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The Secret to Colombia’s Drop in Deforestation? Armed Groups

Bogota, Colombia – In July, when Colombia announced that deforestation had dropped to the lowest level in nearly a decade, the news was hailed as a victory for left-wing President Gustavo Petro.

But experts say there is another reason for the dramatic drop: Armed rebel groups have taken it upon themselves to ban illegal logging.

Bram Ebus, an environmental crime researcher at the nonprofit International Crisis Group, said the efforts are aimed in part at facilitating talks with Petro’s government, which hopes to achieve “paz total” or “total peace” in Colombia.

“We saw that they started using deforestation restrictions as a political tool prior to the ‘paz total’ negotiations,” Ebus told Al Jazeera.

The armed groups, he explained, anticipated “that they could strengthen their hand at the negotiation table by becoming an actor that drives down deforestation in the Amazon”.

A cow grazes in a hazy pasture that used to be rainforest.

Colombia has been enmeshed in an internal conflict for nearly six decades, with government forces, paramilitary groups, criminal networks and armed rebels all jockeying for power.

The Estado Mayor Central (EMC) is one such armed group. It emerged after a peace deal in 2016 disbanded the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group at the time.

Some FARC rebels, however, rejected the peace deal, choosing instead to form their own organisation, the EMC.

But in the FARC’s absence, large portions of Colombia’s countryside experienced a power vacuum. A land rush followed, with local cattle ranchers, criminal networks, armed groups and industry groups pushing further into the Amazon rainforest to claim territory.

Deforestation shot up, increasing by 44 percent in 2016 alone, according to government statistics. Not only did ranchers clear land for livestock, but illegal businesses like gold mining and logging left scars across the otherwise lush landscape.

To halt the devastation, former President Ivan Duque launched a military-led strategy to pursue deforestation, mostly targeting illegal settlements of poor farmers in Colombia’s national parks.

A fire tears through the Amazon rainforest, burning trees.

But President Petro, the country’s first left-wing president, adopted a new approach. He has pledged to limit deforestation to 140,000 hectares (about 346,000 acres) a year by creating economic alternatives to deforestation and cutting deals with Amazonian communities.

He also called on wealthy nations to finance the conservation of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, by contributing money and cancelling debt in South America, thereby freeing up funds to invest in environmental initiatives.

But Petro’s anti-deforestation campaign has been bolstered by parallel efforts from the EMC, which has ordered a logging ban in the parts of the Amazon under their control.

In May 2022, the EMC announced sanctions of 1 million Colombian pesos, or $251, for every hectare of forest destroyed.

It imposed new rules in September, following Petro’s August inauguration, that went even further, according to Juanita Velez, co-founder of the Conflict Responses Foundation.

The EMC ordered the new ban to last through Petro’s four-year term, during which the government is expected to provide “long-term solutions” for landless farmers in the Amazon.

A dirt road cuts through the Amazon rainforest.

The armed group is involved in ongoing negotiations with the Petro government, as part of the “total peace” plan. On August 3, for instance, Petro’s administration began a six-month ceasefire with another rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Jose Tomas Ojeda Soleimani, an EMC spokesperson, told Al Jazeera his group’s decision to ban deforestation was motivated by environmental and security concerns.

Well-preserved jungles, he explained, provide cover from military offensives and clean water for the EMC’s ranks.

“We have banned deforestation in the Amazon because we are a profoundly environmental guerrilla,” said Ojeda. “The trees protect us and we need water for our military operations.”

He did not confirm whether peace negotiations with Petro’s government were also a motivating factor behind the EMC’s deforestation efforts. But he did say that any dialogues would include the EMC’s environmental agenda.

Those dialogues hit a stumbling block, though, in May, when the government suspended its ceasefire with the EMC in four Amazonian provinces after four Indigenous minors were killed. They had allegedly been forcibly recruited into the group and tried to escape.

A six-month bilateral ceasefire between the government and the EMC ended on June 30.

Two men — Gustavo Petro and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — wave and raise their arms at photo opportunity during the Amazon summit. Both men wear white shirts.

Ojeda said armed confrontations had resumed but that the EMC has offered “peace gestures”, without specifying what they are. Talks between the EMC and the government resumed in July, in preparation for peace negotiations.

Those dialogues are taking place against the backdrop of low deforestation rates not seen since 2013. The country lost 123,517 hectares (about 305,000 acres) of forest in 2022, down by 29 percent compared to 2021. And in the Amazon, deforestation dropped by 36 percent.

Recent figures show that illegal logging decreased most dramatically in regions where the EMC has uncontested power, such as the Caqueta, Meta and Guaviare provinces. Deforestation in those areas decreased by 50 percent, 34 percent and 37 percent respectively.

By contrast, in the Putumayo province where the EMC competes for power, deforestation decreased by 15 percent.

But Ebus, the environmental crime researcher, said that relying on the EMC to drive down deforestation could backfire.

“If it’s just the guerrilla regulating deforestation and the state not stepping in to control these abandoned areas of forest, the guerrilla can use the environment as a bargaining chip and actually wreak havoc on the environment if things go south at the negotiation table,” said Ebus.

Because Amazon conservation is one of Petro’s signature pledges, the EMC’s ability to control tree loss could serve as a powerful tool to influence policy.

“They can even threaten the government [with] large-scale Amazon destruction if the government doesn’t give them what they’re hoping for,” said Ebus.

Elver Medina, an environmental leader from the Meta province, believes the government should explore other pathways to reducing deforestation, separate from the EMC. Amid ongoing dialogues with the government, 40 Amazonian communities have also banned deforestation indefinitely.

But for the ban to last, the government needs to invest heavily in rural communities that have historically been neglected and provide them with economic alternatives, he argued.

“The communities are complying with the suspension of logging and fires,” Medina said. “But we’ll need to see some change, some support from the government.”