The President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has been at the forefront of the critiques for his dismissive attitude towards the fires in the Amazon. Although a significant portion of the rainforest (40%) is contained in Brazil, it is key to consider that eight more countries share the Amazon and are responsible for its preservation. What are these other states doing to preserve the largest rainforest on the planet? This article analyzes how the policies promoted by Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, are insufficient to protect the rights of the Amazon and its inhabitants.
Colombia’s share of the Amazon covers 41% of its territory and constitutes 10% of the Amazon rainforest. According to official numbers, in 2018 the annual deforested area in Colombian Amazonia amounted to 1381 km2 (almost twice the size of New York City). Moreover, according to data from the World Resources Institute, the country ranked 4th in the list of states losing the most tropical primary rainforest in 2018.
Paradoxically, this peak in deforestation in the Colombian Amazon is closely linked to the signature of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC-EP. The demobilization of the guerillas and the persistent absence of official institutions allowed land grabbers to take advantage of this sovereignty gap. People from different areas of the country are paying peasants to cut down trees from the Amazon to create new pastures for cattle production and palm oil plantations. Furthermore, other key drivers of deforestation in the country are the expansion of the agricultural frontier in protected areas, illicit crops, extraction of natural resources, non-planned infrastructure, and illegal logging.
So, what is the Colombian government doing to address the factors triggering deforestation? Duque’s stance to this issue is to understand nature as one of the main assets of the country and to implement an approach of environmental security. Under this logic, the military forces and the police play the central role in the protection of natural resources, while socio-political policies are undermined.
Accordingly, ‘Operación Artemisa’ which is the main program to stop deforestation, follows a hard hand approach: military interventions and criminalization. So far this year, at least 64 military operations had taken place, and 117 people were captured for committing environmental crimes. However, many civil organizations have criticized these procedures because during their implementation authorities have disregarded the rights of peasants and local communities, while the identity of the culprits who are financing the process of deforestation remains unknown.
By focusing policy responses to environmental problems on military actions, the government neglects that deforestation in the Amazon is a manifestation of structural issues like inequality and political exclusion. Historically, the Colombian state has ignored the peripheric regions of the country, and this legacy of marginalization has created precarious living conditions and minimal economic opportunities for the inhabitants of the Amazon region.
Furthermore, as mentioned in a previous post, the current Colombian government neglects the multidimensional character of the rural problem in Colombia. Hence, the enforcement of laws with the potential of delivering real change in periphery areas such as the Land Restitution Law enacted in 2011 and the Rural Reform agreed within the context of the peace accord in 2016, is being obstructed.
All in all, policies for protecting the rights of the Amazon and the Amazonian people should not focus primarily on strengthening the military force. A real effort to halt deforestation implies, on the one hand, recognizing the holistic nature of the problem, and on the other, applying existing distributive policies and proposing alternatives aligned with the rights and needs of the communities. Also, it is vital to acknowledge that industries such as cattle and palm oil are playing a leading role in the destruction of Amazonia. Thus, it is necessary to rethink ideas about development in the region.
The increasing awareness of the importance of Amazonia is a timely opportunity to push forward effective policies to protect the lungs of the world and to empower local communities. However, the extent to which this opening would contribute to transformational change and improved governance is still unclear and will depend significantly on the political will to do so.
 The Colombian Suprem Court, through and historical ruling, declared the Amazon subject of rights. However the government has failed to implement the orders to impement it: https://www.dejusticia.org/en/the-colombian-government-has-failed-to-fulfill-the-supreme-courts-landmark-order-to-protect-the-amazon/
 For an analysis of the 2018 deforestation report see: https://www.pidamazonia.com/content/la-reducci%C3%B3n-de-la-deforestaci%C3%B3n-en-la-amazon%C3%ADa-no-es-significativa
Image Credit: Efraín Herrera – Presidency of Colombia
About the author:
Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo is a lawyer, specialist in Environmental Law and holds an Erasmus Mundus Master in Public Policy. She works as a researcher for PID Amazonia, a civic society platform to address deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. Her research interests are the political economy of extractivist industries, environmental conflicts, and rural development.