Even though cattle ranching and deforestation have increased rapidly in the last six years, this problem began with the colonization of the Amazon foothills and the agrarian policy of the Colombian State that has not worked as it should.
There is no doubt that cattle ranching continues to extend in the country. In recent years, according to data from the National Livestock Census of the Colombian Agricultural Institute, the cattle population grew by 29.14 percent, going from around 22,689,420 million in 2016, to 29,301,392 million in 2022
Antioquia, Córdoba, and Meta keep the first positions in the cattle ranching expansion, but the Amazonian departments are starting to gain prominence. Caquetá, which in 2016 ranked seventh in number of cattle in Colombia, is fourth now in 2022 above Casanare, a department with a historical livestock vocation. Even in 2020, it was second in the census, surpassing Meta and Córdoba. In this period of almost seven years, its cattle population went from 1.3 million to 2.2 million, which corresponds to an increase of 64 percent.
Cattle rush has also spread through Guaviare, which decades ago had no livestock tradition, but in recent years has followed the footsteps of Caquetá. According to the aforementioned census, between 2016 and 2022, this department rose from 21st to 15th place in cattle population in Colombia and increased its head of cattle from 281,611 to 534,531, corresponding to a growth of 89.8 percent.
The problem is that this expansion is happening in unsuitable land for cattle ranching that threatens the ecological cycles of the Amazon, that influence the global temperature and the rainfall regime of America. According to the IGAG, Caquetá only has 9000 hectares with purely livestock capacity and Guaviare, 7000, only 0.1 percent of the surface of each department.
This situation explains in part why extensive rather than intensive livestock farming has been developed: due to the low fertility of the land, large areas of hectares with pastures are needed to maintain few cattle. The problem becomes greater as the years go by. Nelson González, a small cattle rancher in the region, explains: "If you cut down 100 hectares of forest where up to 200 cows fit, after 10 years, you can only have 130... The grazing capacity diminishes year after year."
Cattle ranching in unsuitable areas encourages deforestation; as the land is depleted, more forest needs to be cut down to plant pastures to maintain the growing cattle population. Moreover, since some areas of both departments are already occupied with farms, the illegal appropriation of land to allocate them has started in natural parks and indigenous reservations.
There are some drivers that promote deforestation besides cattle expansion, such as agro-industrial and coca crops; however, there is a clear relationship between the growth of the cattle population and an increase in forest loss in the Colombian Amazon. According to Global Forest Watch, since 2015, deforestation of primary rainforest has increased rapidly in Caquetá. In this year, there were around 15,400 hectares reported and in 2018, 52,400. In total, between 2015 and 2021, there was a cumulative loss of 235,700 hectares.
Something similar happens in Guaviare, although in a smaller but more dramatic proportion than in Caquetá. There, in 2015, the loss of 6020 hectares of primary rainforest was reported and in 2018, the number increased by 600 percent to reach 36,300 hectares. Furthermore, between 2015 and 2021, the accumulated deforestation totaled 159,020 hectares. In conclusion, cattle are contributing to ending the Colombian Amazon.
Why is cattle ranching the most important economic activity in Caquetá, and an occupation that is spreading rapidly in Guaviare, if it should not be extended? The answer has several elements, some historical and others circumstantial.
The bovine expansion in the Amazon foothills can be traced since the late nineteenth century and its epicenter has always been Caquetá, although other foci have also been the departments of the highlands, Meta and Casanare. For decades, businessmen, the State, settlers, and peasants have used cattle as a source of economic development, and little by little they have hoarded lands that correspond to the forest.
The testimonies collected in the region say that cattle ranching is tied to the colonization of the Amazon foothills, which increased from the 40s of the last century, when the country went through the period of bipartisan violence. Hundreds of victims fleeing poverty and violence arrived in the region, along with rich businessmen and landowners who saw in these lands an opportunity to start agricultural enterprises.
Photo: Santiago Ramírez
They were joined by the State that supported both in the colonization and establishment of farms or estates. The reason was that expanding the agricultural frontier in the Amazon would bring economic progress to a poor country like Colombia and, incidentally, would help to solve the social problem of having access to land, without attacking the large agricultural properties that existed in the Andean region. As Absalón Machado explains in his books, agrarian reform did not focus on democratizing rural property in the inter-Andean and Caribbean valleys, but on expanding the agrarian frontier to give vacant lots to Colombians expelled from these regions.
The idea of expanding the agrarian frontier is recurrent. It has been promoted by the State to solve the agrarian and social problem caused by the several violences that the country has experienced. It is the ace in the hole to which the different governments have resorted to distribute land without affecting the structure of rural ownership.
"Notice that from the policies of Incora with the agrarian reform of the 60s to the poor implementation of point one of the peace agreements, land has been promised to the peasants for them to cut down the forests and introduce cattle, without thinking about a real agrarian reform that democratizes the territory. The State is the great responsible of deforestation for promoting extractive models in the Amazon and for not carrying out a real agrarian reform," says Rigoberto Abello Rodríguez, a member of the Departmental Coordination of Social, Environmental, and Peasant Organizations of Caquetá (Coordosac).
Even though agro-industrial crops have begun to spread in the highlands and in the Amazon foothills, in the case of Caquetá, cattle ranching was developed over other agricultural activities because of what Nelson González calls "ease of mobility of cattle." "Quickly," continues González, "Caquetá became a cattle rancher because in the 40s or 50s the only access roads were roads in poor condition and cattle were able to walk out. It was easier to get it out than any other product. That is why, and I say this with pride, we are cattle ranchers."
The idea of solving social problems by expanding the agrarian frontier failed. The colonization of the Amazon foothills did not create a democratization in the right to access land but rather reproduced the inequality that exists in the Andean region and the Colombian Caribbean.
In the case of Caquetá, a study entitled "Comprehensive Plan for Agricultural and Rural Development with a Territorial Approach. Department of Caquetá", carried out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Rural Development Agency, states that only 5970 people own 5381 properties of less than one hectare that in total add up to 880 hectares, while 21 owners own 19 properties of more than 5000 hectares that in total reach 2,490,593 hectares.
To the disorganized colonization done by peasants and businessmen, that was promoted by the State, it was added the legal uncertainty regarding access to land caused by the successive laws that declared the majority of the Amazon a forest reserve area and that created natural parks and indigenous reservations. Of course, there were plenty of reasons to implement them, but they conflicted with the colonization that the State itself had promoted.
Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), believes that this legal uncertainty regarding land has resulted in the illegal appropriation of vacant lots and encouraged deforestation, because "if communities feel that the place where they live is not theirs, they do not develop the sense of belonging necessary to preserve their territory."
Nelson agrees: "When a peasant realizes that he is in a reserve zone and that they can take him out of there at any moment, he starts making quick economic decisions to get the money out before it happens (...) We have always believed that if the government had the will to allocate the land or to look for some mechanism that makes the peasant feel like the owner of these lands, he would commit himself to not deforest."
In 2016, with the signing of the agreements with the FARC, it was believed that deforestation would stop. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Juan Manuel Santos said: "It is good to be able to say that the end of the conflict in Colombia –the most biodiverse country in the world per square kilometer– will bring important environmental earnings. By replacing illicit crops with legal crops, deforestation generated to plant coca will decrease." However, the opposite happened, coca crops grew and so did deforestation.
Herson Lugo Saldaña, a lawyer and human rights defender from San Vicente del Caguán, explains that the FARC's departure from the areas they dominated "allowed a new scenario of colonization in the territory that deepened the environmental conflict that had existed for a long time." Regional landowners and investors from other parts of the country began to deforest large areas of land and finance cattle ranches, using impoverished peasants and settlers as cheap labour.
On the one hand, the State did not discard the idea of developing cattle ranching as an activity that would replace illicit crops. In the case of Caquetá, instead of applying the Comprehensive Rural Reform (the first point of the peace process), "what the government did was to impose five alternative lines for the program of substitution of illicit crops: cocoa, oil palm, sugarcane, coffee, and cattle ranching. So, people chose cattle ranching. Here comes the contradiction because we have a substitution program that encourages deforestation, because if people lived with one or two hectares of coca, now they must have 10 or 20 hectares to take care of more cows," explains Rigoberto Abello.
All these historical and circumstantial events influenced in the increase of deforestation and the growth of the cattle population in the Amazon foothills, with an aggravating factor: as a large part of the forest reserve areas are occupied, deforestation and expansion of the agrarian frontier was directed towards natural parks and indigenous reservations. This was a problem because, even though they had housed some settler families for 30 or 40 years, their forests were well preserved.
The most serious situation is the one in the Tinigua Natural Park. According to the FCDS, out of the 214,362 hectares it has, between April 2018 and March 2022, 25,034 hectares have been lost, corresponding to 11 percent in just four years. Moreover, in the surroundings of the Chiribiquete Natural Park, deforestation and cattle population are also increasing. In five out of the six municipalities in which this natural sanctuary is located (San José de Guaviare, Calamar, San Vicente del Caguán, Solano, and Cartagena del Chairá), the accumulated deforestation between 2016 and 2021 was 340,687 hectares and the number of cattle increased from 930,213 to 1,569,453.
Solving this issue is not easy. Economically reconverting a region, which in the case of Caquetá is its main line of the economy, has great difficulties. The peasants are aware of the environmental damage caused by cattle ranching and are willing to have a dialogue to find solutions, but they also ask to not be stigmatized for the errors of a historical State policy and for following an economic model that everyone follows: "Cattle ranching is harmful to the environment. Of course! Just like other economic models like industrialization. Thus, we are all failing. So, let's all sit down, talk, and find a solution that benefits us all. Do not judge us and do not ask us to stop felling trees, while everyone continues with a model that harms nature," says Nelson.
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.