Covid19 in the Inter-Andean Forests of Colombia

Mónica Amador-Jiménez and Naomi Millner

In this blog post, we want to zoom in on the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown restrictions have had on forests and populations at different altitudinal gradients in the eastern Andean forest of Colombia.

We will in this text concentrate on two areas along with the central-eastern Andes mountain range, areas where the research project “BioResilience of the Andean Forest in Colombia” has been conducting ecological and sociocultural fieldwork: 1. The Serranía de las Quinchas mountain range in the Middle Magdalena region in the Andes lowlands, and 2. The highlands of the Monquentiva Natural Park, which is part of the biological corridor of the Chingaza National Natural Park.

On March 25, Colombian President Iván Duque introduced a mandatory national quarantine for all of the country’s residents to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, a quarantine that now has been extended until the 1st of July. Fortunately, Colombia is a country that so far, according to official statistic, has not been particularly hard hit by the virus compared to neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Peru.[1]

Monquentiva

Photo 1. Picture of a sign at the entry of the village of Monquentiva (picture taken by Mónica Amador)

In the high Andean forest of Cundinamarca anthropic drivers of deforestation have most likely been weakened in recent weeks due to the government’s decision to close inter-municipal roads. Cargo transportation by road – except the mobilization of primary products such as food, fuel and medicine – has been interrupted as a consequence of this closure, and this has made it far more difficult to transport timber and minerals and material extracted through mining, such as sand, limestone and coal. Environmentalist such as Clara Ligia Solano, the Director of the Colombian NGO Fundación Natura, do however consider that this environmental recovery is not permanent since nature has only been given a short break from the normal disturbances. Solano argues that once the economy is reactivated and the restrictions are removed, nature will again be affected by the same anthropic factors that had had a negative impact on the ecosystems before the lockdown.

However, in the midst of restrictions and problems of food security, in the municipalities of Ubaté, Sopó, Villapinzón, Guasca, Útica and Mesitas del Colegio, some mayors, municipal councils and peasant communities have re-introduced the practice of bartering (Semana Rural, 2020) a pre-hispanic Muisca indigenous practice that took place in the markets of the Colombian Central Andes (Langebaek, 1987). The pandemic, which has revealed the fragility of life, has however also stimulated the emergence of re-communalization practices among the inhabitants of these Andean forests. There is a trend towards economic re-localization and a greater interest in securing local food sovereignty based on networks of solidarity and mutual support.

In Monquentiva, in particular, their economic autonomy is associated with the dairy cooperative and a robust community organization, factors that have made them capable of responding resiliently to the economic and social constraints of lockdown and also to diligently implement internal measures to prevent the expansion of the virus in the departments of Cundinamarca (806 infected) and Boyacá (190 infected) (MinSalud, 2020).

Serranía de las Quinchas

Picture 2. This image was taken from a video. The peasants are  discussing with the soldiers who had arrived unexpectedly to carry out forced coca crop eradication (Video shared by the community)

The health emergency has been declared in all departments, including in vulnerable ecological areas with high biodiversity. Most of these biodiversity hotspots have for decades had limited state presence, and in many of these areas, there are major security challenges associated with the new cycles of the internal armed conflict of Colombia, cycles that have been unfolding after the signing of the peace agreement with the FARC-EP guerrilla movement in 2016. In many of these areas, we have observed an increase in deforestation (FCDS, 2020) and in some cases tendencies towards over-militarization (Pinto & Ojeda, 2020).

In the Quinchas mountain range in the Middle Magdalena region, the local population has for decades had limited access to basic services, and it is hard for the inhabitants to create sustainable livelihood strategies (Mongabay, 2020). The forests of Serranía de las Quinchas are mainly inhabited by colonos, landless peasants who in recent decades have migrated to the region escaping violence in other regions of the country. Also here, however, they find that they are being persecuted or harassed, this time due to the implementation of the Government’s coca crops eradication and security policies.

In the forests of Serranía de las Quinchas, as in other forested areas where counterinsurgency operations and environmental conservation overlap, the armed forces and other law and order entities operate with two different agendas. The Colombian state thus manifests itself ambivalently in these forests, and this ambivalence reproduces new forms of militarization and subjugation where the peasants and the natures remain imprisoned and stigmatized by the state practices.

Peasants in the Quinchas have recently informed the BioResilience researchers that the Colombian army has been carrying out operations of forced eradication of coca crops in the midst of the ongoing health emergency. This has, according to the peasants, happened in the villages of La Arenosa, San Tropel, El Laurel y La Guinea (Caracol, 2020). This is something which according to reports has been happening also in other coca-growing parts of Colombia during the lockdown, period when peasants are particularly vulnerable and when there are no spaces for dialogue or channels to claim their rights, such as the right to be part of the national coca crop substitution programme (PNIS). The establishment of PNIS was an integral part of the above-mentioned peace agreement between the Colombian government and the now extinct FARC-EP guerrilla movement.

Peasant organizations from other parts of the country, such as Cauca, Nariño, Guaviare, Catatumbo and Putumayo, are accusing the government of acting against the peace agreement and of exacerbating tensions between peasants and the military during a very sensitive and critical situation (Semana, 2020). Experts and peasants also questions that this militarized and strategy is being promoted even if such coercive and violent methods to eradicate coca crops previously have failed (Pares, 2020)

According to UNODC, production of cocaine has been on the rise even if the number of hectares of coca plantations, between 2017 and 2018, has decreased from 171,000 to 169,000. When comparing production figures from 2017 the cocaine production increased in 2018 from 1,020 tons to 1,158 tons (UNODC, 2019). This is according to experts mainly due to improved genetic material, better production methods and that coca now is cultivated in the most suitable areas of the country. The geopolitics of the war against drugs allows the United States to have stationed military personnel part of Southern Command of the United States inside of the country, in June 2020 arrived a group of 50 US soldiers (El Tiempo, 2020). The Colombian State has not generated the voluntary substitution of illicit crops part of the Peace Agreements with Farc-EP, and on the contrary turns the agenda to a new militarization, a type of Plan Colombia renewed in association with the government of Donald Trump.

Forced eradication of coca crops and the elimination of cocaine laboratories often involves the burning of the coca crops and the laboratories, types of intervention that often have collateral consequences for the surrounding forests. According to an environmental activist from the Quinchas, Estefany Grajales, “they end up burning parts of the surrounding forest. Coca eradication taking place under these circumstances is opportunistic as it takes advantage of the fact that the peasants are under lockdown because of the coronavirus. They do not have food and medicines and they cannot protest without exposing themselves to the virus.”  This type of forced eradication of coca crops thus affects the health, the democracy and also the recovery of the lowland tropical forests of the Andes.

These militarized methods of forced coca crop eradication seem to ignore that Covid19 – the coronavirus is a so-called zoonotic virus[2] – is the result of unsustainable socio-environmental relations like the destruction of habitats. While the coronavirus crisis should ideally turn our focus towards increasing environmental protection and inclusive socio-environmental governance, we do instead see that there in Colombia is a focus on militarization and resource extraction – even if the official government discourse highlights the protection of biodiversity.

The differentiated impacts of Covid19 lockdown described above seem to be related to the historical relationship processes that these fairly remote territories (“people and nature intertwined”) have with the Colombian state: “The geography of cultural differences” (Roldan, 1988). One gets the impression that it seems that there is more willing to listen to and support the peasants in the highlands near the Colombian capital Bogotá. In territories that are distant from Bogotá, the answer more often than not tends to be militarization, violence and coercion.

The corona crisis has amplified problems that were already present, both in the cities and in rural areas, and it is easy to note that some regions and cities have had much better previously installed coping capabilities than others. We have seen how well-established associations, cooperatives and grassroots organizations, like those in Monquentiva, have been the ones that have best responded to the economic crisis, the lack of food and the need to protect the communities against the pandemic. They have responded with self-protection measures and solidarity. The situation in the marginalized villages of Serranía de las Quinchas is dramatically different. The corona crisis shows us that local organizations must continue to be strengthened and that support to improve local governance increases resilience against future health and economic crises or socio-environmental conflicts.

References

Caracol . (16 de Abril de 2020). Más de 16.000 matas de Coca Erradicaron en la Serranía de las Quinchas, Boyacá . Obtenido de Caracol Radio : https://caracol.com.co/emisora/2020/04/16/tunja/1587057107_588343.html

FCDS. (30 de Mayo de 2020). Reporte Deforestación en la Amazonia Colombiana 2020 . Obtenido de FCDS, Conservación y Desarrollo : https://fcds.org.co/reporte-deforestacion-amazonia-colombiana-2020/

MinSalud. (30 de Mayo de 2020). Situación Actual Nuevo Coronavirus (COVID19). Obtenido de Ministerio de Salud Colombia

Ojeda and Pinto (6 de April de 2020). The militarization of life under war, “post-conflict,” and the COVID-19 crisis. Obtenido de Platypus, The Castac Blog : http://blog.castac.org/2020/04/the-militarization-of-life-under-war-post-conflict-and-the-covid-19-crisis/

Pares . (28 de Mayo de 2020). Entre el Hambre y la Erradicación Forzada, Un Drama de Miles de Campesinos . Obtenido de Pares: Fundación Paz & Reconciliación : https://pares.com.co/2020/05/28/entre-el-hambre-y-la-erradicacion-un-drama-para-miles-de-campesinos/

Roldan, Mary (1998). Violencia, Colonización y La Geografía de la Diferencia Cultural En Colombia. Anal. político, Número 35, p. 3-26, 1998. ISSN impreso 0121-4705

Semana. (30 de Mayo de 2020). Denuncian Enfrentamiento entre Campesinos y Ejército en Zona Cocalera.Obtenido de Revista Semana : https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/denuncian-enfrentamiento-entre-campesinos-y-ejercito-en-zona-cocalera/675152

UNODC. (2019). Monitoreo de territorios afectados por cultivos Ilícitos 2018. Bogotá: Legis S.A. Obtenido de UNODC Oficina de las Naciones Unidas contra la Droga y el Delito

[1] As of 4th of June 2020, 35,120 Colombians had been infected by the virus, 1,087  had died and 12,921 had recovered. (source: Colombian Ministry of Health)

[2] A virus that originate in animals and that has been transmitted to humans.