23 Enero 2023

The double drama of the Calamar-Miraflores Road

Crédito: Santiago Ramírez

The inhabitants of Miraflores have asked for this road to be built for a long time, to stop being isolated. However, if it is built, it would cause irreparable damage to the Colombian Amazon.

Until the 80s of the last century Miraflores, a municipality in the south of Guaviare, located on the eastern bank of the Vaupés River, was a small town practically isolated from the rest of the country. The only way to get there was by plane or boat from Calamar by the Unilla River that downstream, in the current inspection of Barranquillita, joins the Itilla River to form the Vaupés River. The few roads that existed were trails that connected the small hamlet with other towns and small farms that could only be walked on foot or by mule.

The isolation did not matter as it was a town that lived on the various bonanzas, so money abounded, and the extra costs involved in bringing the products by plane or boat was not a problem. For example, some of its inhabitants remember that, during the boom of the coca economy in the 90s, the richest people had the luxury of bringing trucks even if it was just to use them through the few streets of the town.

Around that time, the FARC consolidated its power in the region and began to direct the construction of roads. Every time the guerrillas indicated it, the inhabitants of the region went out to use machetes and saws to convert the bridle paths into trails where a car or a motorcycle could pass. Thus, little by little the road that connects Miraflores with Barranquillita was opened. Later, in the 2000s, the guerrillas coordinated the opening of the trail to Calamar.

According to the villagers, this trail, in addition to being impassable in winter, was camouflaged in the middle of the jungle. The reason was that maintaining conditions of difficult access in the region was a way to prevent the security forces from entering easily. That is why Jorge Luis Veloza Contreras, community leader of Calamar, says that, at that time, and until about 10 years ago, deforestation was more related to coca crops than to the opening of roads. The guerrillas allowed the clearing of 20 or 30 hectares for food and coca crops but prohibited "deforesting large areas." 

Puerto Calamar
Port of Calamar
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

The coca bonanza culminated, as every single one does in a certain moment. The increase in fumigations of illegal crops and the intensification of the war between the State and the FARC caused the economic decline of the population, as well as hundreds of victims. Even though the inhabitants of the region had crops of all kinds for decades, the decline of coca forced many of them to start working in agriculture and cattle ranching. In that time, the road to Calamar was necessary to get their products out and market them. The problem was that opening it and adapting it meant endangering part of the Amazon and the life of indigenous communities. In addition, it would have been illegal to build it because it is in the middle of a forest reserve area.

With the peace process, the national government made all kinds of promises: greater investment and presence of the State, financing of productive projects, prosperity, and security, but none of these happened. What did happen was that the idea of Guaviare as a land of progress and new opportunities served as a political discourse to win votes and elections. In his years as governor, Nebio Echeverry Cadavid (2016-2019) said that the future of Guaviare and the municipality of Miraflores were cattle and palm, but to make that dream come true it was necessary to pave the San José-Calamar Road and at least adapt the Calamar-Miraflores Road. According to him and some members of the regional elite, this corridor would bring the long-awaited economic prosperity, by communicating Guaviare with the interior of the country.

This thought captivated the inhabitants of the region. Given the high costs of air tickets and the difficulties of transporting themselves on the Unilla River that could extend the trip up to three days in summer, they finally had a way to communicate quickly and cheaply with the rest of the country. However, all these announcements and expectations created an illegal market for lands located in a forest reserve area (Law 2 of 1959), national parks, and indigenous reservations, especially on those located on the banks of the Calamar-Miraflores Road. The most desirable sector is located between Calamar and Agua Bendita.

Even though, no one wants to give names because they are afraid of the repercussions, both the inhabitants of Calamar and Miraflores point out that behind this illegal land market, there are large political families and foreign investors to the region: "When they talked about the Calamar-Barranquilita-Miraflores highway being a fact, the capital from people that nobody knew appeared, but they hired people and workers who demolished 200, 300 or 500 hectares," says Jorge Luis Veloza.

A resident of Miraflores, who prefers not to reveal his identity for safety reasons, said that behind the deforestation of the forests adjacent to the road are not only big businessmen but public officials of national institutions who use their power to prevent judicial processes to happen: "Here on the road, they are not deforesting 5 or 10 hectares to plant coca. Here, they are deforesting 200 or 500 hectares in just one moment before all of us. And who says anything? Who fights for it? No one, because the one who does it gets into trouble. This surely comes from very powerful people because otherwise, one cannot explain how no authority does anything."

In November 2016, Echeverry, the governor that had just taken office, faithful to his speech on roads and progress, signed an ordinance in which he prioritized the Calamar-Miraflores Road with the support of the Ministry of Transport. The ordinance was approved by the Assembly of the department without further discussion and without considering that the works had legal problems because they were located in areas with some environmental protection.


A few days later, the government began the intervention of some sections of the road using its machinery. Inhabitants of the region say that there was no environmental management plan and water passages were interrupted in some sectors, among other environmental damages. Given the situation, the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the North and East Amazon prohibited any type of road work on this route or in any branch. However, deforestation in the adjacent area accelerated.

According to Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), this increase in deforestation occurred "because the guerrillas were not there, and they were the ones that had an authoritarian environmental plan that regulated deforestation and because after the peace process, the State was nowhere there." The void of authority and the expectation of a new road created a speculative land market in which, obviously, the pastures closest to the road were the most valuable.

Vía Calamar - Miraflores
Credits: FCDS

The irregularities and permissiveness in the works of Calamar-Miraflores led the Attorney General's Office and the Prosecutor's Office to open investigations against Governor Echeverry Cadavid, and Jhoniver Cumbe and Pedro Novoa, mayors of the municipalities of Miraflores and Calamar. In 2019, the prosecuting entity charged Cumbe and Novoa with "aggravated damage to natural resources and aggravated invasion of an area of special ecological importance, in circumstances of greater punishability."

At the same time, a judge in San José del Guaviare ordered the closure of the road due to the environmental damage caused by the transit of heavy trucks and indiscriminate deforestation. Nevertheless, in 2020, due to the pandemic, it was reopened for humanitarian reasons and in 2021, by court order, traffic was restricted to ambulances, motorcycles, and small private vehicles.

This situation has caused the inhabitants of Miraflores to be upset, as they have protested asking for the opening and adaptation of the road throughout 2022. They rightly consider that these judicial measures keep them isolated from the country and cause them great economic losses. However, it is also true that since the road plan was announced, deforestation has increased exponentially.

According to IDEAM data, between 2012 and 2016, deforestation in Miraflores remained below 400 hectares on average per year. From this date, it began to grow rapidly and last year, it reached its record figure of 2742, according to the FCDS. The situation in Calamar is even more critical. In 2016, 2060 hectares were deforested, a number that multiplied by five to reach 10,773 in 2018. Currently, deforestation levels remain high with 8113 hectares deforested in 2021.

Carretera hacia miRAFLORES
Road to Miraflores
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

At the same time, the increase in the opening of roads has been exponential. According to the FCDS, before March 2018, there was a network of tracks and trails totaling 613 kilometers. Between April 2018 and March 2022, 136 were found, which is 22 percent. The peak of this increase occurred in the years 2019 and 2020 where 41 and 77 kilometers were reported, respectively. Once again, the situation in Calamar was even more serious. Between March 2018 and March 2022, the road network went from 697 to 1034 kilometers, which corresponds to an increase of 48 percent. It is important to remember that the vast majority of this road network crosses forest reserve areas, national parks and indigenous reservations.

While the claims of the Miraflores community are valid, environmentalists fear that the Calamar-Miraflores axis will become a "new fish skeleton" that encourages deforestation, in the same way that happens with the San José del Guaviare-Calamar Road. According to Rodrigo Botero, "what is concerning about this situation is that the precautionary measures and restrictions have not worked properly because after the limited authorization of vehicles, heavy trucks with cattle travel without anyone saying anything and the land market continues."

There are no clear solutions to face this dilemma. Recovering navigability by the Unilla River, whose low flows are due to deforestation in its upper basin, could take decades. There is also no will to establish a policy of subsidies for air tickets or to implement a multimodal transport system. As for the Calamar-Miraflores Road, the environmental risks of building it are too high, unless the Green Road Infrastructure Guidelines are implemented, but it is a policy that has not yet been taken seriously by the State.

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.