Colombia has registered its first drop in deforestation since the country's historic 2016 peace deal with former FARC guerrillas closed a chapter on a half-century of armed conflict but also caused rapidly accelerating forest loss in remote regions of the country.
The country's meteorological institute IDEAM released a report based on satellite images showing 489,269 acres of forest were cut down in 2018, a 10 percent drop compared to 2017 when it recorded 543,632 acres lost.
The report points to extensive cattle ranching, coca cultivation related to cocaine production, illegal mining and timber harvesting, unpermitted road construction, burns, and extension of the agricultural frontier as the greatest contributors to tropical forest loss in the South American country.
Despite slight annual progress, rates of deforestation in Colombia remain stubbornly high, with a sustained increase compared to the low rates the country boasted five years ago. In 2018, deforestation was 58.8 percent higher than in 2015, the year before the country's former largest illegal armed group, the FARC, demobilized.
While the landmark 2016 peace agreement has opened up parts of Colombia's remote areas formerly off limits to science exploration and tourism, it also created a power vacuum that illegal armed groups and wealthy landowners have exploited to expand profit-oriented activities such as illegal mining, ranching, and coca-growing.
The report identified nine "deforestation cores" spread across the country. Five of the nine deforestation cores were located in the Amazon basin, where the data set shows 70 percent of Colombia's deforestation took place.
In the Amazon region, the demobilization of the FARC has led to an explosion of deforestation. During the 52 years of armed conflict, the guerrillas effectively governed local cattle ranching communities, implementing environmental controls that regulated how much forest could be replaced with pastures in any given year.
Moreover, large landholders and agribusiness, who feared persecution and kidnapping, were deterred by the presence of the Marxist rebels from expanding their holdings in the Amazon region. Since the FARC demobilized, the residual rebel groups that rejected the peace agreement have allegedly begun receiving extortion payments, a form of informal taxation, from large landowners and investors who have begun buying up land in the Amazon agricultural frontier.
According to the IDEAM report, the municipality with the highest rate of deforestation remained San Vicente del Caguán where 10 percent of the country's deforestation took place. However, the municipality also recorded the greatest drop in deforestation with nearly 7,000 fewer hectares cleared, representing a 26 percent decrease in comparison to the previous year.
The bordering municipality of Macarena recorded the greatest increase with a mirror 26 percent increase and 4,000 more hectares lost than in 2017. The increase in deforestation is particularly worrisome for three national parks—La Macarena, Picachos, and Tinigua—that comprise an important biological corridor between the Andes, Amazon, and eastern Savanna biospheres.
Tinigua National Park was hit by rampantly expanding deforestation with 10,000 hectares (24,711 acres) lost in 2018 compared to 3,285 the year before. The park's forests serve as hunting grounds and habitat for animals such as jaguars, cougars, and brown woolly monkeys.
Further, La Macarena National Park holds the Caño Cristales River, known as the "river of five colors." The Caño Cristales is home to an endemic species of plant called Macarenia clavigera that for a few months of the year produces a vivid rainbow of gold, olive green, blue, black, and red under the water's surface.
The Minister of Environment Ricardo Lozano heralded the 10 percent drop—or 17 percent drop as he explained it based on a projected rate of growth—as an environmental victory for President Iván Duque, who assumed office part-way through 2018. The IDEAM report came as a surprise as Lozano had announced in December that the deforestation rate would reach 280,000 hectares.
Lozano promised the government would continue to promote "legality and entrepreneurship" and increased state presence in the areas of high deforestation. The minister of environment pointed to the success of heavy-handed anti-deforestation tactics, known as Operation Artemisa, launched in April of 2019.
The government's hardline environmental policies have received praise from urban-based environmental sectors, but Operation Artemisa generated pushback from local cattle ranchers and human rights activists on the ground after families, including children, were arrested and their houses burned in Chiribiquete National Park.
Ole Reidar Bergum, who works as a climate and forest councilor for the Norwegian Embassy in Colombia, told Mongabay that rolling out development programs backed by $85 million international aid provided by Norward, United Kingdom, and Germany, could have contributed to positive trends in certain municipalities such as San Vicente del Caguán and Cartagena de Chaira—which still report concerningly high, albeit lower, deforestation rates.
Rodrigo Botero, who is the director of a conservation non-profit FCDS, said the deforestation continues to be a pressing problem for Colombia even if it stayed "basically the same" as the year before.
"The deforestation is very high even though it didn't continue going up," Botero said. "There are critical areas where we saw increases. If you look at [deforestation rate] in the Tinigua National Park, the case in La Macarena is critical."
FCDS released its own deforestation data, based on higher resolution imagery than used by IDEAM, recorded from April of 2018 to March of 2019. FCDS confirmed that its data matched the reduction of the annual deforestation rate presented by the IDEAM. Monitoring of the Andean Amazon reported a reduction in forest loss in Colombia's Amazon region in 2018.
Although IDEAM and FCDS both reported a reduction in overall deforestation between 2017 and 2018, not all kinds of forest may be experiencing a respite. Satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch indicate the loss of primary forest rose in 2018, reaching the highest level since measurement began in 2001.
In all, GFW data show 8.9 million acres of primary tropical rainforest was deforested across the planet in 2018. While Brazil and Indonesia registered less deforestation than previous years, Colombia showed up as a dramatic case of accelerating tropical tree loss, with primary forest deforestation surging 500 percent in 2018 over the country's lowest level recorded in 2003.
This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.