23 Enero 2023

"The Guaviare roads resemble a fish skeleton"

Crédito: Santiago Ramírez

The San José de Guaviare-El Retorno-Calamar highway is an example of how a road that began to be built more than 60 years ago has been and continues to be the axis of the colonization of the Amazon in the Guaviare and also a driver of deforestation of millions of hectares.

A city dweller, who over a weekend travels the roads of the country to a hotel or a farm to rest, has little idea of the relationship between roads and deforestation. Perhaps he may think that one has nothing to do with the other. However, in Colombia, road construction has gone hand in hand with deforestation and a long process of landscape transformation, driven by colonization.

Decades or centuries ago, the vast fields of crops or cattle and the miles and miles of fences that a traveler now sees when going down a road were occupied by forests and animals and were populated by indigenous cultures. Arguably, the relationship between deforestation and the opening of roads is historic.

A part of Colombians does not measure this relationship, maybe because they were born in places and in times where roads and fields have been part of the landscape for many decades, but it continues and can be observed in different territories of the country. Among them are the Amazonian foothills. There, the colonization that has accelerated for 70 years has made it clear that the arrival of peasants and settlers, the founding of municipalities and hamlets, the expansion of the agricultural frontier and, of course, deforestation, all relate to the opening of roads.

San José - Calamar
Paving of San José-Calamar
Photo: Santiago Ramírez-
San José - Calamar
Paving of San José-Calamar
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

In more than 70 years of colonization, the stories of why thousands of peasants came to Guaviare seem to be all the same. For them, the rumor of a paradise where they could get money and land has been a powerful reason to leave everything in their places of origin and, equipped with a machete, venture out to try their luck.

Diverse circumstances influenced their decision, some fled violence, others preferred the uncertainty of the adventure rather than staying in their villages and knowing that they would not find any economic opportunity. That was what happened to Olmes Alonso Rodríguez, a peasant born in San José de Jagua, Cundinamarca, who 25 years ago decided to migrate to Guaviare: "In the small towns where we lived, there were very few opportunities to work. My brothers came first when I was still in school, and they said here there was work to do (...) I arrived on January 25, 1995, for the first time."

All these migratory waves have been encouraged by some kind of bonanza. At one time it was rubber, at another, fur and in the last 40 years the new golden idea has been illegal crops. Olmes says: "There was the issue of coca and it was easier to earn money. We came here excited to work with coca and soon I started feeling very comfortable. That was when I was 17 years old." Over time, he abandoned that activity and today is one of the leaders of the region in reforestation and community forestry. 

It does not matter if 50, 40, 30, or 10 years have passed between the migratory waves, the peasants who starred in them agree that they arrived here because someone, a friend or a relative told them: "Come here because here you will get more money", "here there is a lot of land to plant", "the land is very productive", "here it is very good to work", "here there is money to raise your children" ...

Mrs. Custodia Romero, an 84-year-old midwife whose family was one of the first to arrive in El Retorno, a municipality located 30 kilometers south of San José de Guaviare, tells the importance of that word of mouth: "We arrived in El Retorno in March 1967 (...) We arrived because of a friend who had come here or was there in El Retorno, when that place was called Caño Grande. He was the one who invited us to come, but he was also a newcomer. He came for another gentleman who brought him and then a year later he invited us."

The stories of how they cut down the jungle to "build their farms", as they say, and to open the trails and roads also seem identical. Here the protagonist is the bulldozer. From the 1960s until now, the population has trusted in this earth-removing machine and whatever object it finds along the way to level and expand the open precarious trails using "man's force" to "break jungle". In addition to peasants and settlers, all kinds of legal and illegal characters show up when opening roads: the State, private entrepreneurs, and illegal armed groups, all of them with the conception that roads equal to progress.

Part of the history of the colonization of the Amazon foothills is evidenced through the San José de Guaviare-El Retorno-Calamar highway, a road that settlers began building more than 70 years ago and that has been the axis of the expansion of the agricultural frontier in the Amazon. That is a story that tells the heroism of those who risked leaving everything behind to get a better life, but at the same time it talks about deforestation and the loss of millions of hectares that today place the department as one of the most deforested in the country.

From this road there are dozens of others that communicate the different hamlets and small towns of the municipalities of Guaviare and that little by little go into the jungle, with its corresponding environmental damage. Because of his experience, Horacio Cifuentes Olarte, a person from Quindío who arrived in Guaviare 12 years ago looking for a better economic future, says that the department's road system is a fish skeleton in which the backbone is the San José-Calamar highway, from which the bones are born "towards the immense jungle".

Horacio Cifuentes
Horacio Cifuentes Olarte
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

The problem is that with these "bones" or trails, deforestation is encouraged, and it currently threatens not only the jungle of the natural reserve areas, but that of the Chiribiquete and Tinigua natural parks and the Nukak Maku natural reserve. Nevertheless, these trails are the ones that connect thousands of inhabitants of the department with San José; those inhabitants also claim that they need these roads to be improved.

The San José-El Retorno-Calamar road began to be built towards the end of the 1960s. At that moment, according to the inhabitants of El Retorno, people dedicated to the land business, supported by the State or regional political elites, began to parcel out vacant lots and give them to peasants through a contract in which they promised to work on the lands of their benefactors in agricultural work, land clearing to expand the lots, and the opening of the road.

Carretera San José - El Retorno
San José-El Retorno Road.
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

The inhabitants of the region recall that the main promoters of this colonization were two announcers who worked in Todelar: "Since I was very young, I saw the colonization of El Retorno, back in 1968 (...) some say that the responsible was the State, others say that it was the military forces, but the truth is that it was led by journalists Orlando López and Néstor Ayala. They allied with the FAC (Colombian Air Force) and they used to bring them to San José by plane. Then there was a tractor in which they threw their bags and traveled to El Retorno. People like me had to walk to El Retorno. I could take between 14 or 16 hours walking in winter, because of the mud especially, and as a lot mules used to walk over there too, just imagine how difficult it was like back then,” says Jorge Luis Veloza Contreras, community leader of Calamar, who was present in two colonizing waves in Guaviare, the one in the late 60s and the other in the early 80s.

Jorge Luis Veloza
Jorge Luis Veloza Contreras
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

Ms. Custodia remembers very well how the deforestation and parcelling of vacant lots went hand in hand with the construction of the road. According to her testimony, the ones in charge of subdividing the vacant lots, "Drs. Caballero and Russe (...) They used to measure the lots for them to be 500 meters in front of the path and 1000 meters long so that the farms could be close to the road. And so they measured from here to there, from here to El Retorno and from El Retorno to there. As more people arrived, they used to measure more areas and then delivered the lots from the back of the road. After opening the trail, the two “doctors” as Ms. Doña Custodia calls them, got "a contractor who expanded and cleaned the road."

Doña Custodia Romero
Custodia Romero 
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

Years passed and the jungle from side to side of the road (which, despite being leveled with a bulldozer and having some bridges or water passages, remained difficult to travel) disappeared. The large trees were replaced by cattle, pastures, and food crops. The parcelling of the land was done with the approval of local, regional, and national authorities. Entities such as Incora gave loans on the condition that peasants dismantled their farms and made them productive.

As people arrived, colonization moved to places farther from the San José-El Retorno-Calamar Road. The book Microhistorias del Capricho (Micro-stories of El Capricho) by MyGuaviare Association, tells the testimony of José María Corba Lozano, one of the founders of El Capricho, a village in San José del Guaviare, located west of the San José-El Retorno Road, in which he says how he arrived there to colonize towards the end of the 60s:

"It turns out that this territory was just wasteland... There was only one trail from San José to El Retorno. And it was a trail that was made with a bulldozer. Felling trees in the jungle. But the only vehicle that came was a tractor from the police station that spent eight hours from San José to El Retorno. (...) I saw that these lands were very good. So, I begged other settlers to come with me further to the center of the jungle. And set the date to come to where El Capricho is located today."

In his story, Corba also relates colonization to the opening of roads:

"Everything had to be carried on the shoulder because there was no bridle path to bring the shipment on horseback (...) And in the pipes, we used to knock down a trunk to pass over it; that was the bridge to pass. I started to make pica (path) in a straight line (...) We started making the trails, and we made four farms. I still have the first farm because that was why I came here for, to make my farm."

The problem of all this spontaneous colonization promoted by the government itself was that it was done on a territory that was declared a forest reserve area by a law in 1959. To solve this, the State subtracted around 500,000 hectares on several occasions, but even so most of the villages and small towns remained in forest reserve territories. The issue was aggravated when in the following decades, natural parks, reserves, and national nature reserves were created. Currently, about 90 percent of Guaviare has some type of environmental protection and despite the actions of the national and departmental governments, it has not been possible to organize it and stop the colonization of the department.

Fifteen years after the migratory wave of the 60s, a new one began, this time driven by the economy of illicit crops. Once again, peasants and settlers came to Guaviare in search of wealth and land, and to cultivate and market coca leaves. A new actor entered this bonanza: the guerrillas, especially the FARC. Jorge Luis, one of the founders of the town of La Ceiba, in Calamar, tells how after establishing the hamlet in 1985 and building with his colleagues the trail that connected them with the urban area, the FARC came to obtain territorial control and began to direct colonization, the coca trade and, of course, the construction of roads:

"When these misters had this territory under their power, they took over the control of it, which was a measure that us peasants had to improve the roads or build something. By order of them, everyone had to go out on Saturday to work. After seven of eight of these orders, the trail and the road were open. Then, in the summer of 2000, the bulldozer came. It was paid with the money of the bazaars."

José Luis also explains that, although the guerrillas helped open many roads in the region, at that time there was not such a direct relationship between deforestation and roads. The reason was that coca cultivation was not extensive and the guerrillas preferred the roads to be covered by the jungle and difficult to access, to prevent the public force from reaching the crops. However, he says that, with the signing of the peace process with the FARC, the situation changed. Promises of land valorization because of the end of the conflict and the construction of major infrastructure projects led people to start deforesting uncontrollably.

Foreigners and people with political and economic power in the region began to buy land and deforest it. José Luis says: "It was the moment when some capital arrived from people who suddenly nobody knew, but could hire workers that used to demolish 200, 300, or 500 hectares." This opening of new paddocks was reflected in the construction of new roads.

According to the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, by 2021, this history of colonization and opening of roads left Guaviare with a 9 percent loss of its vegetation cover, a conservative number considering that the measurement has been made since 1990. To explain it in other way, if as of February 2022, the department has a forest of 4,657,504 ha., in 22 years it lost about 500,000 hectares, of which around 105,000 belong to the period 2018-2021. Similarly, San José has lost 12 percent of forests and Calamar 8 percent between 1991 and 2021.

As for roads, colonization has left a total of 6221 kilometers in the department. The critical issue is that, between 2018 and 2021, 25 percent of these were built, that is, 1264 kilometers. Most of them are in territories with some kind of environmental protection and have become a focus of deforestation.

This situation has also prevented local and departmental administrations from intervening in road improvement, something that the inhabitants of Guaviare constantly request. An example of this issue is what happens in Calamar. According to Dirseo Cuéllar, secretary of Planning and Public Works, in the municipality there are "about 500 kilometers in the rural area. In our road plan approved by the ministry, out of those, there are only 59.5 kilometers, which is the removed area, corresponding to the peasant reserve. The rest are all in Second Law (Forest Reserve Law of 1959). That is a great inconvenience since the resources come to us for those 59 kilometers approved (...) And we cannot enter with the machinery; we cannot have a sewer or a pipe. And the people who live from the food crops find it very difficult to take their product out."

Carreteras en Calamar
Unpaved roads in Calamar
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

For some years, the State and part of society have become aware of the importance of the Amazon and have begun to see this biodiverse region as a place to protect and not as a wasteland to colonize. However, 70 years of uncontrolled colonization have left their mark and now the State must solve the problems it caused, including improving communication for all the settlers and peasants who live there and preventing it from continuing to be a driver of deforestation. Nevertheless, the most important challenge is to stop the colonization of the Amazon foothills.

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.