Colombia’s escalating civil war and the US Congress’ approval of 1.3 billion dollars in mostly military assistance to support ’Plan Colombia’ have made big headlines. But few people stop to think about the fact that most of Colombia’s rural violence takes place near forests. Military conflict, drugs, money laundering, and the associated economic and political crisis all greatly affect the plants and wildlife of this highly biodiverse country.
Forests in the Time of Violence: Conservation Implications of the Colombian War by Liliana Davalos of the American Museum of Natural History shows that the Colombian government has increasingly lost control of the country’s forests. Fully 66% of the Andean forests lies in municipalities with strong guerrilla or paramilitary presence, as well as 32% of the Choco’s forests and 20% of the Amazonian forest. Unpopulated and highly inaccessible areas account for much of the remainder. The national government in Bogota can make whatever forest policies it wants. But in most of these areas they have limited influence over what goes on.
In some – although by no means all – guerrilla controlled areas, these groups have imposed what Davalos calls ’gun point conservation’. In these areas, the guerrillas use land mines and restrictions on civilian activities to protect water sources and animals. The guerrillas also seek to maintain forest cover in certain areas for military purposes.
Conversion of forests to pasture often follows paramilitary victories, since many paramilitary groups are aligned with large cattle ranchers. Cattle ranching also offers a convenient way for drug traffickers to launder money. Coca and poppy fields have replaced forests in both guerrilla and paramilitary territories. The government uses herbicides to destroy these crops, which only worsens the problem because farmers typically shift their production farther into the jungle. These trends help explain why the agricultural frontier continues to expand even though the rural population declined by 0.3% per year between 1990 and 1995.
The greatest effects of all come from the huge toll the war has taken on Colombia’s economy and the general decline in institutional stability in the rural areas. In 1998, the government was forced to reduce the budget of the Ministry of the Environment to its 1978 level to pay for the war effort. Further cuts followed in 1999. With constant uncertainty, limited government services, and the breakdown in the rule of law, rural Colombians have less incentive than ever to think about the long-term environmental consequences of their actions.
Continuing conflict in Colombia over the coming years could undoubtedly have immense consequences for the nation’s forests. Little evidence suggests that the guerrillas and paramilitary groups are endangered species. Perhaps its time for the forestry community to give this issue some thought.
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