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News Story
10 May 2022

Local communities and land use change after the peace agreement in Colombia

Cattle ranching in Vaupés, Colombia

Photo: Torsten Krause

In October 2016, Colombia signed a landmark peace deal. The deal saw both the Colombian government and the former guerrilla group FARC-EP lay down arms and agree to work towards peace, ending half a century of armed conflict. Seven years later, much work remains to be done, and new challenges have arisen. In September of 2021, Focali members Torsten Krause and Jessica López organised an event examining the outcomes of the Colombian peace deal on local communities, land use, and the environment. Sadly, one thing is clear: peace in Colombia is tainted by violence over access to and control of land, resources, and political and economical power. Communities, ecosystems, and industries continue to carry the hallmarks of an unsustainable system and a peace that hasn’t tackled the root causes of the conflict.

One of the many challenges in post-conflict Colombia is the effects of the power vacuum on rural communities and their lands. In the wake of the peace deal, ex FARC-EP strongholds became accessible, and these newly permeable territories have been filled with armed and unarmed illegal actors. These actors have sought control of valuable resources, such as gold, new land for coca plantations, and cattle ranching. Consequently, since the peace deal there has been a boom in deforestation and illegal mining.

During the event on the outcomes of the peace agreement in Colombia, Nicola Clerici, Rosario University, highlighted that deforestation is strongly driven by both illicit cattle ranching and illegal cropping (specifically coca for cocaine production), impacting local communities and ecosystems in devastating ways. Violence towards the local campesinos (smallholder farmers in Hispanic regions), Indigenous people, social leaders and nature is widespread.

Whilst these negative impacts of the peace deal hold across much of Colombia, including many of the natural protected areas of the country, it is important to note that not all areas have been equally affected by these trends. Sandra C. Valencia, University of Gothenburg, highlighted the Sumapaz region in the Andes as an example of this unequal distribution. During the conflict, the Sumapaz region had a strong FARC-EP presence due to its challenging geography and proximity to Bogotá. Even today, there are municipal differences in attitude within this region. Some municipalities lean towards sympathy for the guerrilla efforts of the past, while others lean towards government loyalism. Consequently, there is significant social and political fragmentation in the region, and even though it’s generally safe and calm, these factors have impacted the strength of implementing the peace agreement. As such, this relative tranquillity continues to hang in the balance.

Cleared forest in Vaupés, Colombia

Photo: Torsten Krause

Tragically, since the signing of the peace agreement, there has been an insidious expansion of violence against communities’ by armed groups that seek to control land and resources. The killings of social leaders and environmental defenders have seen their number rise. These killings are accompanied by a whole host of environmentally motivated crimes that have targeted local populations. Clearly, this is an unexpected and highly undesirable outcome of the peace deal. This violent process is intertwined with the peace agreement in Colombia – peace, for many Colombians, means reversing the impacts of war and allowing for new developments. This mindset has allowed the capitalist development of Colombia’s frontier forests. The agro-industrial expansion includes a transition to an extractive economic system based on high economic incentives and investments to develop cattle production, seen as a “green economy” opportunity. This creates new conflicts, violence, and community disagreements. Some scholars such as Cramer, Professor of the Political Economy of Development at SOAS University of London, highlight that these capitalist developments may constitute a long-term threat to a stable and lasting peace in Colombia as communities that rely on agrobiodiversity see their way of life eroded.

The governmental militarised approach to conservation

Governmental operations such as Artemisa, which aim to combat deforestation in national parks, militarise conservation. As a result, campesinos are held accountable for forest destruction.

In the Putumayo region of southern Colombia, campesinos were transitioning to ‘licit’ farming and looking to return to or claim their land, but the challenging living conditions left them dependent on coca, and now increasingly on cattle. This setting is completely overlooked in implementing peace and related coca eradication efforts and policies. The latter drives coca cultivation and narco-traffickers deeper into the forest, causing deforestation and forest degradation, reminding us how “drug policy is conservation policy,” and how forest protection is deeply interlinked with narco-traffickers and deforestation.

In 2021, the Putumayo department saw seven leaders being murdered, in the wake of the coca crop substitution programme. In that department, violent confrontations between Colombia’s armed forces and campesinos are increasing as coca crops are being eliminated. However, groups involved in narco-trafficking in the Amazon, such as ex FARC-EP are forcing campesinos to cultivate coca crops, threatening them with life or death.

Legal frameworks and what they (could) entail

Binding legal frameworks protecting campesinos and environmental defenders do exist in countries surrounding Colombia. It is the case of the Escazú Agreement for example, which provides a legal tool to demand protection and access to information regarding environmental issues. Colombia, however, is not on the list of countries that have ratified this agreement. Significant social and economic obstacles stand in the way of implementing the Escazú Agreement that may help support community leaders, as it aims at protecting environmental human rights defenders.

According to Paula Sánchez, Stockholm University, one of the major issues at the governmental level is that the different regulatory bodies are not always cooperating and can at times have contradictory agendas. Moreover, Colombia’s richest fortunes indirectly depend on deforestation, as they rest on cattle ranching and/or coca plantations, which stand for a large amount of deforested land. The economic interest of a few is thus another important brake in forest conservation and peace upholding.

From coca crops to cattle ranching: mixed outcomes of the peace agreement for land use

When shifting from coca cultivation to more conventional agriculture, cattle ranching is often seen as the only alternative by campesinos. Kristina van Dexter, George Mason University, provided an overview of the situation in the Putumayo territory, which was prioritised for the peace implementation because of the prevalence of coca plantations. The lack of roads is a major logistical hurdle for market commodities that need to be transported frequently into towns and/or market places. A clear link can thus be seen between the government’s coca eradication programme and deforestation. As roads are built, cattle production increases, and so does deforestation.

As mentioned above, illegal unarmed and armed groups still have control over coca production and severely punish those who attempt to denunciate deforestation practices. The situation is exacerbated by the pressure of a growing national and international market demand for beef and other goods and practices such as avocado, palm oil, coca and mining products. In this way, importing commodities can be linked to forest clearance.

Cattle ranch in the agricultural frontier between Meta and Guaviare

Photo: Jesica López

A glimpse of hope within peace agreement and goodwill

Attracted by the new sense of security offered by the peace agreement in certain Colombian regions, “new rurals” settle down in the countryside, bringing about a wind of change with innovative farming methods, despite their at times mitigated welcome by rural communities. Younger generations are especially keen on going back to cultivation methods closer to nature and dare trying out methods such as agroforestry. However, these generations might have turned to these methods without the peace agreement, the correlation isn’t crystal clear.

Another trend (but also an ancient cropping method) is the recolonising of farming with the selva (forest in Spanish) with campesinos calling themselves “selvasinos”, who aim at working in reciprocity with forest and nature as a whole, strongly believing that “there’s no peace nor life without the forest.”

As suggested by Paula Sánchez, the state could use these positive trends and implement land restoration programmes involving local communities, thus giving a strong institutional sign of the state’s presence. However, as reminded by Nicola Clerici, both the conservation of forests and the protection of rural communities aren’t government priorities.

Land tenure remains a major issue in upholding peace and conservation work. The positive security advances in certain regions, new bioeconomy projects, an increased societal awareness around land tenure, increased foreign investments in industry and eco-tourism don’t seem to weigh enough to counteract the strength of year-long land tenure problems and illegal group hegemony over the life, livelihoods of campesinos and forest balance.

The seminar, supported by Focali and SIANI, was organised by Lund University (LUCSUS, CEC), Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, and School of Global Studies at University of Gothenburg. The event featured ten expert panellists who presented their work and took part in a lively discussion of the situation in Colombia. 

Watch the recording here and see the list of speakers

Reporting back by Daniel Burke-Ward and Magdalena Knobel, Communications Assistants at Focali, with the support of Jesica López and Torsten Krause.