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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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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