From the Amazon in Brazil, to the Serranía de las Quinchas in Colombia: Why we should stop blaming deforestation to impoverished rural communities.

By: Juan Felipe Riaño Landazabal, Master Student Universidad Javeriana

In 2019, daunting photos of a fire-consumed Amazon made the frontpage[1] on the world’s top newspapers[2]. The fires triggered global concerns about the deforestation rates of the Amazon rainforest, especially under Brazil’s far-right president Bolsonaro, who has publicly stated that the country’s protected areas are an obstacle to economic growth and need to be opened up for commercial exploitation. While the fires drew all eyes to Brazil, they also raised concerns about the overall state of the world’s rainforest. Unsurprisingly, these concerns unveiled a far more disturbing reality[3]: Despite a growing number of zero-deforestation commitments by State and non-State actors, primary rainforest loss hit record highs in 2016 and 2017 and remained above the historical level in 2018.

Colombia is not far from Brazil in the deforestation rankings. According to the World Resources Institute[4], in 2018 this likewise South American nation was the fourth country in tropical rainforest total area loss (just three spots below from the first place occupied by its larger Portuguese-speaking neighbour). The decimation of Colombian tropical forests has also been center stage in national media debates. In February 2020, echoing the Amazon debacle, the protected forests within the National Park Sierra de la Macarena suffered from fires that risked the capacity of these ecosystems to store carbon and provide habitat to Colombian biodiversity. While the authorities are still waging on the environmental damages, the government quickly blamed the fires to armed groups trying to pave the way to land for illicit coca crop growing. This response aligns with the government’s militarized strategy to deter deforestation, an approach that local NGOs have call out for unjustly targeting impoverished peasant communities, while big landowners and private stakeholders with land grabbing interests are left unaccountable.

Not far from Sierra de la Macarena, also in another hilly but smaller area, a similar situation is surfacing. Last year, national media outlets condemned the deforestation that is taking place in Serranía de las Quinchas, or las Quinchas, an area that despite being treasured by researchers and environmental NGOs for its high biodiversity, has not received the same public attention as other tropical ecosystems in Colombia. In October 2019, news broke[5] that las Quinchas was once again suffering of deforestation, a problem linked by the media to illegal coca crop growing and peasant communities’ economic practices. As in La Macarena, this exposure fostered the idea that peasant communities are indeed the main threats to the forests, dismissing all together with the impact of large land-grabbing cattle ranchers, private companies and other stakeholders in these processes.

Peasant families started to settle in las Quinchas since the 60s and 70s. Many of these families (and the generations that followed) fled their hometowns and other areas where the armed conflict aggravated. They momentarily found in las Quinchas a relatively safe place to build back their farms, grow food and trade timber to purchase other basic goods. In the 80s and 90s, paramilitary and drug-dealing groups seized control of the area and introduced illicit coca crops that increased the cash flow in the small towns within la Serranía. This, in turn, attracted many coca pickers from all over the country, seduced by the prospects of the rising drug-dealing business. These migrant and landless workers, unaware of the importance of the forest, cut down trees to grow illicit crops. In the meantime, the landscape around la Serranía underwent great changes, as large cattle owners gradually expanded their ranches by cutting down forest and purchasing (both peacefully or coercively) peasant families’ plots. These processes triggered deforestation, and as a result, in an attempt to protect the forest ecosystems, the local government enclosed las Quinchas (and all the communities within its area) in a 2008-protected area. Since then, peasant communities that formerly relied heavily on the timber for survival, have faced severe legal consequences such as fines and even prison time if they were ever caught collecting or trading it.

Despite the disproportionate impact that conservation and the prohibition on timber trade have had on the lives of peasant communities, public discourse has portrayed them as the main cause of the deforestation problem. Peasant men and women, however, hold experiences and views that complicate this approach. Former timber workers and traders, for example, did not cut just any tree, not even to grow coca crops. Skilled timber workers would spend hours a day, walking throughout the forest to carefully pick a tree suitable for timber extraction, making sure to not cut down or harm young species. They also planted new trees where timber was extracted to foster the continuity of future access to forest resources. In the words of a former timber merchant, “we cut down trees but did not cut down the forest”. This illustrates how timber-dependant peasant communities in las Quinchas, and in other parts of Colombia as well, were much aware of the need to preserve forests ecosystems long before deforestation became a global concern. It even seems that peasant communities developed specific forms of knowledge that allowed them to benefit from forest resources in a more environmentally-driven approach than what official and media discourses tend to show.

The images of deforestation and fire-blasting forests should not be used to reproduce a perilous discourse that promotes the militarization of State-led environmental protection efforts while criminalizing smallholders living in and around protected areas. Different NGOs have condemned[6] the violations committed against these communities rights’, all while right-wing governments such as Duque’s and Bolsonaro’s do not address the main deforestation drivers. Recent research[7] suggests in areas such as the Amazon, coca cultivation might not even be an important direct cause of deforestation rates (which indicates that Colombia’s government focus on coca cultivation as a driver of forest loss is misguided). Instead, research[8] is showing that deforestation is caused by entrenched institutional, legal and historical roots, which link deforestation to extraordinary land concentration, and land grabbing and speculation processes that leave out disenfranchised smallholder communities. Government efforts should address these problems instead of targeting peasant communities and the forest they have been living with

[1] BBC News (Aug. 24, 2019) Newspaper review: Amazon fires and Johnson-Trump G7 talks: https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-the-papers-49455273

[2] Symonds, Alexandria (Aug. 23, 2019) Amazon Rainforest Fires. Here’s what’s really happening, The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/world/americas/amazon-fire-brazil-bolsonaro.html

[3] Weisse, Mikaela & Dow Goldman, Elizabeth (April 15, 2019) The world lost a Belgium-size area of primary rainforest last year, World Resources Institute: https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/04/world-lost-belgium-sized-area-primary-rainforests-last-year

[4]Ibid.

[5] CM& Noticias (Oct. 15, 2019) Avanza reforestaciòn en las Quinchas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIMDeVCHNqU

[6] Dejusticia (Feb, 25, 2010) Camapaña Artemisa en Serranía de la Macarena no puede atropellar los derechos de los campesinos: https://www.dejusticia.org/campana-artemisa-en-serrania-de-la-macarena-no-puede-atropellar-los-derechos-de-campesinos/?utm_source=Dejusticia+-+Newsletter&utm_campaign=4886635de0-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_03_02_07_40&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_231774bc05-4886635de0-157068625

[7] Dávalos, Liliana; Sánchez, Karina; Armenteras, Dolors (2016) Deforestation and Coca cultivation rooted in Twentieth-Century development projects, BioScience, 66 (1), pp. 974-982: https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/66/11/974/2754290

[8] Armenteras, Dolors, et. Al. (2019) Curb land grabbing to sae the Amazon, Nature, Ecology & Evolution, 3: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-019-1020-1