23 Enero 2023

“The massive appropriation of land is the great umbrella of deforestation in Colombia”: Rodrigo Botero

Crédito: Nicolás Acevedo/FCDS

The director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development explains why land grabbing is the most important driver of deforestation, above coca and logging.

Land grabbing is a long-standing phenomenon in the country and has been one of the drivers of armed conflict. The expansion of the agrarian frontier and the creation of extensive agricultural units has gone hand in hand with massacres and forced displacement of peasants. As reported by different conflict researchers, the land grabbing phenomenon aggravated with the expansion of paramilitarism in the 1990s and 2000s and left a country with a concentration of land that, according to the economist, reaches 0.88 of the GINI coefficient, the highest in South America.

Accumulating land has been the strategy of national landowners and foreign investors to promote agribusiness and extensive cattle ranching. In principle, buying land to use it as large areas is not illegal, but the problem is that here, some people dedicated to this business did it with criminal methods. They took over the nation's vacant lots or forcibly expelled peasants from their plots and then, with the help of corrupt officials, legalized property titles. Much has been written about the this dispossession history and is one of the axes of the report made by the Truth Commission.

Land grabbing is far from ending, and on the contrary, it continues. It has spread through the Colombian highlands and has reached the Amazon, becoming the main driver of deforestation. This activity is clearly illegal, because it appropriates the lands of forest reserve areas, natural parks, and indigenous reservations; it is an umbrella that shelters other drivers of deforestation. Forests are burned and cleared to open roads, plant pastures, maintain extensive cattle ranching or illicit crops, and create large farms... In the end, they are burned and felled to privatize the vacant lots and expand the agricultural frontier.

Photo: Santiago Ramírez

To understand this ancient phenomenon in Colombian history but recent in the Amazon, CAMBIO spoke with Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development.

CAMBIO: Land grabbing and its relationship to deforestation is an issue that is just starting to be publicly known, could you explain what it is? 

RODRIGO BOTERO: In Colombia, the great umbrella of deforestation is given by the massive appropriation of land, especially its vacant areas. To accumulate, you need to deforest and to do so two mechanisms are used: the construction of roads and bringing some animals to live on the territory.

We say that land grabbing contributes more to deforestation because, even though coca crops and illegal mining have a significant role in the degradation of the Amazon, it acts with a logic that leads to greater deforestation. I mean, coca has a greater profitability if it is planted in smaller areas that have higher productivity, so the focus of these crops is concentrated in certain sections that have even decreased in some places, but where its productivity has increased. Instead, land grabbing works the other way around. You do not need a large number of livestock on a piece of land, on the contrary, it is more profitable to have a few numbers of animals and greater extension of land.


R.B.: Because cattle fulfill the task of consolidating that appropriation of land. Here there is no intensive livestock but extensive, where the animals have one or two hectares to graze. So, here comes another fundamental element: land and livestock depend on road connectivity. That is why the greatest deforestation occurs in the places near the roads.

Photo: Santiago Ramírez

CAMBIO: Is this land grabbing in the Amazon related to the endless colonization that the country has experienced?

R.B.: Yes, hoarders use vulnerable populations and that is where the other elements come from. These new settlers arrive, deforest, establish their farms and introduce some cows, plant coca and food or take out some wood to survive. Let's say that they do very specific colonization activities but that in the medium term, these little farms become part of large properties. What we see here is that this colonization is intended to open a land market where there should not be one.

CAMBIO: In general, when we talk about deforestation, we always point to logging and drug trafficking, why is there such a little talk about land grabbing as a driver of deforestation?

R.B.: There has been a conceptual struggle over which are the drivers of deforestation. I think that, until some time ago, the idea of the main cause of deforestation being coca was still prevailing in some sectors of the government, but today the data show us that this is not the case. The evidence is so strong that Ideam itself, the entity that monitors forest loss in Colombia, considers it to be the most important factor. The different international studies also show us that it is the great driver, and what the Foundation has shown is that the phenomenon is much more complex, and it has subactivities that complement it. For example, part of the income left by coca finance land grabbing.

CAMBIO: If it is so important, why is land grabbing in the Amazon almost not persecuted by the competent authorities? 

R.B.: Let's remember that until last year, the illegal appropriation of vacant lots was not classified as an environmental crime, and the law that currently does so breaks a paradigm. In the last century, we thought that the crime was only the act of cutting a tree, but we did not consider that cutting that tree had the objective to keep the land where it was placed. It was a problem that was seen as two separate things: a tree dissociated from the territory.

That has changed and this new legal focus implies very important transformations. Now, the objective is not to prosecute deforestation in the moment trees are cut down (which did not give good results as only the workers such as chain sewers, cooks, or coal merchants ended up being arrested), but rather go after the people that finance that entire operation. Currently, it goes beyond cutting trees. It introduces a conceptual change in which deforestation is part of a process of appropriation of land, in addition to the transformation of its ecological function.

CAMBIO: But do you think this law actually works? Because, as you say, you see peasants imprisoned, but you have never seen a news story about the capture of the financiers of land grabbing... 

R.B.: What happens is that the new law does not consider that the institutions are not well prepared to understand this phenomenon and attack it. That means that there are many skills that need to be developed, for example, to emphasize financial research to see where these money flows come from, and to create research bodies that are responsible for the traceability of the products that leave these deforested territories.

The legal and operational capacity of Colombian institutions must be strengthened. Here, they have not made a single land recovery for environmental crimes, because there are no legal or operational means. In that sense, what needs to be done? The main thing is to have a cadastre, to know where the vacant lots are located. Remember that until the last moment of the previous government, its ministers shamelessly said that they did not know how many vacant lands Colombia had.

 Photo: Santiago Ramírez

CAMBIO: Let's talk about Tinigua National Park, one of the most dramatic cases of deforestation associated with land grabbing. There, half of the park is about to disappear. 

R.B.: The great colonization of Tinigua began five years ago and stemmed from the lack of implementation of the peace agreement. Many of the peasants that lived there before arrived as a result of an armed colonization. There was an irregular army that set the conditions of territorial dominion and based on that, they generated a model of occupation of the territory that prevented degradation. The departure of the FARC, the terrible implementation of the agreement, specifically on the land issue, and the little interest of the State in taking care of the parks, opened the door to unprecedented deforestation in Tinigua.

CAMBIO: The problem of Tinigua occurs in the other natural parks, forest reserves and indigenous reservations of the Amazon foothills, where the greatest deforestation of the Colombian Amazon takes place. Is there a solution? 

R.B.: Yes, but it's a long process that takes years. First, we must understand that parks and other protected territories with some degree of conservation are not areas of colonization. There is a problem with the people who inhabit parks like Tinigua. In the short term, they seek conservation agreements that allow them to maintain part of their economic activities, which is not ideal because in the coming years there will be population growth that will affect the ecosystem. In addition, their conventional agricultural systems damage areas that contain a lot of diversity and are fundamental in the country's climate security model.

I consider that the idea of the government to make a long-term process of 20 years is viable. In this way, people can have possibilities to restore and recover the forest and then, have a process of economic investment that allows them to create new productive models.

CAMBIO: How real is that? 

R.B.: I recognize the skepticism that always accompanies Colombians, but the truth is that there are countries that have had more limitations than us and have been able to create and work with these new productive models. The Guatemalan case is the one I always talk about. They have 10 percent of their territory in community forest concessions, more than half a million hectares in forests managed by social organizations with an economy based on exportation. Why cannot Colombia? Why cannot it be a long-term commitment to international cooperation? Why cannot a process of productive tradition be created? Why cannot there be recognition of communities as social actors and managers? What is the curse that accompanies us so that this cannot be achieved?

CAMBIO: It sounds optimistic... 

R.B.: Maybe. I believe that at this moment there is a golden opportunity that comes from total peace. I see very clear signs within some of the illegal armed groups in terms of changing the productive model in the Amazon. It strongly interests me that these groups are currently talking in great detail about the need to move to a forestry economic model and stop the all this process of cattle ranching. It means a great opportunity that these issues are at least being discussed. 

This discourse coincides with the idea developed by different sectors of society that say that it is necessary to change towards a forestry model. We are talking about creating a great chain of restoration of the Amazon border, rather than just an agricultural frontier, where all restoration efforts and sustainable forest management can work hand in hand with the communities that currently live there.

CAMBIO: Would the new government bet on that? 

R.B.: Well, in its speech it seems it would. Petro, in his interventions in Puerto Leguízamo and San José del Guaviare, spoke of the need to create that large restoration area of two and a half hectares that exists from Puerto Leguízamo to San José de Guaviare. Deforestation and land grabbing are concentrated there and that is a fact.

I believe that three factors combine to finally get these lands off the market, with the objective of leaving them in the hands of visible communities with long-term rights rather than in the ones of an invisible State. To maintain the vacant lands but giving the rights of its use and administration to the communities that live there, making them inheritable. The issue of the heritability of uses, but not of land, is fundamental for the peasantry to have clarity about its future. This particular form of ownership would take Amazonian lands out of the market and lead to long-term reforestation and economic livelihood projects for communities.

CAMBIO: Should the issue of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon be in the total peace agreements and negotiations with illegal armed groups? 

R.B.: Absolutely. It is completely necessary to consider this environmental decalogue to reach total peace in the Amazon region. I believe that the peace commissioner is on the right track in the sense that he has taken into account this element. It still needs to be improved and we need to set the guidelines to understand what would the role of the environmental issue in the total peace situation be, and how the social rights of the peasants living in the Amazon would be developed so that we can reach productive reconversion, the closure of the agricultural frontier, and decent living conditions for the communities.

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.