The dirt tracks winding through southern Colombia’s tangled jungle often mark the beginning of the end for besieged patches of rainforest in this part of the Amazon.
Across San Vicente del Caguan, one of the country’s most deforested regions, illegal and informal roads fan out in an ever-expanding network, bringing visitors, commercial interests, and farmers and ranchers who clear and burn the land.
The result is the steady decay of Colombia’s Amazon.
Illustration: Mountain People
The destruction, which is striking on the ground, is significant enough to be visible from the sky.
Patches of deforestation appear at the furthest extent of the roads, according to the map, which underlines the impact of unplanned roadbuilding by combining satellite imagery and local cartography.
The lines even cut into protected national parks such as the Sierra de La Macarena, home to tourist attraction Cano Cristales, which is known as the river of the gods, or the river of seven colors.
“Almost all of the roads in the Amazon region were informally opened by the communities, farm owners, actors at the edge of the law ... without going through an agency planning process,” said Adriana Rojas, the geographic information system coordinator of the Gaia Amazonas Foundation, a Colombian environmental group.
Each year, up to 830km of unplanned roadway penetrate Colombia’s Amazon, according to the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), which has been tracking road development in these areas since 2017.
In 2019, more than half of all forest clearings analyzed by the group were within 1km of a road.
The unplanned thoroughfares start as narrow dirt tracks, Hector Molina, a local government official, told reporters during a drive through the region last month.
At first, people come through the roads on horses, he said.
“Then after the roads improve a little, they come through on motorbikes,” Molina added.
Near a rolling pasture, Molina parked his vehicle in the shade of trees left standing and stepped out onto the dirt road.
“This one they made three months ago,” Molina said, referring to local residents.
Eventually, trees are removed to widen them enough for larger vehicles to navigate. The expansion has shown no sign of slowing, further threatening a rainforest that absorbs vast amounts of carbon dioxide and is considered vital to curbing climate change.
“Once they’re on motorbikes, the deforestation has already started,” Molina said.
Deforestation spiked in the country after the Colombian government signed a peace deal to end hostilities with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group in 2016. Where the FARC once prohibited deforestation, the pact opened access to swathes of the country.
In 2017, deforestation soared to almost 220,000 hectares, nearly twice as much as in 2015, the year before the peace deal was signed.
Roads built by the FARC are used by local communities, as well as other armed groups trafficking drugs or planting coca, the chief ingredient in cocaine.
More than 280km of unplanned roads were opened in key areas during the first 100 days of last year, FCDS statistics showed.
More roads were likely built last year than in any other year, driven by rising land speculation.
“Road construction shot up enormously” last year, FCDS director general Rodrigo Botero said. “It’s likely that, during the first quarter of 2021, we’ll see growth in deforestation due to the expansion of roads.”
Even illegal roads increase land value. Some farmers in Caqueta told reporters that a hectare of pasture with road access can go for about 2.5 million pesos (US$684), compared with 1.5 million pesos without.
One farmer, aware of the damage caused by his roadbuilding and ranching in the Amazon, said he had no choice.
“If we cut down trees, we are able to farm our livestock,” said the farmer, a young man with thickly calloused hands who declined to give his name for fear of repercussions. “It makes me sad, but I have no choice.”
Colombia is not the only country in the region struggling with the encroachment of roads.
In Brazil, where deforestation of the Amazon last year hit a 12-year high, there are an estimated 3km of illegal byways for every kilometer of legal road, according to an assessment on progress made toward the nonbinding New York Declaration on Forests, which calls for halting all deforestation by 2030.
The planned construction or upgrade of some 12,000km of legal roads in the Amazon over the next five years across Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador could lead to the loss of almost 2.5 million more hectares of rainforest in the following two decades, as legal road development encourages more informal roads, the report said.
The government said that it is using satellite images to locate and disable illegal roads construction.
“We’re reaching those roads to disable them, of course, and obstruct illegality concerning tertiary roads,” Colombian Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development Carlos Eduardo Correa told reporters, although he did not give details of how those roads would be closed.
Colombia is the world’s second-most biodiverse country after neighboring Brazil and the most biodiverse per square meter.
However, at least 1,302 of the country’s species are considered endangered, or about 2 percent of its registered 58,312 plants and animals, Biodiversity Information System of Colombia data showed.
Although primary forest loss has decreased from earlier levels, it rose 45 percent last year, World Resources Institute data showed.
“Forest loss was relatively low in 2019, so we thought Colombia might have been turning a corner,” Mikaela Weisse, a project manager at the institute’s Global Forest Watch platform, told reporters in an e-mail. “Unfortunately, the 2020 data show that isn’t the case.”
The government did not comment on the forest or tree cover loss reported by the institute and did not respond to Reuters’ questions regarding Weisse’s remarks.
Towers of billowing smoke mar the bright blue skies above the Yari Plains, where Molina negotiates his old red four-by-four vehicle over a bumpy dirt road past patches of charred earth and stretches of pasture, broken by isolated stands of forest.
The plains, which straddle areas including San Vicente, mark the convergence of savannah and rainforest. As Molina advances further into the forest, the older road narrows and gradually gives way to a fresher throughway still lined by trees.
Anyone building a new public road must first get an environmental license, but is free to do what they like on their own property, the Colombian National Roads Institute said.
However, those distinctions can be murky, as many people claim more lands in areas with little to no state presence.
The Colombian National Land Agency declined to respond to questions about the legal rights of farmers who took land for themselves.
These are “lands that belong to nobody. Well, they belong to the state, but since there’s no state here, they belong to no one,” Molina said.
The regional environment authority, Corpoamazonia, said that it has over the past few years tried to dismantle some of these roads.
Some locals are helping by denouncing deforestation, said Mario Baron, the authority’s director for the Caqueta region.
“These same communities ... are denouncing those who are meddling with the forest and building these roads,” Baron said, without giving further details.
Meanwhile, Molina has his own land that he wants to turn into an ecotourism destination.
Authorities have designated his plot as part of a reserve, but Molina has yet to persuade his neighbors to stop expanding their pastures into the forest.
For him, the expanding roads mean just one thing.
“The forest marches towards its grave,” he said. “The road follows it to the end.”
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