Untangling the dynamics of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon photo FCDS

Untangling dynamics of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon

Colombia is one of the richest countries in the world in terms biodiversity and natural resources. But this natural wealth is threatened by deforestation. Driven by the growing global commodity demand, deforestation is often interconnected with other illicit activities. To gain a deeper understanding of these issues, CEALDES and IUCN NL will soon publish a report based on a study that acknowledges the deep complexity of deforestation and environmental conflicts in the Colombian Amazon.

Header photo: deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. © FCDS

Key findings of the study

To understand the dynamics of deforestation, it is essential to understand land ownership issues. A lack of formalisation of land ownership benefits the informal land market, targeted occupation and profitable production systems. This study shows that land grabbing can be highly profitable for investors and confirms the central role of armed groups in land grabbing processes.

Other important findings of the study include:

  • Cattle ranching is a consequence of historical land ownership issues. The study shows that landowners, who are often not present in the territory, wield power in a system of precarious forms of payment and indebtedness of local peasant communities. This creates a vicious circle causing increasing financial dependence and social inequality.
  • In Colombia’s Amazon region, mining primarily consists of small scale alluvial gold mining (InSight Crime 2021, Mongabay 2017), which mainly affects the quality of forests, but is not perceived as one of the main drivers of deforestation (IDEAM 2024). Its main impact is the degradation of ecosystems, especially in Caquetá, Amazonas, Guainía and Vaupés, because of the use of mercury, which mainly affects Indigenous communities.
  • Palm oil is a smaller but growing industry in the Colombian Amazon, which has been linked to paramilitary violence and forced displacement of Indigenous peoples (The Washington Post 2014, Environmental Investigation Agency 2015, Mongabay 2020, Millán-Quijano, J. and Pulgarín, S. 2020). While the deforestation risk linked to industrial palm oil in the Amazon is currently low, it is growing and poses mainly a risk in Meta and Guaviare. Monitoring and increased transparency is of great importance.
  • Coca has key historical antecedents in the country and contributes to deforestation of new areas and the expansion of already stripped areas. In addition, chemical contamination caused by processing alkaloid degrades the ecosystems. Recent policies, such as the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Crops of Illicit Use, were unsuccessful and coca plantations removed by the military have been replanted.

About the report

The new report, to be published in July 2024, explains deforestation as a development model analysing economic, social and cultural patterns in regions with different kinds of state presence, while also elaborating on the different ecological impacts of four main drivers of deforestation:

  • cattle ranching
  • land grabbing
  • crops for illicit use
  • mining

Although these drivers are analysed in a number of studies, few of them have a relational and territorial emphasis that allows for the assessment of different socio-ecological impacts, as is done in this study. In addition, the report also analyses investor relationships, returns with little traceability, legal regimes and communities under pressure.

The report also elaborates on the different impacts of the drivers on rural communities, youth and women. Mining mainly affects Indigenous communities, while cattle ranching and land grabbing largely affect peasants, for example. Ecological impacts were also explored.

Finally, the report proposes recommendations to improve institutional collaboration at different levels. It also highlights the importance of strengthening cooperation in borders areas and develop strategies for the entire Amazon region, as well as the need for territorial planning strategies guided by local communities and supported by institutions.

Deforestation in the Colombian Amazon

Since 2001, 5.39 million hectares of Colombian forest disappeared. The impact on humid primary forest is even more significant: between 2002 and 2023, 1.99 million hectares (ha) was lost, corresponding to 39% of the Colombia’s total tree cover loss. It reduces the country’s humid primary forest rainforest with 3.6% (GFW 2024). During this period, deforestation was concentrated in five departments: Caquetá, Meta, Antioquia, Guaviare and Putumayo. All of them are located in the Amazon basin or the Amazon-Orinoquia ecotone, with the exception of Antioquia.

Colombia’s ongoing deforestation is connected to different sociopolitical and economic phenomena with deep historical roots. The main turning point was the Peace Agreement between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the government in 2016. Since then, deforestation increased from 49,600 ha in 2015 to 109,000 ha in 2016, 162,000 ha in 2017 and 177,000 ha in 2018 (GFW 2024). According to IDEAM (2022), main causes include the expansion of the agricultural frontier, cattle ranching, land grabbing, unplanned road infrastructure, illicit crops and mining.

Impact of the Peace Agreement

The 2016 Peace Agreement transformed the local governance system, resulting in new alliances and new forest legislation. The rearmament of post-demobilisation structures has led to an increase in violence and influenced the regulation of economic activities in Amazon territories.

Through several fronts, the armed group Estado Mayor Central (EMC) controls cattle business and land trade in Guaviare, southern Meta and Caquetá, and coca and mining in the departments of Putumayo, southern Caquetá, Guainía and Vaupés. Another armed group, Segunda Marquetalia, fights for coca and mining revenues in Putumayo and the Venezuelan border area. Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and armed groups from Brazil have an important role in the criminal processes related to coca and mining.

More information? Contact:

Mariel Cabero
Expert Environmental Justice
Liliana Jauregui
Liliana Jauregui
Senior Expert Environmental Justice