soldiers and 14 helicopter flight-hours at a cost of $3,850 an hour, all to capture six people.

“It’s the problem we always have, a very segmented and incomplete intervention by the state: if we don’t work with the communities and there are no territorial capabilities, it’s an unsustainable effort,” says Juan Carlos Garzon, director of Conflict Dynamics with the Ideas for Peace Foundation.

“This doesn’t work without the people,” he tells Efe.

Another obstacle for Operation Artemis is the still-limited reach of the state in Colombia nearly six years after the largest insurgency, the FARC, signed a peace accord with the government.

A commander of a unit of FARC renegades who kept their weapons described Operation Artemis as “the principal problem of the peasantry.”

“(The army) is putting bombs in the houses of peasants who are in park zones,” the rebel told Efe, declining to give his name. EFE


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