Peasant’s hands seek to conserve the Amazon

It takes about eight hours by speedboat from Cartagena del Chairá’s town centre to reach the village of El Guamo in the lower reaches of the Caguán river. Those who have made the trip before are aware that the fare is 170,000 COP, a high figure for other latitudes but natural in this region of the country with few state regulations.

They have become accustomed to surviving in the Caqueteño jungle, which is part of the Amazonian ecosystem, without the full presence of the state and clinging to any economic activity that can sustain them. However, the desire to achieve this stability has an impact on the environment. The region’s peasant leaders are aware of this.

“We know that what we’re doing to the jungle is grave, we’re not so stupid, we understand,” says a peasant farmer deep in the mangroves of Bajo Caguán who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons.

This farmer questions the efforts made by some of the state officials to conserve the environment and support communities in these tasks. “They come and say: ‘in the boat comes a 1,000-litre container to store water’, and then you are happy because if you don’t have enough money to buy it, you let yourself get tangled up and nothing else comes”. And another farmer adds: “the whole government is like that: they see that there are poor peasants here, ‘they have nowhere to drop dead, let’s get them involved’. And we receive what they offer because we need it.”

The tragedy facing the communities of Cartagena del Chairá today is not the war. What really has hundreds of Chairences under siege, and with them the Amazon rainforest, is the lack of titles to the lands they inhabit and their dependence on an economy that is unviable with the Amazon, such as extensive cattle farming, which becomes a replacement for their dependence, in the past, on the illicit economy of growing coca leaf for illicit use.

“To be honest, all of these nuances arose in the territory as a result of a lack of opportunities. There hasn’t been much recognition of the need for these peasant communities to have other options for life and production”, Aristides Oime, a social leader in the municipality, says.

Leoncio Montaña Bahamón, a farmer from the village of Las Quillas, is the voice of this lack of opportunities: “You plant a crop, for example, plantain, cassava or something like that, but it’s for your own consumption because there are no companies or anything like that will buy the goods… Nothing. If one goes to Remolino (del Caguán) with a bunch of plantains, it will be at a loss, so then what are you going to grow crops for? Because transport is very expensive, and when one arrives at the top (to the municipal capital) the food, such as plantains, arrives in a bad state”.

There are numerous conflicts between peasant needs and the environment, and hundreds of families in the municipality are requesting that they not be singled out without first learning about their shortcomings. One such example is the community of Las Quillas, which is made up of 18 poor families, the majority of whom do not have titles to the land they live on and rely on small-scale logging to supplement their cattle farming income.

With the assistance of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), these families were able to obtain resources in 2018 to construct a 300-metre wooden bridge from the Caguán River to their farms. However, due to the humidity of the jungle, they have to cut down trees every year to rebuild the damaged parts of the bridge, increasing the number of forests cut down out of sheer necessity.

From words to actions

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

Faced with the difficult Amazonian soil, the armed conflict, the place that extensive cattle ranching has taken in the region, and the cultivation of illicit crops, some peasant families have taken action to try to stop deforestation and turn around their socioeconomic conditions, thus advancing in the strengthening of ecological awareness that is beneficial to the Amazonian ecosystem.

Previous experiences have demonstrated that it is possible to find alternatives for the sustainability of Caguán’s communities without destroying the forests. This was the intention of Giacinto Franzoi, known in the communities as “Father Jacinto”, who came to Remolino del Caguán at the end of the 1980s to propose to the peasants to replace coca leaf crops for illicit use with cocoa plantations and export chocolate under the name “Chocaguán.”

Several projects in the region are being promoted in order to reduce extensive cattle farming, as was once the case with coca leaf. Baudilio Endo, 58, is one such story. He arrived in Bajo Caguán 38 years ago. This farmer’s story is similar to that of the majority of Cartagena del Chairá’s peasants: he arrived in the municipality in the 1980s, following the trail of the coca leaf and the illusion of obtaining a plot of land. After experiencing the stress of being dependent on an illegal business, he decided to venture into livestock farming in 2010.

Endo is one of a group of Chairenses who own the land on which they work. The agrarian authority granted him ownership of La Reforma, a 53-hectare farm in the Amazon Forest Reserve, just a few meters from the start of this Area of Special Environmental Interest. But, with the wisdom of years and experience, as well as the loss of his desire to make money at any cost, he criticizes the municipality’s landowners and proposes solutions.

“For example, the open lot that a single 600-hectare area has, which you can find around here and in which six families can be in, being well off with small farms and with cattle with good genetics,” says Endo.

Because Endo has title to the land on which he lives and works, he has been able to benefit from forest conservation projects, which is why he has not deforested to any significant extent for nearly ten years, keeping 23 hectares of the entire property in forest. He has cleared half a hectare for food production in some years, but he has also been quick to reforest with abarco, aguarrás, yellow oak, or sevillana trees.

Yamit Cardona is another example. He arrived in Remolino del Caguán at the age of four, which is why he considers himself to be another Chairense. The FARC guerrillas kidnapped his father and brother, but he never left the Caguán region. He started scraping coca leaves and living like a raspachin (coca collector) when he was 14 years old. Years later, he turned his life around and has spent the last seven years working as a teacher in the village of Buena Vista.

The Buena Vista school proposed planting 500 trees through the School Environmental Projects (PRAE), an initiative that incorporates critical local environmental situations into various activities of educational institutions.

“If I start with a child at a very young age and tell them: ‘see, we are going to plant this, explain to them that if we plant a fruit tree it can give us fruit in the future, if we plant timber trees too, if we plant shade trees too, but the same thing happens as with the State: the PRAE just says do, go and work there… Send us tools, send us material, support us, but in the end, they leave us alone,” the teacher explains.

Another issue that stands out is the lack of continuity. Rural teachers sign contracts with the Ministry of Education, which determines which village and department they will work in. Thus, projects like the tree-planting project that Cardona is carrying out are dismantled, as it happened at a school in the neighbouring village of Monserrate, where a teacher had planted 200 trees with his students, but then he was changed at the beginning of this year, and the person who replaced him had no idea what was going on.

Just like Cardona and Endo, hundreds of families have taken an interest in living in harmony with the Amazon rainforest. Little by little, they are consolidating their ecological awareness.

The “model farm”

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

The peasants of Bajo Caguán are eager for public and private institutions to stop pursuing isolated projects and instead collaborate to ensure that what they propose for forest conservation and the improvement of their socioeconomic conditions yields tangible results.

“They come here, gather two or three communities, talk nicely, and tell us that they are going to help us. You think to yourself, ‘maybe this one will,’ and then another one comes along who talks even better, and that’s where we are. And these middlemen keep the money “, according to a peasant farmer who was interviewed.

While the farmers of Cartagena del Chairá continue to wait for the government to provide them with comprehensive solutions for living in the Amazon without negatively impacting it and the opportunity to grow their peasant economies, some have begun to take environmental conservation into their own hands.

“We’ve already adapted to our new surroundings. We want the area to be respected and for people to live peacefully here. We’ve started our families. Most of us were born in other parts of the country, but I feel like I’m from here, and I believe many others do as well”, according to Rafael Rodrguez, former president of El Guamo’s Community Action Board. Families must change their relationship with the jungle in order to live peacefully in the Caguán region.

One such case is sprouting in the municipality’s lower part, thanks to the community-based integral farmer’s association, Nucleus 1, in Cartagena del Chairá (ACAICONUCACHA). The Cartagena del Chairá communities have a strong and truly unique organizational process. During the years of control by the 14th Front of the former FARC in the mid-1980s, the leaders consolidated their leadership, agreed to group the municipality’s hamlets into “nuclei,” and established coexistence manuals that included, among other things, environmental care.

Since 2020, ACAICONUCACHA has collaborated with the Sinchi Institute on a development plan in which 16 villages and at least 600 associates want to bet on the concept of the “model farm”: land to be worked in a technologically advanced and sustainable manner, where they grow crops and some products for the market whilst having a few cows and other animals and, also, reforest by planting native trees.

“Sinchi was extremely helpful in obtaining legal status for the association and the model farm project. We looked for resources, and some people have already given us some rolls of wire and a battery for implementing energy for the fences and house lights”, according to the former president of the Community Action Board of El Guamo.

The installation of a processing plant for the fruit of the Canangucha or Moriche palm, an Amazonian species cultivated in the Caqueta region, from which various products for human and animal food can be extracted, was part of the project’s implementation. Despite the fact that it was completed, it is not operational. This news portal discovered that in fact, the processing plant was closed in the village of El Guamo, with the machinery covered in dust.

According to the community, the SINCHI Institute never handed over the facilities with the final adjustments, and there was no assistance to continue with the project in the production phase. Officials from this institution arrived at the site at the end of April this year, promising that they would bring the community together and put the plant into operation the following June.

Although the productive projects in Bajo Caguán are not yet a reality, belief in the model farm concept remains strong. Hector Agudelo, a 65-year-old farmer who has lived in the village of Las Quillas for the past 35 years, is one of those who wants to change the way communities interact with the Amazon rainforest.

“I have a farm… “, says the farmer, “… But I don’t count on it because it’s located in the Forest Reserve Zone, and they won’t give us titles for that; adding to that the fact that they don’t want us to cut it down to plant grass for the cattle, but we want to continue working… I’m old now, I’m ready to die, but I have a very young son and I want to leave him off well. The only alternative we have is the subject of the new farm, the model farm as they call it: to sow cut grass and plant yucca and bananas in the little area we have that’s been deforested.”

The Cartagena del Chairá Municipal Agro-environmental Roundtable for the Right to Land has developed a proposal for a “model farm” for the region’s reality. “This is dependent on the state’s and the government’s willingness to invest in the region. We have stated that ‘if the government is willing, we will stop deforestation’”, says Aristides Oime, Roundtable member and regional leader.

Given the slowness of the state, non-governmental organizations such as the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development have played an important role in accompanying the peasants (FCDS).

“Because several have arrived, but the manner in which they have done so, or the permanence, has not been the same, there have been very few options in which organizations or the state have offered projects. What we’ve accomplished allows us to move with a sense of calm”, says Emilio Rodríguez, a researcher at the FCDS, noting that the armed conflict means they must be cautious in the region to avoid problems with dissidents of the now-defunct FARC guerrilla due to the strict control they exercise over outsiders visiting the Caguán region.

“There is a great opportunity to do an agroforestry project, which means that where there was previously a pasture, a system of timber trees, fruit trees, and pancoger (crops that are corn, beans, cassava, and bananas, among others) should be planted. And both the fruit trees and the pancoger will be useful to their domestic economy in a short period of time”, explains Rodriguez, which translates into helping families’ economies by reducing their reliance on store-bought fruits and vegetables, reforesting affected areas, and developing a peasant project that generates income for families.

With these goals in mind, the FCDS is demonstrating to the communities how community forestry can help them develop, in part, what they have dubbed the “model farm”. Ninety families in Nucleus 1 have joined this proposal and are investigating the possibility of harvesting timber and non-timber products with Sinchi.

“A lady in the village of El Capricho gave us tomato tree juice; imagine where that tomato tree grew! The tomato tree grows above 2,000 meters above sea level. That lady paid for that tree tomato to give us juice, ignoring the fact that she’s surrounded by a forest where she could have a lot of Caguán forest products and fruits from which she and her family could benefit “, explains Rodríguez.

Some of the most profitable products in Bajo Caguán are azai or melipolicultivation, from which honey can be extracted at a high market price, which is why approximately 20 families will begin producing honey with the Foundation.

Given the difficult soil for agriculture and the high costs of transporting the products upriver, how profitable is it to promote azaí and beekeeping projects in Bajo Caguán? Hundreds of farmers in the area have asked this question: “Who buys these products, I wonder? Where is the project being sold? We plant a quarter-hectare of arazá, which produces a lot of fruit, and after we load the harvest into the boat to take it out, do we leave that seed to rot? There is no sure-fire way out “, claims a farmer from Las Quillas.

The expert’s response to the aforementioned is that for this type of project to be successful, it must be designed specifically for a specific market. “If you produce honey from bees in Bajo Caguán, it is associated with the protection of the forest that borders and protects Chiribiquete, and it must be sold in a different way and to a different target public. I am confident that there will be people interested in purchasing this type of product, even from outside the country”, he says without a shadow of a doubt.

In this respect, Rafael Rodríguez, from his farm in the depths of Bajo Caguán, considers that this type of proposal is a good alternative for peasants like him, who have deforested between 30 and 40 hectares, to stop cutting down trees and begin to recover the forests. 

“We are looking for a way of life in the region that we can sustain ourselves…,” says the former president of El Guamo’s Community Action Board, “… And we believe that with new styles of farms we can do it, but the problem is the floating people in the region. Some of us accept this responsibility, while others do not, making it difficult to reach a general agreement, and I’m not just talking about El Guamo, but about the Caguán river in general.”

“We need Payments for Environmental Services,” says this farmer, implying that the state should give money to families in exchange for conserving the forests on their land. However, in order to access these conservation incentives, the land tenure situation of the Chairenses must be reviewed jointly with the state, as the Oime leader demands: “go and check because there are many farmers who may not have the document, but have a tradition of years in the territory.”

Natural Conservation Contracts are expected

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

“To achieve zero deforestation, institutions or the state would step in and say, ‘we are going to contribute a monthly payment to each farmer so that they don’t cut down their forest, only just for food’, so, both myself and the community are here, waiting for that day to arrive”, says a farmer from the village of Las Quillas.

Until now, the Natural Conservation Contracts have been the only option on the table for families like the ones from Las Quillas’ who live and work in the Forest Reserve Zone to ensure their permanence in the territory and receive income for caring for the forest (CCN).

This is a comprehensive conservation strategy that, for the first time in Colombia, allows for the legalization of peasant communities’ historical occupation and the promotion of sustainable management in Areas of Special Environmental Interest designated by Law 2 of 1959, the replacement of illicit crops, and the strengthening of communities’ agricultural production in specific polygons determined by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

This pact would provide some legal security to the families who subscribe to these CCNs by allowing them to be a recognized occupant for a period ranging from 1 to 10 years, depending on the activities they carry out, with the possibility of extension if their contractual obligations were met.

“According to article 7th of the Climate Action Law No. 2169 of 2021, CCN is a strategy that includes the granting of Land Use Rights and the conclusion of Conservation Agreements with rural families who inhabit unallowable wastelands, such as the Forest Reserve Zones of Law 2a of 1959”, writes Tatiana Watson, manager of the Presidential Council for Stabilisation and Consolidation, in a written response to this website.

What exactly are these two components? According to the manager of the Presidential Council for Stabilisation and Consolidation, Voluntary Conservation Agreements are mechanisms that guide land management, provide access to payment for environmental services, develop restoration processes, and/or establish long-term productive projects.

Conservation Agreements can only be delivered after Right of Use Contracts are granted, a legal act granted by the National Land Agency (ANT) that grants “the right to the use and enjoyment of the land, recognizing the environmental regulations, including the Forest Reserve established by Law 2 of 1959.”

However, the demand for Right of Use Contracts became a source of contention among Cartagena del Chairá’s former coca-growing communities. According to the peasants, the User Agreements do not guarantee land ownership and create insecurity for the lands of the inhabitants because they do not recognize their official ownership.

The signing of the Peace Accord accelerated the transition of Cartagena del Chairá’s economy from coca to livestock, but it could have been different if the families who planted the illicit crop had other agro-productive and sustainable state projects.

“It was the right time for the state to come to the territories to provide farmers with alternatives for technification or for livestock or agricultural training in the region, with productive projects, not with minor projects of ‘we’ll give you 20 hens; two, three pigs; and that’s it'”, says Aristides Oime.

This leader and dozens of peasants with whom this portal was able to speak are referring to the implementation of the National Programme for the Integral Substitution of Illicitly Used Crops (PNIS), through which productive projects would be consolidated to remove 2,347 families (1,548 growers, 56 non-growers and 743 collectors) from coca leaf cultivation in this Caqueteño municipality.

However, after several years of waiting for its effective implementation, they now feel disappointed and confused. (Read more in: PNIS, a programme that has been implemented in dribs and drabs).

Although monitoring reports on the implementation of the Immediate Attention Plan issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) show that by 2020, more than 70% of the country’s food security assistance had been achieved, the process was marked by serious non-compliance and productive projects stalled, in part because many families who signed this agreement and voluntarily eradicated live in Forest Reserve Areas, hampered implementation.

The alternative proposed to develop the PNIS in these Special Environmental Protection Areas was through Natural Conservation Contracts, but the terms for accessing these did not go down well with the communities.

“Why would they take two million pesos out of the PNIS to assume the commitment of the Right of Use contracts?” asks an annoyed farmer from Las Quillas.

According to several farmers, PNIS officials met with them to inform them that if they wanted the productive projects to be developed on land within the Amazon Forest Reserve Zone, the program would “discount” two million pesos from the amount that each family had set aside for the productive projects, money that would be used to carry out the ANT’s requested inspection of the land.

Watson of the Presidential Advisory Office for Stabilisation and Consolidation clarifies that neither of the two components of the Nature Conservation Contracts – Use Rights Contracts and Voluntary Conservation Agreements – are free of charge to stakeholders.

“The procedure to advance the CDU -Contracts of Rights of Use- has no cost for the families. The technical studies imply some costs that the agricultural sector leads with the support of allies such as public, private or international cooperation entities, but in none of the cases is the cost assumed by the family”, explains the official.

It specifies that “the value of such studies will be determined according to the conditions of the study areas” and, similarly, assures that “the Voluntary Conservation Agreement, in Payment for Environmental Services schemes, has no cost for the entry of beneficiaries”.

VerdadAbierta.com contacted the press office of the National Land Agency (ANT), in addition to emailing Campo Elías Vega Rocha, deputy director of Land Administration of the Nation, to find out about the alleged costs that families were being charged for the PNIS funds for the studies of the Use Rights Contracts, but at the time of going to press no response had been received.

In an interview with this portal, Hernando Londoño, director of Illicit Crop Substitution at the Agency for the Renewal of the Territory (ART), clarified that no money was being taken from the seven thousand families living in the Forest Reserve Zone and no money was being deducted from the PNIS.

“The investment of public resources in public property in favour of private individuals is not only prevarication by action, but also embezzlement in favour of third parties. I cannot invest public resources in territories owned by the nation in favour of private parties”, Londoño said.

“The Forest Reserve Zones,” he adds, “are property of the Nation, public goods, and the PNIS resources are public goods, only that they go to a third party that said it was going to replace them, but that third party is located in the Forest Reserve Zone. I cannot implement productive projects for a peasant farmer if he does not have the right to use that territory.”

“This is a problem between a beneficiary (of the PNIS) and the National Land Agency… “, he continues, “… It is not my problem. The only thing I have to say to the farmer is ‘show me the right of use that the Land Agency gave you in order to implement the PNIS, but if I act under that strict order of what I am saying, then I will never implement the PNIS’.

The ANT replied to Londoño that it had neither the money nor the people to do this. For this reason, the PNIS director proposed to Campo Elías Vega that, through the operators of the Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops, he could carry out the inspection of the properties, so that the ANT could carry out the administrative procedures with the information gathered in the territory.

In the Polygons set up by the Ministry of the Environment in the Areas of Special Environmental Interest, Londoño spoke to the families to tell them that the PNIS directorate was going to help them obtain the Use Rights Contracts, including several families from Cartagena del Chairá.

“What did we do as a Programme? Come on, Mr. farmer, we help you with the Right of Use and your processing costs are assumed by the Programme, and we ‘give’ you seven million from the short-cycle projects – because there are nine million in total – until I receive resources to cover the two million that the processing of the Right of Use costs me”.

What Hernando Londoño told VerdadAbierta.com is that once it has sufficient resources, the Directorate for the Substitution of Illicit Crops will complete the two million for the short cycle that will be taken from the PNIS resources with money from another fund that he did not specify, with the families from all over the country who expressed their desire to take this alternative up to 18 April.

“Here they are trying to tell people: ‘this is how it is and you either sign it or you don’t’,” questions Rodríguez of the FCDS, who believes that special care should be taken to ensure that this is an exercise in dialogue in sight cannot be lost of the fact that they are trying to grant vulnerable communities the right to use land in protected areas under conservation parameters.

Priceless opportunity stalled

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

The FCDS researcher considers the Natural Conservation Contracts to be a great opportunity to halt the decline of the Amazon: “This is where a good part of the solutions begin, because it is there that the state makes a first recognition of a farmer who is settled in the Forest Reserve of Law 2, be it zone A, zone B, zone C; this did not exist”.

“What happens is…” he continues, “… That putting it into practice is complicated, and in my opinion, because a large part of this exercise is associated with those who have been growing coca, but there is a lot more potential for families who are no longer involved, but I do believe that there’s a lack of education on the subject.”

However, the Chairenses have little to regret, as the implementation of the Nature Conservation Contracts has not achieved the progress that had been announced in the face of the great expectation it generated among the communities.

Andrés Valencia, current president of the Board of Las Quillas village, explains that in the region they have held community meetings to discuss opportunities for payments for environmental services: “we are for that, we are committed to no cutting down, that the mountain we have gives us the sustenance to sustain ourselves and to work with the cut pieces we already have… “, he says, “… But for that the families in his community need Conservation Contracts.”

On February 17th, 2021, the same day that vaccination against Covid-19 began in the country, President Duque’s government announced the start of another important process: the delivery of 111 Natural Conservation Contracts to families in the municipality of Tierralta, Córdoba, where hundreds of farmers will receive payments for environmental services for conserving 400 hectares of forest.

On that day he announced that the government’s goal would be to deliver 9,596 Nature Conservation Contracts by the end of his term in 2022. In 2021 alone, he had set a target of delivering more than 5,000 of these; however, with four months to go before the end of his term in office, the results would show a resounding failure on those claims.

According to the Presidential Council for Stabilization and Consolidation, only 111 Tierralta contracts have been delivered to date, with 200 Right of Use Contracts signed. “The remaining processes are in the execution stage”, they say, adding that while there are no contracts of this type in Caquetá, there are 649 processes in the department aiming to sign Right of Use Contracts: 345 in San Vicente del Caguán, 181 in Cartagena del Chairá, 49 in Solano, 35 in El Doncello, and 30 in La Montanita.

The communities that VerdadAbierta.com was able to talk to in Cartagena del Chairá were interested in signing the Natural Conservation Contracts but were concerned that they were uncertain about what would happen to their permanence in the territory after the term of these contracts expired.

In this regard, Watson tells this portal that the minutes of the contract establish the option to have extensions and the possibility of continuing to occupy the property properly even if the contract is terminated. In case of early termination of the contract by mutual agreement, “the AGENCY will resume the administration of the BALDÍO PROPERTY according to its functional and missionary competencies, without this meaning the delivery of the same by the USER”, specifies one of the clauses.

Hundreds of families have great expectations, although they are still only dreams: “If someone were to arrive… ” says a farmer from the region, “… And tell us ‘this is for you and every month, every two months, every six months, every year we are going to pay you so much to conserve’… but that someone would arrive at least! Here, entities keep arriving and nothing happens.”

Deforestation: jail for farmers and free rein for big cattle ranchers

Because the rainfall in the Colombian Amazon decreases between November and February each year, the levels of tree felling and burning rise during these months. Traces of this practice can be found along the road that connects the municipalities of El Paujil and Cartagena del Chairá in Caquetá.

The burnt pieces of yarumo and ceiba lying on the ashy grass and orange soil, on the other hand, are far from the main cause of deforestation in the Amazon. These are the small burns left by families who deforest in order to survive in the only way they know how: by encroaching on the forest.

“The peasant is not the most prolific deforester. People arrive with a landowner’s approach, in addition to the rules of coexistence that we have. When a peasant farmer is not trained to cut down 100, 200, or 300 hectares, these people do it”, according to a peasant leader from Cartagena del Chairá who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Higher levels of deforestation can be seen in the Caguán River’s waters. Hundreds of cattle are transported by barge to the municipal capital of Cartagena del Chairá to be sold.

People from outside the region who arrive in Caguán are looking for profits from extensive cattle ranching at the expense of the jungle in a municipality where communities are eager to get their hands on a piece of land and where the cattle business is presented as the best legal way to make money.

Poor peasants who cut down two or three hectares a year to grow food crops and keep a few cows; landowners who hire impoverished peasants to cut down large tracts of forest and manage their cattle; and peasants with land who collaborate with ranchers to consolidate cattle ranching and ambitiously expand their pastures to the detriment of the jungle are the three groups involved in deforestation practices in Cartagena del Chairá.

How did the forest disappear in Cartagena del Chairá, a territory only a few could enter? Everything seems to indicate that not even war can stop the cattle plan that is destroying the Amazon; in the meantime, the state wrongfully persecutes the most vulnerable populations, which it never cared for in the first place and now criminalizes.

FARC out, deforestation in

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

A leader who has lived in Caquetá for more than a half-century and in the Bajo Caguán region for nearly four decades, he worked as a teacher in the department in the 1980s until resigning to pursue a lucrative business in Cartagena del Chairá: the cultivation of coca leaf for illicit use. He became involved in the organizational process over time, became a community leader, and helped to establish several Community Action Boards (Community Action Boards).

Back then, the jungle was cleared to expand the coca leaf plantations, but deforestation was not a major concern. Chainsaws had not yet been introduced in that decade, so trees were cut down with an axe, mostly for plots of half a hectare, according to some leaders.

“I am someone who actively participates in the processes, and the government in this region has never sent anyone to instruct, socialize, or teach us. We peasants have continued to work these lands through environmental culture: slash and burn, burn and sow. Of course, we had no idea we were harming the environment… we had no idea” This leader, who prefers to remain anonymous, expresses himself with a hint of guilt.

For years, it was the former FARC guerrillas, particularly the 14th Front, who imposed environmental care in Caguán, encouraging and respecting leadership and organizational processes in the region. As a result, the communities of Cartagena del Chairá agreed to organize the municipality’s villages into “nuclei” and form committees to ensure coexistence and environmental stewardship. Murcia is the Nucleus 4 coordinator.

“They – the former FARC – taught us through the Environmental and Agrarian Committees that we had to protect the flora, fauna, and water sources; this is documented in our coexistence manuals, as well as that nothing can be cut down within 30 meters of a riverbank or within 30 meters of a water source; tapirs, deer, tigers, or curassows cannot be killed also. Anyone who does so is fined up to five million pesos by the village committee”, the leader reminds us.

These coexistence manuals to which the leader refers became the tacit laws of Cartagena del Chairá from the mid-1980s onwards. The rules established that a settler, in order to clear forest, had to ask permission from the Community Action Board, the Agrarian Committee and the Environmental Committee, which established how many hectares he could deforest and always in small plots. Through these agreements, the former FARC supported social processes and ensured the care of the forest.

These manuals state that “there will be no more colonisation in protected areas,” that “no farm should be left with less than 25% of mountain reserve,” and that the Community Action Boards should keep a census of the farms, specifying the hectares of pasture and virgin forest in each of them; it is also requested that outsiders entering the region notify the region’s leaders. However, since the signing of the Peace Accord in November 2016, these instructions have not been followed as strictly as they were during the former FARC’s rule.

With the departure of this guerrilla group on their way to reincorporation, the peasant communities of Cartagena del Chairá were left without a state and without law, but with the commitment to care for the jungle as they had done in the past; however, the outsiders who began to arrive ignored such agreements and are shamelessly attacking the environment.

Several municipal leaders recall that in September 2016, they received reports from some villages that “new people” had entered to invade forest reserved areas, specifically in three villages: Lejanas Uno, Lejanas Dos, and Monterrey, all of which are part of Nucleus 7.

The leaders immediately filed a complaint with Corpoamazona, the region’s environmental authority, using the minutes submitted by the Community Action Boards, warning of what would be the start of an avalanche of tombs and burnings, but they put it on hold.

On December 13th, that year, one of the leaders was summoned to present the deforestation picture to various state institutions in charge of environmental protection. He drew a map and pointed out the three villages where, according to the Community Action Board records, 42 people had initially entered, but three months later, at least 880 people were known to have taken virgin lands in the Amazon Forest Reserve Zone.

In the months that followed, the “environmental bubble,” an inter-institutional articulative initiative led by the Sixth Division of the National Army, began to be implemented in Caquetá in order to prevent, intervene, and mitigate deforestation – a model that would later be adopted in the departments of Amazonas, Guaina, Guaviare, Meta, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, and Vaupés. However, the outcome of said initiative has not been as anticipated.

But who were these people who had arrived to take over areas of the virgin forest? Many came from municipalities such as San Vicente del Caguán, Puerto Rico, and El Paujil, according to the communities. “Some rich people financed them to go and take 500 hectares of mountain and gave them 15, 20 million pesos,” explains a municipality leader who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Some of these forest occupations had begun years before but without the massive deforestation footprint. Tierra Linda, a hamlet that grew dramatically in 2017, is one of the most notorious cases in the region. According to regional leaders, in 2010, 23 families presented themselves before the Community Action Boards of Nucleus 2 with a supposedly signed permit to settle in Cartagena del Chairá signed by the former FARC – but not by the 14th Front that operated in Cartagena del Chairá, but by the Teófilo Forero Mobile Column and the Eastern Block.

This is how each family acquired between 117 and 500 hectares of virgin forest on a plot of land seven hours by horseback from Remolinos del Caguán to the vicinity of the La Urella stream, and a few kilometres from the Serrana de Chiribiquete National Natural Park. Following the FARC’s departure at the end of 2016, families cleared large swaths of mangrove forest.

Although the leaders of Cartagena del Chairá did not agree with the situation, they could not oppose the alleged permission they had received from the former FARC. However, there are rumours that these individuals were not endorsed by the former guerrillas, and that this is due to the alleged interest of a family in owning land in the municipality: the Pulecio family, about which little information is available in the region. Those who dare to speak out, claim that they, the Pulecio family, have satellite internet in Tierra Linda and drive around the trails in flashy pick-up trucks.

“They cut down at least 2,350 hectares in less than three years, and it is now much larger. If you consider that one hectare can only hold two cattle to feed on good grass, and these people can raise between 1,500 and 2,000 steers per year! So, imagine how much land these people have… and how much money they have “, claims a leader that spoke to this portal, who prefers to remain anonymous because he believes discussing this family could jeopardize his safety.

The communities also blame two agricultural and veterinary product traders. They are Mario Tejada, owner of Proveedora Tierras y Ganado, and José Alirio Barreto Yanten, owner of Campolider S A S, both of which are in Cartagena del Chaira’s town centre. They are being investigated for, allegedly, deforesting a large area of forest in order to build extensive cattle ranches in the Barcelona neighbourhood of Nucleus 15.

VerdadAbierta.com tracked down both businessmen using phone numbers found in Florencia’s Chamber of Commerce records. The person who answered the phone for Tejada’s company was evasive with answers about his alleged role in Amazon deforestation, and communication on Barreto’s numbers was impossible.

According to regional leaders, in 2018, at a meeting in Remolinos del Caguán that brought together several core coordinators from all over the municipality and in which several state entities, including Corpoamazona, participated, the spokespersons of the communities denounced the people who were deforesting the forest with their own names and ID numbers, but nothing happened and, on the contrary, the denouncers made new enemies.

“The government institutions never say anything to these people; it’s the poor people who are being set up,” they say within their own communities.

Furthermore, a list of social leaders was circulated in Cartagena del Chairá weeks after that meeting, whom FARC dissidents declared a “military objective.” It was later revealed that those threatened were simply doing their socio-environmental work. But the fear is anything but dormant.

Municipal leaders agree that most landowners in the Middle and Lower Caguán live outside the region and have stewards or peasant partners working the farms. They visit the farms on occasion, but they quickly leave.

Livestock interests

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

Large tracts of the jungle must be deforested, which costs a lot of money. According to the quick calculations of a Bajo Caguán social leader who preferred anonymity for security reasons, he stated that “a hectare of clearing is worth around one million pesos because you will not be able to clear it yourself: the food, the tools, the gasoline, everything! Those who clear more than five hectares are those who assist them… who pay them.”

Emilio Rodriguez, a researcher at the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), believes cattle ranchers from all over the country are sending cattle to the south, specifically Medio and Bajo Caguán, to fatten them up and then sell them at a profit. Several leaders agree that they are from Cundinamarca, Antioquia, Huila, and, most notably, Valle del Cauca.

Farmers in the area explain how the business works: one farmer pays for the deforestation, another fixes pastures, and a third brings in the cattle. They leave one or two cattle per hectare for two to three years, then sell each head of cattle for $2.5 million and split the profits.

“The big deforesters find cover within the small ones, and that’s what they’re doing to us,” a farmer from the Las Quillas area complains. Another peasant farmer in this community gives the following example of a family with a few cattle: “Consider Las Quillas, where the most trees that were chopped were over a three-hectare area. Unfortunately, we are a herd of poor people in this village “, and he also specifies that in this community of 18 families, the family with the most cattle has around 30, and the family with the most deforestation has chopped arounds three hectares at the start of this year.

Even though cattle production is currently a major concern, livestock farming did not appear in the municipality following the departure of the former FARC. According to a legend, it was the state itself that promoted and encouraged this economic activity among war victims.

The communities refer to the displacements experienced by residents of Bajo Caguán during the years of Plan Patriota – the military strategy implemented during then-President Alvaro Uribe’s first term in office (2002-2006 and 2006-2010), which sought to reclaim territories previously dominated by the FARC. When it reopened in the mid-2000s, the Agrarian Bank made loans to the Solidarity Economy Association of the Middle and Lower Caguán (ASOES) to promote livestock farming.

“For the first loan, the Agrarian Bank lent more than $1.2 billion, giving each farmer six million pesos in cattle. The farmers then began to deforest the mountains in order to make room for the cattle. A farmer with one hectare of coca mountain could subsist on that. On the other hand, if he wanted to live off cattle, he required large extensions of the mountain to make a living from milk and cheese “, says a regional leader who has lived in the Bajo Caguán region for over 20 years.

The communities recall that, by 2015, the national government focused on the beginnings of deforestation, but the real ravages of forest clearance came in 2017 when people became convinced that cattle ranching would be the activity that would legally generate money.

“By 2017 and 2018, there was evidence that there was a large capital financing peasants to clear forest. During that period, it was clear that there was a capital of dubious origin, deriving from landowners, including people from Medellín and other parts of the country, who realized that this area was good to cut down, plant pastures, and get the cattle out quickly,” the leader claims.

Statistics back up what the leader previously stated. Caquetá has seen a steady increase in cattle and cattle farms. According to the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA), there was 1,340,049 heads of cattle and 13,263 cattle farms in Caquetá in 2016. By 2021, there would be 2,079,194 cattle and 19,000 farms registered. This translates to a 55% increase in cattle heads and a 43% increase in cattle holdings over the course of five years.

By 2021, Cartagena del Chairá had risen to a second place in the department for the number of animals and land dedicated to livestock farming, only after San Vicente del Caguán. According to the ICA, 307,415 cattle and 2,047 cattle farms were registered, representing an increase of 137% and 84%, respectively, over 2016 records.

Leadership, under risk

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

“The dissidents arrived two years after the Peace Accord’s signing to control the area but there was nothing left to control,” explains a regional leader who prefers to remain anonymous. He specifies that the illegal armed group has instructed him that 30% of the land they take can be used for production, 10% for rotation, and the remaining 60% for conservation.

“They, the FARC dissidents, say, ‘We can’t stop people from coming into work because we are also peasants,’ but they don’t impose themselves in that regard. They do impose themselves, however, on the case of bringing people from other parts of the country to work in this region. There is no problem for them if it is people who are going to work there “, claims another leader with a long history in the Bajo Caguán region.

Those interviewed take varying positions on the role of FARC dissidents in deforestation. Some contradict the claims that they remain on the sidelines or that they are interested in environmental conservation. “They help to fund deforestation and encourage people to plant coca. A farmer arrives and says, ‘Let me cut 100 hectares, I’ll give you a certain amount’”, says a farmer who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons.

These versions of the dissidents’ interests are acknowledged by an official of a state institution who requested that his name and that of the organization be kept confidential due to his position: “There is no defining line. Some allow it, while others do not. It’s not so much of where they allow it as much as where they don’t allow it. Where it is not permitted is closer to where the new Segunda Marquetalia structures are, in San Vicente Alto, high in the mountain range. Regarding the Front 1 dissidents, we see that, though not as clearly, they benefit from deforestation because they tell people to “sow and cultivate such and such, or they allow others to carry out these deforestations. This type of deforestation would not occur if they were protected.”

Between 2016 and 2017, the communities of Middle and Lower Caguán coexisted with irregular armed forces groups, although it is unclear whether they were from the former FARC or third parties who took advantage of the lack of authority at the time. During those years, the dissidents of Fronts 1 and 7 began to occupy the Caqueta jungle between the Guayas and Caguán rivers, with influence in Puerto Rico, San Vicente del Caguán, and Cartagena del Chairá.

The Miller Perdomo Front, a dissident structure of the former FARC’s Eastern Bloc, initially led by Édgar Mesas Salgado Aragón, alias ‘Rodrigo Cadete,’ who was at the helm of this illegal armed group until his death in February 2019 during a military operation, burst onto the scene in this context. He is credited with combating common crime while posing as a member of the FARC and uniting the presence of dissidents in that Amazon region.

Following the death of alias ‘Cadete,’ several former guerrillas assumed command of the Miller Perdomo Front, with some meeting the same fate as their predecessor or, on the contrary, being captured. Germán Amado Porras, alias ‘Cipriano González,’ a seasoned 40th Front fighter in charge of the former FARC’s training schools, was killed by army troops on August 17, last year.

Since that time, community leaders have been unsure of whom the dissident leader in charge of the Miller Perdomo Front is, causing confusion and insecurity regarding the limits of said leadership. “The dissidents, unlike the true FARC, do not have a clear north. That is why we have found ourselves between a rock and a hard place. The path to becoming a leader has become more difficult “concludes a regional leader who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Even though this dissident front is one of the most powerful in Bajo Caguán, tensions remain in the lower Caquetá River region with a group known as the Bolivarian Border Command, which in February 2021 allied with the so-called Second Marquetalia, led by ‘Iván Márquez,’ who was against the Peace Agreement despite being a member of the negotiating team and, ultimately, took up arms again.

Counting falling trees

Photo: Unidos por los Bosques – Fundación para la Conservación y el Desarrollo Sostenible (FCDS).

According to Yolanda González Hernández, director-general of the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), natural forests cover 71% of the department of Caquetá’s surface area, “with nearly 6.4 million hectares of forest, representing 16% of the forest area of the Colombian Amazon and 11% of the country’s total forest.”

This institution’s deforestation monitoring has not yet finished consolidating last year’s figures, and it’s not even possible to consult the last two Early Deforestation Detection bulletins (n° 28 and 29 respectively) on the situation in the second half of 2021 because, according to the press office, they are still being designed and published.

The most recent data on the impact of deforestation is from 2020. In that year, the Caquetá department recorded 32,522 hectares of deforestation, representing a 7% increase in IDEAM data compared to 2019, when deforestation was recorded at 30,317 hectares.

“For the last four years, from 2017 to 2020, a consolidated area of 169,904 hectares was identified for the jurisdiction of the department of Caquetá, with 2017 being the year with the most deforestation, with 60,301 hectares,” González says. This means that Caquetá, an area larger than the Hong Kong Island in China, has been deforested in four years.

During this period, the Caqueta municipalities that have accumulated the largest deforested areas are San Vicente del Caguán (72,092 hectares); Cartagena del Chairá (65,749 hectares); and Solano (22,107 hectares). However, if the total area of the municipalities is considered, Cartagena del Chairá is the most deforested region in percentage terms, losing the equivalent of almost 526,000 Olympic swimming pools in virgin forests.

According to the Sinchi Institute through the Territorial Information System of the Colombian Amazon (SIAT-AC), the two municipalities with the highest indexes of hot spots – thermal variations in the land surface that can resemble fires – were San Vicente del Caguán (49,613) and Cartagena del Chairá (32,587).

According to this data, the year with the highest recorded hot spots in Cartagena del Chairá occurred this year. So far in 2022, the SIAT-AC recorded 10,903 hot spots in the municipality, double the records of 2020, the second highest.

VerdadAbierta.com sought an interview with Corpoamazonía officials to get their analysis of what is happening in Cartagena del Chairá, but although they were given a guide of questions, they delayed their response because they are waiting for the deforestation figures from IDEAM to “provide accurate data”.

Prosecute action against deforestation

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

With Ruling STC 4360 DE 2018, the result of a guardianship action filed by 25 children and young teens around the country, the Supreme Court of Justice protected the rights of the Colombian Amazon, ordering the State to formulate a short, medium and long-term action plan to counteract the rate of deforestation.

Leaders of Cartagena del Chairá and neighbouring municipalities consider that this plan is only seen as a military action which, in practice, has no effective control over the territory, due to the fact that, although the National Navy verifies and photographs identity cards and registers the belongings of all those who navigate the Caguán river at different points, no military presence is present on the trail that goes from Remolinos del Caguán to the town centre of the municipality.

“We thought that the operations were against people who were inside the National Parks because there were people who had their cattle taken away, captured and taken away,” says a leader from the region who asked for his name to be withheld, and continues: “But at the end of 2020, Operation Artemisa is coming to Cartagena del Chairá after the areas of Law 2 of 1959, the Forest Reserve Zones”.

The first operation took place on October 11, 2020. On that occasion, the 17th Prosecutor’s Office of the Specialised Directorate against Human Rights Violations in Medellín requested 16 raids in the municipalities of San Vicente del Caguán and Cartagena del Chairá and arrested nine people, accusing them of the crimes of invasion of Areas of Special Ecological Importance, illegal exploitation of renewable natural resources and arson. They were released the following day.

During one of the raids Isaac Páez was captured, a farmer who for several years lived on a 170-hectare farm in the village of Lejanías in nucleus 14, but had sold it in 2018 to move to the town centre of the municipality.

On October 29 of the same month, another operation took place in Cartagena del Chairá, but this time only Páez was captured. He was again released the following day. “The judge decided to release us because the evidence he had was not conclusive, the only fact was that we were living in a Law 2 zone,” said Páez.

The journalistic programme Direct Witness in its November 30 broadcast entitled: Dissidents and drug traffickers: a perverse alliance against the Colombian Amazon presented an organisation chart that included a photo of Páez with the alias of ‘Misingo’ and linked him as the right-hand man of ‘Gentil Duarte’ in the deforestation of the south of the department of Meta. He based this accusation on information provided by the Environmental Security Headquarters of the Carabineros Police, headed by Colonel Óscar Daza. “This photo was taken on October 10, when I was captured in the Larandia installations”, says Páez in an official document which he sent to the Caquetá Ombudsman office.

“Plan Artemisa is for the poor,” reproaches another leader of the municipality. “Plan Artemisa is a persecution of the poor and of the ordinary peasants. The arrests that were made were of poor people who are struggling to have a better future for their children. But if you look at the people who have two or three thousand hectares, Plan Artemisa has not touched them at all”.

At the beginning of December, last year, several media outlets published the faces of eight men and one woman, presented as “the most wanted for deforestation in the Colombian Amazon”. The Ministry of Defence offered a reward of 20 million dollars for information leading to their capture. Again, peasants in Caquetá denounced that an error had been made in this information.

This is the case of Esteban Cruz Chilo. The local media “Lente Regional” raised the complaint of his family, who argued that he was a poor and elderly peasant farmer from San Vicente del Caguán.

Two months later, three of those named were arrested and in April of the same year four more turned themselves in. One of them was Cruz, who denounced that the whole thing was a set-up. He explained that he turned himself in not because he was guilty, but to avoid further damage to his integrity.

In the new “cartel of deforesters” that the Ministry of Defence disseminated through its social networks in February last year, it placed at the top of their list Jaiber Galindo Muñoz, a 45-year-old professional born into a peasant family in Saladoblanco, Huila, who was taken to live in Cartagena del Chairá at a very young age. Although he graduated as a psychologist, he never left the municipality of Caqueteño, where he is an outstanding social leader.

In 2007, he and his wife bought a farm in Los Andaquíes, a hamlet in Nucleus 15, which they deeded and on which they pay taxes. “I am one of the people who has deforested the least, anyone can see that,” says Galindo, who has insisted on putting a stop to deforestation for the past five years.

With the departure of the FARC, this psychologist became concerned about the hundreds of families who came to take over the nation’s wastelands that were part of the Amazon Forest Reserve Zone.

“Most of them were peasants,” the leader recalls, “90% of them were people who had never had the opportunity to own land. They started in a totally disorderly way: knockdown, damage, take and sell. As I was involved in several community processes, many people asked me what we could do to stop this issue of wastelands from continuing. So, we called people together and created an association.”

This is the Peasant Association for Environmental Protection and Agroforestry Production of Cartagena del Chairá (ASOPROACAR) – which Isaac Páez also supported – this association brought together 14 Juntas de Acción Comunal that were created in the areas that the families had taken over and which bordered nuclei 4, 5, 7 and 15 – encompassing the entire region from the Monterrey hamlet to the mouth of the Lobos outflow in the Yarí river.

Galindo took on the task of teaching people how to reduce deforestation, but paradoxically, this role put him in the institutional spotlight. However, it was not the first time he had been recognised for his activism in the region.

In 2015, Galindo and Páez denounced the current mayor of Cartagena del Chairá, Edilberto Molina Hernández, who by that year was the manager of Gendecar S.A.E.S.P., a company that managed the public lighting service in the non-interconnected hamlets of Cartagena del Chairá, Solano and San Vicente del Caguán.

Galindo complained that despite the company receiving subsidies from the Ministry of Mines and Energy to provide electricity to vulnerable communities, the service was not provided in at least 12 villages.

In 2017, the Superintendency of Household Public Utilities issued an indictment against Gendecar for submitting inaccurate information on the provision of electricity services between October 2014 and December 2016 in San Vicente del Caguán and Cartagena del Chairá. Although the Public Prosecutors Office found the company responsible, to date the process is still active and there is no final judgement.

“Together with Jesús Narváez – another one of those who appear on the police poster – we got a lawyer and we presented ourselves on July 7 last year and there we agreed with the Cartagena del Chairá Prosecutor’s Office, through what is known as a principle of opportunity, to avoid prosecution, that we would give some training motivating people, not to deforest and that we would plant some trees. That would practically end the process”, explains Galindo, who is awaiting a hearing to finalise the issue “and define how many trees we have to plant and how many talks we have to give”, a mechanism, he adds, that will prevent him from ending up in a trial in which he fears that false evidence will be presented against him.

Like Galindo’s situation, there are other cases involving at least 22 peasants accused of deforestation – at least eight from Cartagena del Chaira. Some were arrested, others voluntarily presented themselves to the Public Prosecutors Office and were released on the condition that they could not return to the rural properties where they lived. However, as they have no other place to live, they remain on their farms in fear that the state will come after them.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Defence released a new poster with the details of 17 people accused of deforestation in the Amazon. Leaders consulted in Cartagena del Chairá do not know how many of them are from this municipality, but there are doubts that they are the real predators of the forest.

In order to find out more details, VerdadAbierta.com sent a right of petition to the General Command of the Military Forces requesting information on the number of captures, seizures, educational actions and the budget allocated to tackle deforestation.

More than two months later, General Jorge León González Parra, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refused to respond on the grounds that he had to know “at least the objective and the reasons on which the request is based”, even though it was made clear that the information requested was related to a journalistic investigation.

When the query was escalated, the Ministry of Defence transferred the responsibility of responding to this portal to the Caquetá Police Department. This institution stated that between December 13, 2017 – the date on which the environmental bubble was declared – and February 10, 2022, 259 arrests were made in this department for crimes against natural resources and the environment in areas of Forest Reserves and National Natural Parks.

In the specific case of Cartagena del Chairá, he indicated that eight people were arrested during this period, one of whom was arrested in 2020 for illegal exploitation of renewable natural resources and four more for invasion of areas of special ecological importance.

For its part, the Attorney General’s Office said that in Cartagena del Chairá, between December 13, 2017 and March 3 this year, three people have been charged with crimes related to deforestation, two of which have reached the trial stage.

This portal asked the investigating body how many cases that went to trial in Caquetá were resolved by convictions and acquittals, but the enquiry was passed on to the Superior Council of the Judiciary and at the time of going to press there had been no response.

Mobilisations against judicialization

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

The judicialization in 2020 provoked a social explosion in Cartagena del Chairá. On November 13 of that year, in the middle of the pandemic, amidst masks and bottles of antiseptic alcohol, more than 300 people mobilised towards the municipal capital, seeking to make their disagreement heard about the methods used to stop deforestation: the arrests.

“We did a peaceful demonstration simply with banners saying that we were not criminals, that we were working peasants and that the Prosecutor’s Office is not aware of the worst killers of the environment”, recalls a leader from the region.

As a result of this protest, the Municipal Roundtable of Agro-environmental Farmers’ Consultation for the Right to Land was formed, a social process in Cartagena del Chairá that seeks to propose solutions to deforestation and the land tenure situation of hundreds of families in the municipality.

The peasant communities demanded that the national government cease all judicial persecution and proposed that the areas of the forest reserve that are already occupied by families be subtracted from the reserve and that these areas enter the national land bank to be assigned to the same families that occupy them.

They also complained to the Executive branch that the failure to comply with point one of the Peace Accord, Integral Rural Reform, had catapulted families onto land in the department and that international cooperation money for Amazonian conservation had been used only for military action.

However, the operations did not cease. On April 15 last year, more than 600 peasants mobilised from Cartagena del Chairá to Florencia to reiterate their demands, forming a group of 2,800 peasants from all over Caquetá. And they joined the National Strike, setting up “resistance points” in three municipalities in the department of Huila: Altamira, Guadalupe and Suaza, where they managed to get various state bodies to sit down and listen to them and look for solutions.

One of the points addressed the situation of families settled in forest reserve zones, which agreed to the financing of two subtraction studies in San Vicente del Caguán and one in Cartagena del Chairá, adding also access to credit and agricultural extension for peasant communities, and the financing of four participatory environmental zonings in the department. However, to date, the only point on which progress has been made is in participatory environmental zoning, through community assemblies.

The proposals of the leaders of Cartagena del Chairá are aimed at achieving the permanence of the communities in the territory, as they consider that at this point it is already very difficult to remove and relocate the families who in recent years have taken over part of the forest, and even more so those who have lived in this part of the country for more than 40 years. That is why their struggle is to obtain Forest Reserve Zones with peasants.

One of the proposals is to implement a “model farm” where the food security of the families is guaranteed, agricultural production is guaranteed and the offers of payments for environmental services are linked to the conservation of the forest.

“These peasants have to be taught to protect themselves, but they are there because they need to make a living with their wives and children. They should tell the peasant farmer ‘in this territory the only thing you can do is this and this’ and that they should give them the aid and inputs to conserve themselves”, reiterates one of the leaders consulted.

Wait for our next instalment: VerdadAbierta.com asked about the actions being taken by peasant farmers in Cartagena del Chairá to counteract deforestation and make life viable in Bajo Caguán. He also reviewed the progress of the National Conservation Contracts and Payments for Environmental Services offered by the government as a solution for the special management zones.

This article was made possible thanks to the support of Environment and Society Association, and the support provided by the Municipal Agro-environmental Roundtable for the Right to Land of Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.

Peasants and the Environment, Victims of State Disarray

In Remolino del Caguán, what some would call the heart of Caguán, everything seems to be in order: one and two-story homes, several paved roads, the central square, a Catholic church. All of this would suggest an organized community that has grown out of the tradition of abandoned communities on the frontier of the Colombian Amazon.

Paradoxically, what is least stable in this part of the municipality of Cartagena del Chairá is the land, the very land that rural workers roam and work each day. Most families do not own the lots on which they have been raised for generations. Their ancestors arrived from different parts of Caquetá and other departments seeking out better opportunities and incentivized by the state itself which promoted the colonization process.

Even though they act like owners, many do not have formal land titles for uncultivated state lands (baldíos) that were part of the Amazon Forest Reserve or were unable to legalize land tenure given that their land falls inside an Area of Special Environmental Interest, a designation that prohibits land titling. 

Land use and ownership in this part of Caquetá intersects with the negligence of agricultural authorities, the armed conflict, and extraction models. It would seem the state has neither the capacity nor the will to identify who owns the land or to control the clear cutting and burning of native forest, the most serious environmental crime faced by the Amazon.

VerdadAbierta.com visited the region and talked with peasant leaders, in addition to consulting with experts and reviewing archives. The result could not be more alarming: a major part of this agrarian disarray was caused by the state itself, with no signs of a prompt solution.

The promised land?

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

“Caquetá is the site of a major portion of the mistakes that have been made in the country’s land policy,” according to Darío Fajardo, an anthropologist and professor at the Universidad Externado de Colombia. The department’s land problems go back at least 100 years. 

According to the academic, the twenties were marked by the adoption of the most inclusive land policies, specifically between 1926 and 1928, when opportunities were opened for small- and medium-scale peasant ownership. This was possible due to agrarian regulations that began to strengthen in that era. 

In the text Tendencias historicas y regionales de la adjudicación de baldíos en Colombia  (Historical and Regional Trends in the Allocation of Uncultivated State Land in Colombia, Universidad del Rosario, 2015), Juanita Villaveces Niño and Fabio Sánchez detail how the government promoted colonization in this region at the beginning of the 20th century: “Land policy sought to promote an expansion of the agricultural frontier and colonization in a broad sense, that is to say, with a focus on the use and occupation of space rather than redistribution. During this period, laws were also issued with the idea of promoting immigration to distant regions, especially Putumayo and Caquetá in 1913.”

Decrees 839 and 1110, issued in 1928, promoted the colonization of uncultivated state land, opening up the possibility for land to be given to peasants on small tracts and for the state to recognize that the countryside was organized into communities of farm workers.

“This is very interesting because it signaled concern among at least some sectors over land distribution, which followed a hegemonic pattern of large-scale land ownership,” Fajardo notes, adding that even though there were advances in land policies, at the end of the ‘20s actions were limited because throughout history “the correlation of power has been adverse to land allocation.” This scenario began to taper following the administration of President Enrique Olaya Herrera (1930-1934).

Law 200 of 1936 on land management reflected that situation. “It was no longer a law favoring generous land allocations for small-scale farmers, instead it simply formalized property,” Fajardo explains.

During the 1940s there were setbacks along with attacks against the organized peasant communities who had participated in the colonization of the country’s remote areas and who, in the case of Caquetá and other Amazonian regions, were interested in selling white rubber, tobacco, and lumber from the cow tree and cedar. However, the high costs of production and transportation, in addition to competition from other producing countries, made those activities unviable. 

Later, in the ‘50s, came the years of “The Violence” and with it, the mass forced displacement of peasants from their land.  Fearful and desperate, they looked towards the Amazon with the hope of a new beginning. Caquetá then became an enclave that received peasant migrants by and large hailing from the departments of Huila and Tolima. 

Studies from the Instituto Amazónico de Investigaciones Científicas (SINCHI – Amazonian Institute of Scientific Investigation) propose that “land availability and work for the peasant family promised [the opportunity of] resettlement of the population and rebuilding their traditional economy, which would take place in contexts that were geographically, environmentally, and historically different from those of the rural lifestyle in their places of origin.”

It was an abysmal change for the new settlers, given that the soil they were working only had a very thin layer of productive soil, making agricultural production difficult: the harvest cycles were very slow, and it was necessary to let the land lay fallow and then fertilize it to plant again. The option of cutting down sections of the jungle was therefore chosen to continue harvesting and producing food.

The family history of Farid Murcia, a social leader from Cartagena del Chairá, is part of the forced migration mentioned by the academics. His grandfather and father arrived at the Caquetá foothills in the 1930s, escaping the partisan violence they faced as liberals. 

Over four days, they opened a trail through the jungle, crossing the eastern mountain range. They came from the municipality of Algeciras, in Huila, and established their ‘fundo’ or plot in the rural community of Santana Ramos, in Puerto Rico, Caquetá. They worked in agriculture and cattle ranching, traveling along rugged trails to sell their agricultural products.

While his grandfather and father confronted the jungle, Murcia finished his studies, became a teacher in his community, and then coordinator of Nucleus 4, an autonomous mode of organizing various rural communities. For years he watched peasant families manage their community needs, but they never formalized ownership of the land they worked. 

“Everything in the department of Caquetá has been obtained through grassroots struggle, by the peasants. Here, nobody has given us anything. Nothing means nothing!” Murcia notes when thinking back on his story and that of his neighbors. These communities organized to provide themselves with the services not effectively provided by the state, such as healthcare, education, housing, and infrastructure.

Tensions Over Protected Areas

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo

At the beginning of 1959, the President of the Republic issued Law 2, which regulated the forest economy to protect water, soil, and wildlife in seven of the country’s subregions. It was under this regulation that the Amazon Forest Reserve Area was created with 34 million hectares including large parts of the departments of Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Guainía, Guaviare, Huila, Putumayo, and Vaupés.

But the regulation clashed with the presence of hundreds of families who by that time had already settled in the Caquetá jungle, and those that continued arriving looking for a ‘fundo’ on which to live. In response to these families, the newly created Instituto Colombiano de Reforma Agraria (INCORA – Colombian Institute on Agrarian Reform)—established through Law 135 of 1961—issued Resolution 041 on March 2, 1964, by means of which “a section of uncultivated state land was reserved for special colonization in San Vicente del Caguán and Puerto Rico, Caquetá.” 

In other words, a large area of uncultivated state land was excluded from the Amazon Forest Reserve Area to respond to the aims of the peasant colonization that had begun in Caquetá over a decade before.

State errors would soon follow, including the allotment of subsidies for cattle ranching activities in the context of support for colonization, which sought to reproduce the hacienda model used in the Caquetá foothills, a model that had begun to take root at the beginning of the 20th century.

When referring to cattle ranching and monocultures such as oil palm, the SINCHI Institute has proposed in its analysis that “the institutions that oriented the colonization process, such as INCORA, are partly responsible for reproducing models that would later be deemed inappropriate, unviable, and unsustainable in the Amazon.”

Peasants were dissatisfied with state actions at the beginning of the seventies. In reaction to this, the Asociación Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos (ANUC – National Peasant Association) promoted mass protests in Caquetá, no longer over access to land, but for increased state support to complete projects that supported colonization through loans, roads, education, healthcare, and better crop prices.

In the rest of the country, ANUC promoted “land take overs,” including the land of large-scale landowners, with the idea that the land would be acquired by the state and redistributed among landless peasants. The pressure was met with aggression by landowners who began requesting State Security Forces-led evictions. Given their influence, these voices were heard by the administration of then president, Misael Pastrana Borrero. 

The pressure from large-scale landowners resulted in what is called the Chicoral Pact, signed on January 9, 1972 at the offices of the Agrarian Bank in Chicoral, Tolima. Some analysts consider that the agreement was a counter agrarian reform project that blocked the possibility of a just distribution of land ownership, accelerating land concentration and generating the mass expulsion of peasants from their territories towards the Orinoco and Amazon.

However, it was not just large-scale landowners who harassed the peasantry for fighting to get ahead. Those who had plots were pressured by emerging illegal armed groups and criminal structures that began extorting peasants, affecting their family economies.

In this context, Eucario de Jesús Bermúdez arrived with his parents to colonize isolated areas of the mid-Caguán region towards the northwest, in what is now known as Campo Verde and Líbano. In 1977, his family was forced to displace from the municipality of Balboa, Risaralda, fleeing from extortionists who wanted to “tax” the coffee harvests managed by his father.

“My dad said: ‘Instead of giving this coffee harvest to that guy, I am going to sell it and we are going to disappear’; and then he told my mother: ‘Let’s go to Caquetá. I have heard there is open land there. Let’s go and find land to work,’” remembers Bermúdez. 

Sure enough, they left Risaralda and traveled to the south of the country, where they obtained a piece of land in the municipality of Cartagena del Chairá. It took an eight-hour boat trip along the Caguán river and another eight hours by foot to reach the land. There, they worked in agriculture once again.

Dire State Management

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

In the mid-eighties, the subdivision of a large portion of land from the Amazon Forest Reserve Area had been carried out with the aim of legalizing the land of settlers in the Middle and Lower Caguán region of Caquetá. 

By means of Agreement 65, issued on September 25, 1985 by the Instituto Nacional de los Recursos Naturales Renovables y del Ambiente (INDERENA – National Institute on Renewable Natural Resources and the Environment), 367,500 hectares of the reserve were subdivided to benefit families living in Cartagena del Chairá and Solano, which represented 22.6% of the 1,620,000 hectares that INCORA initially requested be partitioned.

Two fundamental considerations were taken into account for that decision, according to the agreement: first, that the Middle and Lower Caguán communities were “characterized by a high level of organization through Community Action Councils (JAC) coordinated by the Settlers’ Committee, with 95% coverage in rural communities and settlements.”

Second, the document referenced a “perceptible and growing environmental awareness that has made it possible for the peasants to understand their responsibility regarding renewable natural resources.”

Nevertheless, the task of subdividing this land was not carried out through technical visits to the region, but instead from a desk at INDERENA in Bogotá. The result could not have been worse: the haphazard way in which the area was divided did not correspond to the bends in the river, meaning that there are segments of land separated for titling that are over 28 kilometers from the river, in a straight line, while others are less than 1.5 kilometers.

This, however, has not been the only problem hatched in the capital of the Republic. This has been shown by Melquisedec Betancourt who has been leading initiatives in ten rural communities of Lower Caguán, grouped in Nucleus 5, since he was fourteen years old. His efforts to clarify who owns the land have led him to identify farms with land titles in areas that were not partitioned from the Amazon Forest Reserve.

According to his inquiries, just in the rural community of Sardinata Alta, La Holanda, and Panamá Uno, where he is a leader, “20 to 25 families are in the Law 2 area and have a title.” By contrast, of the 18 families living in the rural community of Las Quillas, only one has a property title.

Few Land Titles

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

This agrarian disarray regarding land tenure and property in Caquetá was affected by a weak peasant economy that lacked infrastructure to sell its harvests and faced limits due to soil use restrictions, leading, in the mid-seventies, to hundreds of farm workers shifting to illicit-use coca leaf crops, in turn promoting new settlements.

This population growth is reflected in DANE statistics on Cartagena del Chairá: between 1985 and 1993, there was a 163% increase in inhabitants in the urban area and a 296% increase in the rural area. Without a doubt, this put increased pressure on the jungle, which succumbed to the advance of the coca leaf.

Statistics from the United Nations (UN) detail that in 2001 Caquetá had 26,603 hectares of coca crops throughout 15 of its 16 municipalities, the most affected of them being Cartagena del Chairá (13,551 hectares), Solano (4,005 hectares), San Vicente del Caguán (1,713 hectares), Solita (1,170 hectares), and Valparaiso (1,240 hectares).

Since the early 1980s, the FARC guerrillas (today demobilized) began “managing” this illicit activity through several of its fronts grouped in the Southern Bloc. They promoted coca leaf crops, regulated the price of coca paste, imposed a tax on coca production, and coordinated with several drug trafficking cartels. Billions of Colombian pesos were generated to finance the war against the Colombian state.

Analysis from SINCHI suggests that, because coca leaf was being grown on many of the settlers’ plots in the ‘80s and ‘90s, interest in land titles diminished. That thesis is corroborated by Eucario Bermúdez, who has been a leader as Nucleus coordinator and president of the Community Action Council in Cartagena del Chairá: “People focused on planting coca leaf, growing coca, and living off the coca leaf. People didn’t think about titles.”

According to Bermúdez, disinterest in land titles was an attitude more common among “the new settlers” who arrived at the end of the ‘80s and the beginning of the ‘90s, attracted by the “coca boom.” A large part of the earlier settlers sought to formalize their plots and obtain land titles.

As the years went by, and in the face of state strategies such as fumigation and substitution of illicit-use crops, there was notable crop reduction and many coca leaf growers left Caquetá. In 2020, according to the UN, 2,076 hectares were registered, the vast majority concentrated in the Lower Caguán region on the border with Putumayo.

Those who remained, many of them descendants of the original settlers, began to take over the abandoned plots, create farms, and to adapt them to cattle ranching, which is currently the most prevalent activity in the Lower Caguán. However, they still had no property titles, which limited their access to bank loans to increase productivity.

“For that reason, we saw the need to demand that the government please send us somebody who could title our lands. INCODER appeared: for some it was for the better, for others for the worse, for me it didn’t do anything,” said Murcia, suggesting that the requisite titling did not advance.

In his opinion, the issue of property “became a very serious problem” beginning in 2017 with the demobilization, disarmament, and reincorporation of the former FARC under the Peace Accord with the Colombian state. A new resettlement process began with the aim of occupying the land.

“When the FARC left the region, people immediately came from other municipalities in Caquetá and from the interior of the country to claim land in the forest reserve, 200 or 300 hectares for just one person,” remembers the peasant leader.

The serious problem recounted by the leader is not just environmental. The reaction of the administration of President Iván Duque (2018-2022) to this new wave of repopulation was Operation Artemisa, a military strategy to fight deforestation which, according to community complaints caused serious human rights violations.

VerdadAbierta.com set out to update data on the number of rural property titles in Cartagena del Chairá and on actions to formalize land in this municipality’s Forest Reserve Area. To do so, information was requested from the Agencia Nacional de Tierras (ANT – National Land Agency), without any response. Even though the corresponding communications office stated that it had a prepared response, by the closing of this article, no response had been received.

Limits Imposed

Photo: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

The concern over regulating occupied land allocated through agrarian reform programs led the Colombian state to issue Law 160 of 1994, by means of which the Sistema Nacional de Reforma Agraria y Desarrollo Rural Campesino (National System on Agrarian Reform and Rural Peasant Development) was created with the aim of “regulating the occupation and use of the nation’s uncultivated lands, administering preferential allocation to low-income peasants.”

This regulation set limits on allocation by means of the Unidad Agrícola Familiar (UAF – Family Agricultural Unit), which is defined as a “basic agricultural, cattle, aquaculture, or forest production enterprise with an extension that, given the agro-ecological conditions of the area and adequate technology, would permit the family to remunerate its work and enjoy an excess that can be capitalized to help form assets.”

In Resolution 041 of 1996, INCORA specified UAF extensions, defining them based on characteristics of land productivity. In the case of Cartagena del Chairá, which was grouped in the area of Altillanura del Caquetá, a range of 86 to 117 hectares was established. 

That means that when uncultivated state lands are allocated, the state must do so in accordance with the established UAF and only grant one plot per family to avoid land hoarding. 

Bermúdez is a beneficiary and was allocated 117 hectares, according to public deed No. 225 of February 19, 2009, as registered in a notary’s office in Florencia. The paradox resides in that it is inside the Amazon Forest Reserve Area. About 70 percent of the plot is used for cattle ranching and the rest is for preservation.

“In my case, I am really worried about the deed,” comments the peasant leader. “I said ‘not having land and working the land that belongs to the state, no…’. So, I went to INCORA in 1999.” Arguing that he should be a beneficiary of agrarian reform, INCODER granted him the land that he was working after ten years: “and I am one of the people that fall within Law 2 of 59, but like me, there are a lot of people who have titles, deeds.”

“The state does not recognize its own mistakes,” he continued. To get a loan or a title it was obligatory to have opened at least 50 hectares of pastureland,” he says showing the mortgage papers that he received from the Agrarian Bank a year after obtaining his title. 

“Where are the work opportunities that the state provides to peasants? Where are the low-interest loans? They make you clear cut and then say that you are responsible for all the problems,” questions Bermúdez.

A detailed revision of this peasant’s property documents reflects institutional disarray regarding agrarian issues and the state’s lack of knowledge about its inventory of uncultivated state lands and their borders. The deed and real estate registry document place the property inside the jurisdiction of Cartagena del Chairá; even the real estate tax is paid in this municipality, but according to what VerdadAbierta.com could establish through georeferencing mechanisms, the lot is actually in San Vicente del Caguán, an area protected by Law 2.

Restrictive decisions

Foto: Carlos Antonio Mayorga Alejo.

In addition to the UAF limitations on the allocation of land that is classified as uncultivated state land, in 2013, more than 50 years after Law 2 was approved, the Colombian state decided to carry out a zoning and land management process for each of the forest reserves established by the regulation.

By means of Decree 1925 issued on December 30, 2013 by the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, applicable zoning and land management was adopted for the Amazon Forest Reserve in the departments of Caquetá, Guaviare, and Huila, covering an extension of close to 12 million hectares with the aim of having a better development planning instrument.

Three types of zones were created: “A” is profoundly restrictive as concerns its conservation mission, “B” is a bit more permissive of other activities, and “C” allows agroforestry, silvopastoral, and other economic activity compatible with environmental protection objectives. 

This measure affected the peasants of Cartagena del Chairá. A large part of this municipality in Caquetá was characterized as type A, the most restrictive regarding agricultural activities, putting peasants once again between a rock and a hard place.

Regarding this kind of adverse situation for farmworkers, Fajardo, the researcher, highlights that these areas have not had consistent policy: “People simply arrived there, in some cases titles are granted amidst horrible chaos.” How can these difficulties be overcome?

The academic suggests two options: one, advance in the Peace Accord’s implementation, in particular on the parts on Comprehensive Rural Reform, which include in their guidelines “establishing the agricultural frontier and protecting areas of special environmental interest.” To do this, it is necessary to generate alternatives for the peasant population occupying or living alongside this land, striking a balance “between the environment and well-being and good living, under the principles of participation from the rural communities and sustainable development.”

The other option is that an agrarian reform be carried out where “the peasants who have been expropriated, dispossessed, and left landless be granted access to land, not on the edges of the agricultural frontier—in this case, in these forest reserves—but in the center of the country, that is to say, areas with quality soil, access to markets, and infrastructure, something that has been an impossibility specifically since the Chicoral Pact.”

To the academic, the protected areas will be defended if the peasants are reestablished in areas that are apt for production and if they have access to rural property. However, social leaders like Luis Antonio Valencia, a teacher who has been working in the region for 23 years and who coordinates the Municipal Agro-environmental Working Group for the Right to Land in Cartagena del Chairá, feel that the possibility is remote of reorganizing so many families who have made a life on that land.

“Clarity is needed,” noted Valencia. “It is important to look for alternatives to subdivision in some rural communities and land use rights in other areas. Peasants must have documents that accredit them as land holders so that they can be left alone.”

In our next installment: VerdadAbierta.com investigates how and why there was an increase in deforestation over the last four years, who is behind the deforestation, and the results of the state judicial and military actions to respond to the crisis.


This article was produced in thanks to the support of the Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad and with the support of the Municipal Agro-environmental Working Group for the Right to Land of Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.