Deforestation in the void behind the demobilization of the FARC - Research blog from the Amazon, Colombia

View of the former prison in Araracuara across the Caqueta River. Photo: Torsten Krause

Deforestation in the void behind the demobilization of the FARC - Research blog from the Amazon, Colombia

Focali researcher Torsten Krause shares his experience from newly initiated research project on hunting and forest governance in the Colombian Amazon, in collaboration with community members of the indigenous reserve Nunuya de Villazul.

In June I visited the Colombian Amazon to kick-off a research project on hunting and forest governance in the western Amazon (Colombia and Ecuador), funded by the Swedish Science Council (Vetenskapsrådet). Me and my Colombian colleague planned to spend ten days with the community of Villa Azul, located about two hours from the nearest airfield in Araracuara along the river Caquetá, one of the major rivers in the Colombian Amazon (an area the size of Sweden). Organizing the visit was a logistical challenge that took almost a year. First, we had to get permission from the community and its leaders to come and visit, then we had to find a way to arrive, rent a boat, motor and someone experienced enough to steer the boat in the treacherous river. There are no roads nor regular air service to Araracuara, but thanks to the network and organizational skills of my colleague we managed to get onto a cargo flight departing from San José de Guaviare, the capital of the Guaviare department, to Araracuara.

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View of the rock formations that are characteristic for Chiribiquete. Photo: Torsten Krause

The two hour flight in an old DC3 Second World War aircraft was spectacular and we could see the stunning beauty of the Chiribiquete National Park, the biggest National Park in Colombia covering almost 28,000 km2

. Upon arrival and shortly before landing we could see the somewhat famous landmark of Araracuara - the canyon that forces the waters of the Caquetá river into a narrow gorge creating impressive rapids and a natural barrier. No boats can pass these rapids, which is also a reason why Araracuara was Colombia’s infamous rainforest prison. Surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of dense rainforest and with almost no connection by land, inmates had no way of escaping. However, numerous human right violations and the desperate conditions in which the prisoners were kept, suffering hunger and diseases, led to the closure of the prison in the early 1970’s. Nowadays, Araracuara is a small settlement with a military outpost mostly known for its export of freshwater fish that are flown out to Bogotá, Florencia or San Jose de Guaviare.


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The canyon of Araracuara, with cliffs more than one hundred meters tall hovering above the river. Photo: Torsten Krause

In Colombia, indigenous territories are referred to as indigenous reserves (Resguardos indígenas). We planned to spend 10 days in Nunuya de Villazul, a reserve made up of six different ethnicities living in a handful of communities within a territory of 260,000 hectares, and we had organized meetings with the traditional authorities through the shaman – the spiritual leader and our main contact. The traditional authority of Villazul, a group of elder men, carries out administrative and representative tasks as well as provide spiritual guidance. The authority is headed by a single community leader. We spent countless hours in the darkness of the traditional ancestral house (the Maloca) to talk about the purpose of our research, how we could work together and the time-frame in mind. The open, informative conversations generally revolved around the concepts of forest, traditional forest management and governance from a local perspective, the involvement of the state and the administrative and political challenges this brings along for the community, and also the role of local community members in the research itself. We learned a lot about the history and the indigenous worldviews and concepts that guide the use of the territory. For example, in indigenous cosmology, all elements, including animals and trees, have spirits which are considered as owners that should be asked for permission before harvesting or hunting.


Due to the size of the Nunuya de Villazul territory and the low population (estimated at about 250 people), most of the forests are still well preserved and abundant in wildlife, including jaguars, tapirs, wild pigs, otters, etc. Hunting, fishing and small-scale agriculture in home gardens (locally called chagras) are an integral part of the local livelihoods. Fishing also provides a source of income and some species of large freshwater fish can be sold to merchants in Araracuara, from where it is flown out to nearby towns and markets. Meat from wild animals is usually not commercialized (it is mostly illegal to sell meat of wild animals in Colombia), but when a hunter harvests an animal (for example a tapir or peccary) some of the meat is either shared in the community or sold in nearby settlements like Araracuara.


After many hours conversing with the leadership of Villazul and members from all communities inside the reserve, we agreed that we would start working with the spiritual leader. At first we would focus on the traditional use of forest fauna and hunting techniques, indigenous knowledge and cosmology related to different animal species, and their place in the ecosystem and the territory, as well as local management strategies. This collaboration has been initiated now in September 2017, and the next couple of months we will evaluate to what extent a more long-term and larger joint research effort can be implemented.


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The Maloca - the traditional ancestral house. Photo: Torsten Krause

Initially we planned to stay ten days in Villazul to visit all communities in the reserve and travel downriver for a day. However, the local security situation forced us to leave after only four days to avoid any trouble for the locals, nor ourselves. This became a sudden reminder of the legacy of the armed conflict and the ongoing reality that still grapples parts of Colombia. Armed groups and former guerilla fighters are battling over access to resources and the control of important coca smuggling routes, of which the Caquetá river is one. Despite the peace agreement between the FARC and the government of Colombia, peace is still far away in some remote and rural areas of Colombia. Apart from the ongoing struggle over power, control and resources, the aftermath of the peace agreement and the demobilization of the FARC also resulted in an almost instant increase in deforestation along the agricultural frontier of the Amazon. On our way back from Araracuara, which was only possible because we were lucky to catch a small plane that happened to arrive the next day, we saw how agriculture (cattle and coca plantations) contributes to the deforestation of the forest frontier.


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Recently cleared patches of tropical forest in the Guaviare department. Photo: Torsten Krause

Last year Colombia lost 178.597 hectares of forests, most of it in the Amazon, an increase of 44 percent compared to 2015. One reason for the increase in deforestation is, ironically, the void left behind by the demobilization of the FARC. The FARC guerrilla not only controlled the land, they also enforced rules on land use and forest conservation. Estimates from the Colombian institute for hydrology, meteorology and environmental studies (IDEAM) show that deforestation is rapidly increasing due to land-grabbing and land-speculation for agriculture (45%), illicit crops (22%), road infrastructure expansion (10%), forest fires (8%), cattle ranching (8%) and illegal mining (7%).


Right now, Colombia is at a turning point and must fill the void in the remote rural areas left behind by the FARC to ensure the security of vulnerable communities who are experiencing a resurging violence, enforce environmental laws and address the underlying drivers of the armed conflict that still exist. In the past years Colombia has become one of the most dangerous countries for indigenous and human rights activities and defenders of the environment. This is a disturbing trend that ultimately will be a decisive factor in ending illegal deforestation and determining whether peace has truly come to all of Colombia.

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