11 officials for 53,000 square kilometers: the Government's weakness to tackle deforestation in Guaviare

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Semana Sostenible, Caqueta, Colombia

Out of Colombia’s eight most critical deforestation hotspots, three are located on the outline of the Marginal Road that seeks to connect the 381 kilometers from San Jose del Guaviare to San Vicente del Caguan.

Although the highway is only in its planning phase at the Ministry of Transportation, scientists are very worried because its outline has already become –according to IDEAM, the national meteorological institute- an enormous Gruyere cheese at the door of the Amazonian region.

This shows that whatever happens in this area is crucial for Colombia –which has the world’s eighth-largest forest cover- to achieve its commitment in the Paris Agreement on climate change to slow down deforestation by 2020.

“Since two or three years ago, data consistently shows that this is one of the most active deforestation hotspots and that it is not stopping. There is a risk of repeating the story of Yari, which is an X-ray of what has happened in the Amazon and what can continue happening without a strong Government presence,” says Ederson Cabrera, who leads the team monitoring deforestation at the IDEAM, Colombia’s meteorological institution.

In the meantime, he signals a vertical, green corridor on his computer screen, running parallel to the Caguan River and separating the Yari plains of Caqueta from the town of Cartagena del Chaira. “Don’t get your hopes up: this was 1990,” he says and quickly begins clicking on the sidebar of his mapping software. The green begins to turn beige. By 2016, there is no longer a corridor, but only a few specks of forest.

“This is the risk: in Caqueta there is no longer a connection between the Andes and the Amazon, just as there isn’t one in Putumayo anymore. This is why the Marginal Road’s area is so important,” he says.

Recently unveiled deforestation data for 2016 –which showed goo.gl/Nh44K4 a critical 44 percent spike nationally- are demonstrating that the Marginal Road’s area has one of the most alarming levels in Colombia.

Photo credit: Rodrigo Botero/FCDS

To begin with, the three municipalities it plans to cross –San Vicente, San Jose and La Macarena- rank among the eight with the highest deforestation in the country, with San Vicente at the very top. the two national parks closest to the Marginal Road -La Macarena and Tinigua- rank among the three with largest forest loss.

Almost half of the 178.000 hectares razed in Colombia during 2016 fall within the jurisdiction of the three environmental authorities working in the Road’s area (Corpoamazonia in the western Amazon, Cormacarena in Meta and CDA in the eastern Amazon), further proving their inability to exert control over such vast areas. Just the CDA has to monitor another dirt road from Calamar to Miraflores which is being –as El Espectador goo.gl/u7Ds5w reported- illegally widened, opening up forests near Chiribiquete National Park.

This reality is easily visible in the overflights made by scientists and public officials, but is also being felt already in daily life on the ground.

Between April and May, Puerto Cachicamo villagers killed two jaguars that were prowling around their cattle, an evidence that forest loss is driving them away from their usual habitats in search of food.

This phenomenon has been observed in others locations of the Road’s outline. Late last year, another tiger was run over by a car near Puerto Concordia, on the highway between San Jose and Villavicencio. And this month, Caqueta’s environmental authority has warned that farmers in San Vicente del Caguan, Cartagena del Chaira and Montañita are reporting goo.gl/BmpFva the presence of jaguars on their land.

“Vehicle run-overs are indicators of where animals are crossing. And if they’re doing it there’s a reason: it means that spot is part of the corridors they use and that we need to come up with different solutions there,” says zoologist Esteban Payan, Colombia’s leading jaguar expert and regional director of Panthera’s Northern South America operations.

“We need zoning exercises to understand what areas of the road need friendly transepts for animals and to prevent that, if it isn’t the road, they’re not killed by the secondary services like gas stations, motels and restaurants that sprout around it,” he adds.

The weakness of regional environmental authorities

This is compounded by the fact that autonomous corporations, as the heavily-politicized and perennially under-funded regional environmental authorities are dubbed, do not have the resources to even document deforestation, let alone stop it.

The CDA of the eastern Amazon, one of the three environmental authorities with jurisdiction over the Marginal Road’s area of influence, is a good example. The public officials in its Guaviare regional office have only been able to visit the most critical area between Puerto Nuevo and Puerto Cachicamo twice in two years, on account of security risk and lack of personnel.

In early 2017 the entire staff of its Guaviare office –in charge of 53.000 square kilometers- comprised six people, three of them field officials. In June, thanks to the support of the Vision Amazonia national program, they now have five more persons, an invaluable additional workforce but still insufficient for one of the regions with highest deforestation levels.

Add to that the security factor. In April, CDA officials were returning from an operation with the Army in the Cubay rural area of El Retorno, in southern Guaviare, when their cars were jolted goo.gl/izng7b by a boom. It was an explosive artifact, seemingly installed by a FARC rebel faction that opted out of the Peace Agreement, that left one soldier dead and three persons wounded.

This means that operations, like the one carried out by the Marine Corps in February in La Carpa, where it seized 50 cubic tons of illegal wood floating on the Guayabero River, are more an exception than the rule.

Photo credit: Cortesía CDA

“This requires an intervention from the national order, because it is very difficult for us on a regional level to control the magnitude of the situation or open disciplinary procedures,” says Wilfredo Pachon, the regional chief of the CDA, as he points to a map in his office showing areas of deforestation. All of them are ironically painted green or red, indicating areas that are in theory protected by a figure called forest reserve.

The survival of the main wildlife corridor between the Andes and the Amazon may depend on the country being able to control the accelerated rate of forest clearing.