Wave of deforestation and land conflict threatens Colombia in wake of peace deal

Friday, November 10th, 2017

Colombia’s forests are facing an uncertain future as the disbandment of guerrilla group FARC opens previous no-go areas to business and agriculture.

Deforestation increased by 44 percent in 2016, with most illegal clearances concentrated in remote rainforest areas previously controlled by the guerrilla fighters. Elsewhere, land conflict has already broken out in former FARC strongholds.

“We told the government that it would need to establish control in these areas quickly, but it hasn’t,” Susana Muhamad, an activist who has studied the environmental risks of the demobilisation, told the Guardian. “It’s like the wild west now, a land rush.”

A palm oil worker in Minas, Colombia. Image: Solidarity Centre/Carlos Villalon

Article one of the peace accords guarantees agrarian reform, promising that seven million hectares of land will be redistributed to its rightful owners. But authorities have not specified what this will mean in practice. In some areas, indigenous groups have seized the opportunity to reclaim land that falls within their ancestral territory.

In the Cauca Valley, for example, Nasa Indians have cut and burnt swathes of sugarcane, before erecting camps and seeding traditional crops. Two Nasa activists have been killed in the past year, including 17-year-old Daniel Felipe Castro, allegedly shot by police while clearing sugarcane on a plantation owned by billionaire Carlos Ardila Lulle.

Observers warn that conflict and deforestation could be exacerbated by a new wave of palm oil development. Colombia is currently the largest palm oil producer in the Americas. A 2016 report from the government-run National Centre of Historical Memory (CNMH) concluded that “in at least five departments there exists a direct relationship between displacement, the abandonment of smallholdings, and the cultivation of palm oil.”

In 2015, paramilitary leaders with links to the oil palm company Poligrow Colombia called for the assassination of the environmental activist William Aljure, deeming him “a threat to the business” of palm oil after he spoke out against the forced displacement of farmers and indigenous communities.

“Where you had heavy FARC presence in the past, now they’ve demobilised it’s going to open the land for possible palm oil use,” Daniel Hawkins, director of investigations at the National Labour School of Colombia, told MongaBay.

Advocacy organisations have warned that Colombia is currently facing “a grave security crisis” for human rights defenders and indigenous leaders. More than 120 have been killed so far in 2017, according to activists.