The attempts of the Colombian State to restrain deforestation by military means have aggravated social conflicts in the Amazon foothills and have done little to reduce forest loss in natural parks. Peasants in the region are calling for dialogue instead of the use of force.
On April 28, 2019, after flying over Chibiriquete Park and inspecting the results obtained in a military operation that recovered 120 deforested hectares, Iván Duque, who was the president at that time, announced the start of Operation Artemisa, an inter-institutional strategy in which the Police, the Army, the Prosecutor's Office, National Parks and the Ministry of Environment participated to pursue and capture the people responsible for the deforestation of the Amazon.
In his speech, Duque recalled an action done at the end of October 2018 in the Los Picachos Natural Park and said: "I also want to thank the presence of the attorney general of the nation because we have been working with him hand in hand. Last year, we carried out the operation in Los Picachos Park, not only prosecuting criminals behind ecocide, but also advancing in terms of the elimination of ownership of assets, that are the materialization of the disastrous development of deforestation."
Photo: Presidency of the Republic
At that time, national media recorded the news and reported the capture of Miller Medina Cardozo, whom they presented as one of the great responsible people for deforestation of Los Picachos Natural Park. According to the Prosecutor's Office, he was a recidivist who had been prosecuted for crimes against the environment and illegally raised 140 head of cattle a year ago. The operation, in which, according to the prosecutor of the case, nearly 1000 officials from the Prosecutor's Office, the Police, the National Army, the Air Force, the Society of Special Assets and National Natural Parks participated, was a sign that justice did not persecute poor peasants "because they do not own 140 cows."
However, a different version is told by Miller, a 63-year-old cattle rancher from San Vicente del Caguán, whose parents arrived in the region fleeing violence and poverty in Huila. "They treated me badly, like the worst crap of human. They accused me of being a guerrilla, saying that I was a front man, that these farms belonged to the guerrillas. They treated me as the worst trash. The last thing the prosecutor said was that I was a danger to society. After three months they had no way to accuse me. That danger to society showed that there were some cattle and that these brands had constituted owners, that these cattle were paying taxes. I do not have to hide anyone."
On the night of October 26, 2018, Miller was on his farm, located in Los Picachos, which he had acquired 25 years ago. He was finishing watching a soap opera when 100 meters from his house, helicopters landed and "got their hands on him". Handcuffed and accompanied by two members of the operative, he walked with difficulty due to the gusts of air launched by the aircraft and observed that his farm was surrounded by more than 300 men from the Police, the Army and the Esmad (Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron). "So many men to capture just a defenseless 60-year-old man is excessive," says Miller, who was transferred to the military battalion in San Vicente de Caguán. In the morning, trucks went to collect the cattle to initiate a process of extinction of domain.
The next day, his capture was legalized before a judge, and he was charged with the crimes of invasion of areas of special ecological importance and aggravated damage to natural resources. Miller ended up in jail and regained his freedom three months after, but he is still linked to the process and his lawyer is trying to show that he is not such a criminal as the Prosecutor's Office wants to show, but that he is a cattle rancher like many others who have long lived in Los Picachos.
Miller still does not understand why such military action was taken to capture him, even more so when he was aware of all the proceedings against him and had never tried to escape: "I was already prepared to come and present myself because I had never had a lawsuit. And that time I said, 'I am going to see what happens, to see in which problem they got me in.'"
Even though he is aware that since he bought his farm, in the early 2000s, he deforested between three and eight hectares a year, he does not understand how they opened a legal process if the bank, in previous years, lent him money and took the cattle of his farm as guarantee: "As I had some purchase documents, that are not deeds because most farmers like me do not have them, I went to the Banco Ganadero and asked for some loans. The visitor came to the farm to see if I really had pastures and if I had the financial capacity for a loan. That was in 2004, more or less."
The operation outraged Miller's neighbors, who confronted Esmad. On social networks, the peasant and cattle associations of San Vicente del Caguán denounced the excesses of the public force using videos. They blocked the roads to prevent the entry of trucks and the seizure of livestock for several days. The protests spread to the urban area of the population; hundreds of people came out to demand the problem of occupation of the Tinigua and Los Picachos National Parks to be solved in a peaceful manner by discussions and not by force.
According to Herson Lugo Saldaña, lawyer and human rights defender from San Vicente, "the 2018 operations were disproportionate and handled an idea of capturing powerful criminals who had a military means to defend themselves, when in reality they were the same peasants and ranchers who spent time in the town, who had their homes and never hid from anyone. They were not recognized as criminals, simply because they were not."
This military action was the prelude to Operation Artemisa that, from April 2019 to March 2022, the government of Iván Duque used as the starting point of the fight against deforestation in the Amazon. In different speeches the president defended and praised the members of Artemisa for their "overwhelming results". For him, this operation was fundamental to comply with the ruling issued by the Constitutional Court in April 2018, which urged the State to formulate an action plan to counter deforestation in the Amazon.
Photo: Presidency of the Republic
According to the Ministry of Defense, between 2019 and 2021, Artemisa carried out thirteen operations that led to the capture of 106 people (either by court order or because they were caught in flagrante delicto), the destruction of 40 buildings, 12 illegal road points, and 7 bridges in a natural protection area. These results helped President Duque to show his commitment to the fight against deforestation and environmental crimes.
However, since Artemisa started, some allegations of human rights violations and judicial set-ups resonated in public opinion. While many environmentalists defended the military component to fight environmental crimes, human rights defenders, peasants and ranchers criticized Artemisa. In a column, Ana Jimena Bautista, a researcher from an NGO called DeJusticia wrote: "Artemisa reproduces old patterns of violence against peasants, under an environmental justification (...) By reviewing the possibilities that the State has to combat the problem of deforestation and opting for military and penal treatment against communities that today inhabit national parks, Operation Artemisa is being done against the peasantry, which is unfair and unnecessary.”
Luis Carlos Bernal, a doctor and member of the technical team of the Union of Organizations of San Vicente del Caguán, thinks similarly: "What happened with Artemisa was the prolongation of the persecution of the peasantry and the continuation of the idea of persecuting them militarily and attacking the weakest link in a crime. The same thing happened with coca growers. Thousands of soldiers came to capture 3 or 5 peasants who grew coca. Now, they use thousands of soldiers to capture people that have been dedicated to cattle ranching for 20, 30 or 40 years. It is the habit that the State has of solving things by force and not by dialogue."
The criticism increased as it became known that a good part of the captures made could have defects and be judicial set-ups, and that in these operations, the great deforesters were never arrested. The disagreement over Artemisa was one of the causes of the strike in Altamira, Huila, carried out in May 2021, and in which 2500 peasants from Caquetá and southern Meta went to that population to block the access roads to the Amazon foothills.
Despite the agreement to continue with the dialogues to solve the presence of peasants in natural parks, military operations continued. In one of them, carried out in March 2022, a peasant was killed in the village of El Triunfo, in San Vicente del Caguán, and the community held a soldier. All these denunciations led the new government of Gustavo Petro to stop the operations of Artemisa.
According to researchers and members of the community of Caquetá, the social conflict exacerbated by Artemisa is the responsibility of the State, which for decades did nothing to stop the colonization of natural parks, and then became aware of the environmental problem and decided to attack it militarily.
"We cannot bury our heads in the sand. There are settlers who in recent years came to deforest and occupy national parks, and large financiers who want to steal the land, but at the same time, hundreds of families who built sidewalks, schools, roads, and bridges have also lived there for decades. We also know that there is a serious problem of deforestation there, but if you think about it, it is the responsibility of the State, first, for not having solved that problem before and second, for taking the military route instead of fulfilling the items of the peace agreements," says Luis Carlos Bernal.
The peasants and ranchers who live in Los Picachos are aware that they have been part of the deforestation problem in the park and are willing to participate in any alternative to reforest it, but they ask everything to be done with dialogue and not by force. For them, the military strategy creates more distrust from the peasants towards the public force and the State. A peasant leader who preferred to remain anonymous: "Basically, this is an agrarian problem that has always been treated with weapons and that is why we are in this situation. You just have to look back. Up here in El Pato, there were some peasants who demanded land, and what did the State do? It shot them. And what happened? The guerrillas emerged. The solution is dialogue, not bullets."
So far, among the arrests announced in the press by the Prosecutor's Office and the public force, there is still not a single one of the major financiers of deforestation in these parks. Moreover, there is not even a clear guide to the networks used by these financiers, which include public officials and politicians. Meanwhile, deforestation in natural parks continues to grow.
This article is part of the journalistic special 'Amazonia, the Lost Land', made by CAMBIO Colombia with the support of the United for Forests project, the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) and the Embassy of Norway, with the support of the embassies of the European Union, United Kingdom, Andes Amazon Fund and ReWild.