Colombian Military Combats Unprecedented Deforestation

Colombian Military Combats Unprecedented Deforestation

By U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander (ret.) Oliver Barrett / Diálogo
November 21, 2019

The Colombian Military Forces have mobilized to protect the nation’s vast green spaces from the ravages of illegal deforestation.

Colombia is home to a large swath of the Amazon; an area roughly the size of Germany and England combined, and its unique ecosystem is under threat. The explosion in recent years of illicit land grabs, illicit crop cultivation, and illegal mining, among others, has been ravaging the rainforest. To address the issue, Colombia not only reached a landmark decision in 2018, recognizing the Amazon as an “entity subject of rights,” but also widened the scope of its military’s mission to encompass the protection of the Amazon and put an end to what Colombian President Iván Duque called the “deforesting hemorrhage.”

Dubbed the Artemis Campaign (Campaña Artemisa), after the Greek goddess and guardian of wildlife and the forest, the latest undertaking of the Colombian Military Forces, launched on April 28, 2019, has three main objectives: stop the destructive deforestation, restore the rainforest, and bring to justice those responsible for clearing the land. Part military strategy and part educational campaign, the Artemis Campaign also seeks to build a culture of environmental responsibility and conservation among Colombians.

The challenge is enormous. Deforestation is a region-wide problem that affects all Amazon states. Although the fires of mid-2019 brought Brazil and Bolivia into the limelight — with losses of millions of acres of forests — Colombia is feeling the pain as well.

Deforestation in Colombia has surged following the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC, in Spanish). Losses climbed from 173,000 acres in 2016 to 490,000 acres in 2018, the highest rate ever recorded for Colombia, according to data from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM, in Spanish) of Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. Territories then under FARC’s control became suddenly accessible and up for grabs.

“The peace agreement negotiated between the FARC and the government was meant to end the armed conflict,” said Rafael Orjuela, a community leader in the Caquetá department within the Colombian Amazon, to the online news site Mongabay. “But when the FARC left […] everyone felt the right to act without god or law, and deforestation shot up immediately in an exaggerated way.”

If land grabbing and cattle farming from small farmers and larger landholders account for the deforestation, a late 2018 report from IDEAM pointed to the influence of FARC dissidents and criminal groups contributing to deforestation in order to cultivate illegal drugs, among other activities. “The armed actors present in the area promote the development of illicit agricultural activities, as well as the expansion of informal road infrastructure, which affect forests,” indicated the report.

With its pioneering strategy, Colombia is cracking down on illegal clearing. Since the launch of the Artemis Campaign, more than 22,000 service members and police officers have already conducted more than 60 operations, apprehending more than 120 people, who were subsequently charged with environmental crimes, such as setting fires in protected areas.

For Colombian Presidential Security Advisor Rafael Guarín, the Artemis Campaign marks a fundamental turning point in the long-term objectives of the Colombian Military Forces.

“For the first time in our history, we are aligning our domestic agenda, foreign policy, and national security objectives with the sole aim of protecting natural resources,” Guarín said. “Its core mission is to target catastrophic deforestation […] and guarantee the nation’s integrity by protecting citizens’ essential rights to water, clean environment, and biodiversity.”