Governor and businessmen in Colombia accused of land grabbing and illegal deforestation

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

Local civil servants and small farmers in the department of Guaviare have accused the governor, large landowners and businessmen of land grabbing and illegal deforestation for oil palm cultivation. Colombia has seen a surge in deforestation over the last three years, much of it associated with agribusiness and land grabbing.

A recent investigation by El Espectador, a Colombian national newspaper, has revealed that powerful landowners and businessmen associated with Guaviare’s governor Nebio Echeverry Cadavid are behind the displacement of peasant families and the illegal cultivation of oil palm in protected areas.

Guaviare is a department in the Colombian Amazon that also has areas of savannah and contains part of the Chiribiquete mountain range, the world’s largest tropical rainforest national park.

El Espectador had access to complaints presented by high level civil servants in Guaviare’s government to Colombia’s public prosecutor denouncing the governor’s complicity in efforts to clear thousands of hectares of forests, sometimes illegally, for agribusiness and infrastructure projects. The newspaper also interviewed local small farmers and the public employees behind the complaints.

It concluded that Echeverry Cadavid and a large landowner close to the governor, Saúl Aguirre, were behind efforts to displace peasant families by pressuring them to sell their lands. Areas from where small farmers were forced to leave have registered an increase in deforestation for cattle ranching, the newspaper said.

The documents obtained by El Espectador also said that Jorge Gaitán, an oil palm businessman from the department of Meta, is behind the cultivation of hundreds of hectares of oil palm in Sabanas de La Fuga, an area of native savannas in Guaviare. According to El Espectador, the plantation is illegal not only because La Fuga is a protected area but also because Guaviare has an oil palm ban in place.

Gaitán has been named as a potential candidate for Guaviare’s governorship in the upcoming October elections, for which he allegedly has Echeverry’s support. The governor has also spoken out in favour of Gaitán’s palm cultivation in the department. The two men have denied any wrongdoing.

Deforestation in Guaviare increased by 33 percent between 2016 and 2017. The country as a whole has seen a surge in forest loss since 2016. It is estimated that in 2018 Colombia lost up to 300 thousand hectares of forests, compared to 124 thousand in 2015. A recent assessment by the World Resources Institute ranked Colombia in the top four countries with the highest levels of loss of tropical primary rainforest last year.

The rise in deforestation since 2016 has been associated with the signing of the peace accords between the government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has opened up vast areas, previously closed off by armed conflict, to development and agribusiness. This has led to a surge in land grabbing by large cattle ranchers, illegal miners, land speculators, organised crime, FARC dissidents and coca growers, especially in the Amazon.

Image on homepage shows a palm oil farmer in Colombia, 2016. Courtesy of Creative Commons.