Taking back control of territory from Colombia’s drug gangs is vital to tackling the devastating loss of the Amazon rainforest, the country’s environment minister said on Friday.
Carlos Eduardo Correa said the illegal cultivation of the coca plant on the orders of powerful cartels goes hand in hand with the widespread loss of rainforest, which hit record levels in 2017 in his country.
But a 2016 peace deal with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels after a 52-year insurgency and a growing grass roots environmental campaign to nurture vulnerable areas has allowed the government to reclaim previously inaccessible forest, said the minister.
“People feel more safe and more comfortable and they want to have the military presence,” said Mr Correa.
“But it’s not only the military, but the whole state with social programmes. We’re fighting against deforestation but we’re also fighting against poverty. We need to give people a better quality of life.”
Colombia is one of the world’s most biodiverse nations and more than a third of its territory is covered by rainforest.
But its inaccessible nature, a long-running insurgency and the weakness of the central government has allowed the country’s notorious cartels to force villagers to clear and cultivate forest land for coca cultivation and to run illegal logging rackets.
Mr Correa told The National that a quarter of the areas used for the production of coca — an ingredient in cocaine — were about a kilometre from major deforested areas.
“They are directly related,” he said. “The illegal money is financing and promoting the deforestation.”
A third of Colombia’s emissions are caused by deforestation and its goal of reducing emissions by more than 50 per cent by 2030 and going carbon neutral by 2050 relies on drastically cutting down on the practice.
Deforestation is one of the largest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions as it not only often involves clearing and burning forested areas but it also removes trees acting as a carbon sink. Global deforestation claims an area close to the size of Greece every year, a report by consulting company McKinsey showed.
The Colombian government is trying to tackle the problem through rural education and giving villagers a financial stake in protecting the land.
The government of President Ivan Duque has launched an ambitious programme of planting 180 million trees by 2022, providing work in a further effort to decrease the influence of drug gangs.
The country has strengthened its laws to jail people cutting down trees, and their financial backers, for up to 15 years.
Research claimed that deforestation accelerated from 2016 in part because of the withdrawal of FARC rebels from the jungles. The group had previously discouraged deforestation as it destroyed the areas where they were able to hide from government forces.
The withdrawal of the rebels also opened up protected areas to cattle ranchers and a new wave of settlers.
But Mr Correa said the 2016 peace deal meant the government is now able to extend its own full control over the country.
He said Colombia is now seeing the fruits of the policy as deforestation has fallen sharply from the highs of 2017, with cuts of more than a third in 2021 compared to the previous year.
The country has a goal of “zero deforestation” by 2030, which would put it on track for limiting CO2 emissions to no more than what is stored in its vast forests.
The goal is in line with an agreement agreed to by more than 100 governments at Cop26, including Colombia and Brazil. The deal was backed by funding of $19 billion but experts said a previous deal in 2014 had failed to limit the practice.
Mr Correa said the policy has been aided by thousands of contracts signed with villagers, who are given 10-year deals to conserve, restore and make sustainable use of 100-hectare plots of land.
“If you give people an income, they will stop affecting natural resources, like deforestation or illegal traffic of fauna,” said Mr Correa.