Deforestation May Soar Now That Colombian Civil War Is Over

The end of war doesn't necessarily bring peace to the environment. An increase in illegal logging could be one of the unexpected consequences of peace in Colombia.

In 2016, the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the guerrilla group FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), ending the longest war in the Americas. During the 52-year-long conflict, as many as 220,000 people are reported to have died and millions were displaced.

But the armed group may unexpectedly have helped protect the regions it occupied from deforestation. As the group disbands, conservationists fear the lush forests it occupied will be left vulnerable to illegal logging.

"Now, that FARC is gone, there is nobody controlling the deforestation – because actually when they were here, they had some rules about it," says Pablo Negret Torres at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who has been studying the relationship between armed conflicts and conservation in Colombia.

In areas under FARC control, the organisation often took on the role of a local government, even controlling ecological and cultural programmes.

Logging rise?

"Now there is no one to oversee the land," says Negret Torres. "The government hasn't come in yet, but everybody else has and they log."

Negret Torres has looked at the number and distribution of armed conflicts across Colombia between 2000 and 2014, comparing the data with levels of deforestation in the country's various regions. He found that wherever FARC guerrillas were present, deforestation activity was lower than in conflict-free areas. He presented his results at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Cartagena, Colombia, last week.

Negret Torres hasn't quantified the difference yet. In total, almost 3 million hectares of forest have been lost in Colombia from 2001 to 2015, according to Global Forest Watch.

The impact of war on natural environments is unpredictable. The Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo became a site of conflict in the 1990s and 2000s: the local environment suffered as fighters killed wildlife and felled trees, using the park's natural resources to fund the conflict. But war in Sierra Leone during the 1990s had the opposite effect. There – as in Colombia – deforestation activity was lower where the fighting was fiercest.

The Colombian government has plans to increase its control of the country's forests. By 2018 it intends to protect more than 26 million hectares – up from nearly 24 million hectares at present.

Budgets cut

"We are working with former members of FARC to implement environmental policies, and training them to help conserve areas," Luis Gilberto Murillo, the Colombian Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development told the conference. "This is also a way for FARC to reincorporate to the civil life."

However, the Colombian government recently announced that the budget for environmental programmes will be cut by 60 per cent for 2018, leaving conservationists doubtful that there will be enough money to fund the promised expansion of the protected areas.

Matthew Betts at Oregon State University, who also intended the conference, worries about the effect of deforestation in formerly untouched forests. "Even just initial logging on intact forests has a much worse impact [on biodiversity] than in areas already exposed to deforestation," he says.

Such deforestation is made more likely by the fact that millions of people displaced by the conflict could return home, and may need to find a new source of income. "If you have poverty, people will turn to the forest," says Betts. "And you could also have hunting for bush meat out of control."

Colombia has some of the most biodiverse forests on Earth, and many still haven't been fully explored because of the decades-long turmoil. "There are species and forests being preserved," says Negret Torres. "But a peace where we are able to prioritise places important for conservation would be the best."

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