RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first elected leftist president, will take office in August with ambitious proposals to halt record rates of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Petro has promised to limit the expansion of agribusiness into the forest and create reserves where indigenous and other communities are allowed to harvest rubber, acai and other non-timber forest products. He also promised revenue from carbon credits to fund the replanting.
“From Colombia, we will give humanity a reward, a remedy, a solution: to stop burning the Amazon rainforest, to recover it to its natural border, to give humanity the possibility of living on this planet”, Petro, dressed in an indigenous headdress, told a crowd in the Amazon town of Leticia during his campaign.
But to do so, he must first establish rule over large lawless areas.
The task of stopping deforestation seems more difficult than ever. In 2021, the Colombian Amazon lost 98,000 hectares (over 240,000 acres) of virgin forest to deforestation and a further 9,000 hectares (22,000 acres) to fire. Both were down from 2020, but 2021 was still the fourth worst year on record according to Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), an initiative of the nonprofit Amazon Conservation Association.
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More than 40% of Colombia is in the Amazon, an area roughly the size of Spain. The country has the highest bird biodiversity in the world, mainly because it includes transition zones between the Andes mountains and the Amazon lowlands. Fifteen percent of the Colombian Amazon has already been deforested, according to the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, or FCDS.
Forest destruction has been on the rise since 2016, the year Colombia signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, that ended decades of bloody armed conflict.
“The peace process has allowed people to return to rural areas once plagued by conflict. As the returning population increasingly used natural resources, it contributed to deforestation and increased forest fires, particularly in the Amazon and the Andes-Amazon transition regions,” according to a new article from the journal “Environmental Science and Policy”.
The presence of the state is barely felt in the Colombian Amazon. “Once the armed groups were demobilized, they left the forest free for cattle ranching, illegal mining and drug trafficking,” said Ruth Consuelo Chaparro, director of the Roads to Identity Foundation, during a telephone interview. “The state has not filled the gaps.”
The main driver of deforestation has been the expansion of cattle ranching. Since 2016, the number of cattle in the Amazon has doubled to 2.2 million. During the same period, about 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of forest have been lost, according to FCDS, based on official data.
This livestock expansion goes hand in hand with illegally seized land, said FCDS director Rodrigo Botero. “The big business deal is land. The cows are just a way to take over these territories,” he told the AP in a phone interview.
Experts say illegally seized land is often sold back to ranchers, who then raise their cattle without land use restrictions, such as size of ownership.
Most of the destruction is occurring in an “arc of deforestation” in the northwest of the Colombian Amazon, where even protected areas have not been spared. Chiribiquete, the world’s largest national park protecting a tropical rainforest, has lost about 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) since 2018, according to MAAP.
During the campaign, Botero took Petro and other presidential candidates on separate day trips to the Amazon. They flew over cattle ranching areas, national parks and indigenous territories.
“One very interesting thing that Petro and other candidates have said is that they never imagined the scale of the destruction.” The sense of ungovernability made a deep impression on each of them, Botero said.
According to the World Resources Institute, almost 60% of Colombia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, deforestation and other land uses. In 2020, as part of the Paris Agreement, the government of Colombian President Ivan Duque pledged to reduce its emissions by 51% by 2030. To do this, it pledged to achieve net deforestation zero by 2030.
The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest in the world and a huge carbon sink. It is feared that its destruction will not only release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, further complicating hopes of stopping climate change, but will also push it beyond a tipping point after which a large part of the forest will begin an irreversible process of tropical forest degradation. savannah.
Although it holds almost half of the national territory, the Amazon is the least populated part of Colombia, so historically that it is neglected during presidential campaigns.
This year’s campaign did not completely deviate from this. But this year, for the first time, there was a televised presidential debate devoted solely to environmental issues before the first round of the election. Petro, then leading the polls, declined to participate.
In his government program, Petro further promises to prioritize collective land titles, such as indigenous reserves and areas for landless farmers. He also promises to control migration to the Amazon, to fight against illegal activities, such as land confiscations, drug trafficking and money laundering through land purchases.
Petro’s press officer did not respond to requests for comment.
“Petro has studied and understands deforestation,” said Consuelo Chaparro, whose organization works with indigenous tribes in the Amazon. But the president alone cannot do anything, she said. She hopes he will listen and get things done. “We don’t expect him to be a Messiah.”
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