In mid-February, at the height of the burning season in the Colombian Amazon, a 30-year-old man walked out onto his four-hectare farm with fuel in one hand and a lighter in the other. Much of the tropical forest had already collapsed a few months ago, leaving in its place a few fallen logs and dense layers of dry leaves and bushes, ready for burning. Freddy left a trail of flames where he stepped, which quickly spiraled out of control. The young peasant took shelter at a safe distance from the heat of the burning. The fire continued to grow until a thick cloud of white smoke obscured all view, even the summer-reddened sun. An apocalyptic landscape.
For environmentalists, these fire scenes are terrifying. Seen from overflights, the smoke from the fires spreads for many kilometers and destroys the forest ecosystems of the Amazon, the same forests that absorb greenhouse gases and help curb climate change.
For peasants, fires are part of the agricultural cycle. For decades, the start of the dry season in January has marked a new season of burning, when peasants raze the forests to introduce grass for their cattle and, in some areas, coca plantations. “The cattle reproduce and one has to deforest to have the cattle and sustain themselves,” explains Fredy, who preferred to keep his last name for security reasons.
Generations of peasants have been colonizing the Amazon since the 1950s, when political violence left thousands of Colombians without refuge, displaced from the interior of the country. Many sought safety and land in the Amazon. Others were encouraged by the Colombian government to colonize these remote areas with promises of title deeds.
Today, these families have taken root in Amazon departments in the south of the country, such as Caquetá, Meta and Guaviare, where deforestation rates skyrocket. In 2020 alone, Colombia lost more than 170,000 hectares of forest, the vast majority in the Amazon, which represents an increase of 8% compared to the previous year. One of the causes of the crisis, along with land grabbing and speculation, is the expansion of the agricultural frontier by the peasantry.
Although many farmers interviewed recognize the environmental damage caused by logging, they maintain that there are no alternatives. Although deforestation in the Amazon is now a key point on the international agenda against climate change, for peasants it is a matter of survival.
Last February, EL PAÍS traveled to Nuevo Horizonte, a village in Cartagena del Chairá, in the department of Caquetá, and a focus of deforestation, to meet the Colombians who are setting the jungle on fire. Here, as elsewhere, deforestation is a traditional activity in the area, passed from generation to generation. Still, logging has spilled over in the years since the Peace Agreement between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In 2017, when the FARC disarmed, deforestation reached a peak of 220,000 hectares destroyed. In areas where the guerrillas had exercised power and implemented rules against deforestation, new armed groups and businessmen supplanted them, taking control of land and buying large estates for extensive cattle ranching, illegal mining, and drug trafficking.
Nuevo Horizonte, a cattle ranch located on the edge of the agricultural frontier, has been growing after the FARC’s 14th Front left the region, but without the State arriving as an authority. Fernando Reyes, 41, a leader of Nuevo Horizonte, explains that this guerrilla force had delimited zones where logging was prohibited to preserve the forest cover that helped them operate unnoticed by the armed forces. “When they demobilized, we see that people went wild, not only people from the area here, but people from the town, people from other parts. They overflowed and began to cut down”, says the peasant leader.
These protected forests have received in recent years a vulnerable population that, if there had been a rigorous implementation of the peace agreement, should have been assigned land in other unprotected parts of the country. “Given a very low application of the Peace Agreement in Colombia, which provided for the Multipurpose Cadastre and the allocation of land, there is a demand for land and rights by vulnerable population groups, particularly peasant groups,” says Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).
In Colombia, one of the countries with the worst rates of agrarian inequality in Latin America, deforestation in the Amazon has always been linked to land concentration. After several agrarian reforms failed in the middle of the last century, elites from the interior of the country promised land titles to displaced and impoverished peasants in remote areas of the Amazon, where today the greatest deforestation in the country is concentrated. “The Andean elites, as they are not capable of redistributing the lands around them, and there is a very strong process of violence, they expel people,” he explains. Stephanie Cyrus, professor at the University of the Andes. “They tell them: ‘Here, they can’t be, but they can be there in the plains or in the jungle,’” she adds.
Other families migrated without the hope of acquiring a land title, but with the aim of finding security. This is how Reyes’ grandparents arrived in Caquetá in the 1950s, escaping the violence that broke out between liberals and conservatives in the department of Tolima. Thousands of families from the departments of Tolima, Caldas, Huila and other regions arrived in Caquetá without guarantees. They exploited the forests for fishing and the sale of skins as a means of subsistence until the rise of drug trafficking in the 1970s.
As a child, Reyes learned to fish thanks to his parents, an activity that led them to live on a farm in the municipality of Cartagena del Chairá. When he was older he found work as a raspachín, harvesting coca leaves from farm to farm. It was a time of abundance in the Amazon, but it did not last long in Cartagena. In the mid-1990s, it began glyphosate fumigationor in this municipality, which ended the illicit coca crops in the area without offering alternatives for the coca farmers. “A lot of people moved and some of us stayed,” Reyes recalls. “There was no form of trade, of crops, we had to survive as best we could. Most of us had to look for another means of sustenance.” That other medium was livestock.
One Saturday in mid-February, Reyes woke up at 6 a.m. in his little Amazonian cabin to milk milk for the day’s sale. For seven years he has lived on this 178-hectare farm with his family. With his wife and his eldest son, they are in charge of all the jobs related to livestock: feeding, medicating and milking the cattle, in addition to taking the milk to the road, where it is picked up by a transport service that takes the product to the village.
“Milking is our livelihood,” says Reyes. Monthly, his family of six can earn up to four million pesos from milking. From there he draws for the sustenance of more than 100 cows, who require food and medicine. But when he has to contribute money to improve infrastructure such as roads or bridges, the money runs out and there is little left to survive. After his morning work, Reyes rides his motorcycle to a river, where the men from the village sweat under the Amazonian sun building a bridge.
In the village of Nuevo Horizonte, where the presence of the State is scarce, the infrastructures are built by the community thanks to the resources collected from each farm. “Colonization is a collective process,” said Ciro, the teacher. “It is not a process of a family simply going into the jungle, but rather it requires an enormous articulation of the collective.”
This collectivity has also helped communities determine environmental issues. Wherever settlers arrived, they formed Community Action Boards (JAC) that imposed rules on land use. The JACs determined where it was cultivated, in which parts logging was prohibited to preserve the source of water and where the garbage was deposited. Environmental organizations have also been founded, such as the Environmental Peasant Association of Losada-Guayabero (Ascal-G), created in 1996 in Meta, which has acted as an environmental authority and has reached consensus to limit the human footprint on the environment.
According to Elver Medina, legal representative of Ascal-G, almost 80 JACs, some located within the Tinigua National Natural Park, are part of the association and follow its rules: 40% of the properties have to be conserved, logging is prohibited near of the pipes, the births and some species in danger of extinction are vetoed for hunting. These regulations are crucial to limit deforestation in protected areas such as Tinigua, where more than 500 families live today from the northern limit to the southern limit.
Bram Ebus, a researcher on deforestation at the Crisis Group organization, believes that these families who already live inside the parks or on the agricultural frontiers could become allies in the government’s fight against deforestation. “It is very difficult for the State to control or staff National Parks, but if people are already living in the parks they can be trained or trained to become forest guardians through community forestry initiatives,” Ebus explains.
The Government, however, has chosen another option. The capture of families that inhabit protected areas. In 2019, President Iván Duque launched an operation against deforestation called Operation Artemisa, which for the first time articulates the Armed Forces for the protection of the environment. In three years, they have arrested 106 people for environmental crimes, according to data from the Attorney General’s Office. Most are peasants, according to experts. “As always, Colombia has chosen a path of repression. Operation Artemis is no exception,” criticizes the researcher.
In the last three years, 21 people have been captured in the vicinity of Parque Tinigua, according to the Public Ministry. They are displaced from their homes because the judges forbid them to return to the Natural Parks. William Troches, a 53-year-old peasant, has been living in Tinigua Park for more than two decades, but in recent years he lives in fear that the Army could uproot him from the only place where he has found a simple but dignified life. “I think they look at us as if we were enemies number one. If they saw us as humble families, they would not act that way, ”he sentences.
This article was produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center.
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