The road that is threatening to open up the Colombian Amazon

Throughout the thick green carpet extending from Caguan to Guaviare, the sound of rifles is being replaced by chainsaws and bulldozers. Thousands of acres of the forest are being knocked down in the area linking the Colombia’s well-preserved Amazon rainforest with the rest of the country, setting off alarms among scientists who see it as the first grave tension between life after conflict and the environment.

The epicenter of this budding environmental tragedy is an old project that Colombia has been promoting for more than half a century, but that has never materialized: the Marginal Jungle Road that would bridge the 381 kilometers separating San Vicente del Caguan from San José del Guaviare, as part of a plan to connect the country diagonally with Ecuador and Venezuela.

Although the road has not been greenlighted by the Colombian Government yet, its proposed layout is well known in the area and it has already become one of the eight major deforestation hotspots in the country.

For decades, the forests between Caqueta, Meta and Guaviare remained almost completely isolated due to war. They were home to some of the FARC’s most powerful structures, which –as La Silla has reported- played, at least there, the role of environmental guardians, given that the thick forest helped them hide from the Colombian Army.

This changed during the last three years.

Hundreds of people have arrived with the expectation to benefit from the road project; large cattle ranches have appeared in State-owned vacant lands where only trees stood before and illegal trades like logging and coca crops have reached their all-time highs.

This perfect storm, only six months after the signing of the Peace Agreement, has spurred a devastating loss of forest in a corner of Colombia that scientists consider an unrivalled natural treasure because it connects the Amazon with the Andes mountains and the Orinoquia savannahs.

Their fear is that a long-cherished development project like the Marginal Road can become the opening act to an incontrollable wave of migration to the region at the doorstep of the Amazon, where the state is virtually non-existent and where one of the FARC’s largest dissidences is operating.

“There is no other process of deforestation as accelerated as this one in the Amazon or in the country. We know that the road is a political reality, but how we build it will determine if we lose one of the most valuable regions in the country,” says Rodrigo Botero, the scientist who directed the regional office of Colombia’s National Parks for the Amazon for ten years and is one of the people who knows the area best.

The Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) that he leads has been documenting –through long overflights, georeferenced maps and work with local communities- the persistent rhythm of environmental destruction.

This is the Marginal Road’s proposed outline and the treasures that Colombia may lose if there is no strategy to preserve the thickest stretch of forest between La Macarena (Meta) and San Jose (Guaviare).

Visit the story on La Silla Vacia to explore an interactive map.

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