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Green Or Gone

Colombia's Illegal Mystery Road Destroying The Amazon

A new surge in deforestation can be traced to an unauthorized road connecting La Macarena to San Jose del Guaviare. What is the origin? What will be done?

On the Amazon near La Macarena
On the Amazon near La Macarena
Sergio Silva Numa

LA MACARENA — Flying over the northwestern stretches of Colombia's Meta department, near the border with neighboring Guaviare, you see two national parks: Tinigua Park and Serrania de la Macarena Park. From the air, they look densely packed with huge trees, but from time to time deforested segments appear. These bare patches pop up more frequently as the limits of these protected areas are often encroached upon by ranching or other makeshift trails.

But recently, officials noted a similar scenario while carrying out an aerial tour of the forest that separates the two departments bordering Serrania de la Macarena Park. They were there to investigate what local media had condemned with some trepidation: Farmers in the area had reported unprecedented deforestation in the area. On both sides of the road, they said, trees more than three meters in diameter had been cut down and no one had been able to stop it, not even after the concerns were published by the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies of Colombia (IDEAM).

"They ordered deforestation of 80 meters on both sides of the road, and nobody could stop them," says one local resident. Mind you, no one seems to know exactly who "they" are. "They are destorying trees that are part of the primary forest. It's an attack on the forest. They are threatening several lagoons and rivers."

The resident says that the bulldozers and chainsaws have been destroying about 20 kilometers of Amazon rainforest. Data show a corridor of rainforest 60 kilometers long once existed, but today it's just 15 kilometers.

It's difficult to estimate accurately how much forest has been destroyed in northern Guaviare so far. But as officers of the Corporation for Sustainable Development and the Amazon North East (CDA) have said, what's happening in that area is serious. Although residents have always had to cope with illegal logging, the latest destruction has created widespread alarm.

Promised roads

The promise of creating limited jungle routes is one that southeastern regions were given during Ernesto Samper's presidency back in the 1990s. It has slowly become reality for some districts, and today, after nearly 20 years, it is still among the plans of current President Juan Manuel Santos, though remaining unfinished.

But the case of the Guaviare deforestation is different. No construction there is official, and there is so far no environmental license authorizing the project. But another resident says the projects provide poor people with access to roads that the guerrillas constructed with machetes decades ago.

"But what's worse is that it has triggered a cascading effect," one CDA official says. "Many villages begin to clear forest to break through and connect to the main route. In addition to data recorded by the IDEAM, there are other very alarming cases."

Although the mayors of San José del Guaviare and El Return declined to talk with El Espectador, some say insurgents are forcing peasants to chop down the forest.

Beyond these charges and the lack of investigation, there is a complex environmental problem caused by the road's construction. The route stretches over a district of integrated area meant to buffer protected national parks. The construction threatens an ecosystem that connects, on the one hand, the Serrania de la Macarena Park and the National Park Chiribiquete, and on the other, the Amazon with the Andean forests.

Juan Carlos Clavijo, head of the Natural Tinigua National Park, warned a few months ago that all of this territory is important because it allows for genetic connectivity among thousands of species of different microclimates. Tinigua, for example, lost 1,096 hectares in one year, and the Serrania de la Macarena Park another 1,300.

This situation seems to render impossible the goal for Colombia that was set during December's global climate summit in Paris: to achieve, within five years, a rate of zero Amazon deforestation in exchange for $100 million in funding by Germany, the UK and Norway. Global targets are one thing, local realities are another.

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