Can Colombia's green businesses beat drugs and deforestation?

Jose Jansa, a governor of the Inga indigenous people, standing in a rural area in the province of Putumayo, Colombia. February 2, 2023

Jose Jansa, a governor of the Inga indigenous people, standing in a rural area in the province of Putumayo, Colombia. February 2, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney

What’s the context?

By betting on sustainable business, Colombia hopes to protect Amazon forest and indigenous land vital to stemming climate change

  • Colombia promotes forest economy to combat tree felling
  • Cattle ranching and coca cultivation fuel deforestation
  • Indigenous community launches pioneering fruit oil plant

PUTUMAYO, Colombia - With ritual chants and plumes of smoke, an indigenous leader performed an ancient ceremony to bless the community-run fruit oil processing plant in Colombia's Amazon rainforest that locals hope will become a thriving - and sustainable - business.

Their aim is for the plant in the mountainous Putumayo province to supply cosmetics companies with oil extracted from the fruits of the lofty canangucha palm trees that grow widely in the forested home of the Inga indigenous people.

In doing so, community leaders hope to protect the region from rising deforestation linked to cattle ranching and the relentless spread of coca crops used to make cocaine.

"We hope this is the start of our own sustainable economy that will benefit our community based on our own traditions and knowledge that preserve the forest," said Carlos López, an Inga leader inside the plant where two processing machines will be able to produce up to 500 liters of oil per year.

The first indigenous-owned and operated plant of its kind in Colombia's Amazon, the business is a model of the sustainable forest economy that the leftist government of Gustavo Petro wants to promote to counter deforestation in the region.

Protecting the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest, is vital to curbing climate change because of the vast amount of greenhouse gas it absorbs.

The Inga project received a grant of $20 million from the government's Visión Amazonía program, which aims to protect the forest and is funded by Norway, Britain and Germany, after the community submitted a project proposal.

"It's not an idea brought in from outside but it's our idea ... the income goes to our community," López said after the inauguration ritual earlier this month.

Jose Jansa, an Inga governor, heads one of 10 Inga communities participating in the project, which is expected to provide work for about 3,000 community members.

"Everyone can participate, those harvesting and collecting fruits and jobs for people at the plant. Expectations are high," said Jansa, wearing a traditional white shirt, red and green scarf, and a necklace made from seeds and animal teeth.

Coca growing

Scattered around the plant located in Colombia's oil-producing Putumayo province are cattle ranches reached by paved and dirt roads cut through the rainforest. Beyond lie plots of green coca bushes.

A remote region once dominated by guerrillas, Putumayo was the heart of the U.S.-backed multimillion-dollar "Plan Colombia" program during the early 2000s to crush rebels and destroy the highly resilient and profitable coca leaf.

Yet coca cultivation is rising and Colombia remains the world's top producer of cocaine.

Last year, the area sown with coca across Colombia shot up 43% to 204,000 hectares (500,000 acres) - its highest levels in two decades of monitoring - according to the latest figures from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

"Putumayo is very impacted by coca growing, it's a rising trend," said José Yunis, head of Visión Amazonía.

"But across the Amazon, the main driver of deforestation is the clearing of land for cattle pastures. We have a development model of unsustainable cattle ranching in the Amazon, which is not only unacceptable but inefficient," he said.

The opaque links between cattle ranching and drug money have still to be unraveled, he said.

"Right now what isn't understood is how much land being cleared for cattle pastures is connected to coca growing and the capital linked to drug trafficking," said Yunis.

"There's capital coming from drug trafficking that is re-invested in cattle farms and the buying of land, which includes money laundering," he added.

'New frontier'

Swathes of forest have opened up to agriculture and cattle ranching since the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels signed a peace deal in 2016, along with criminal gangs who moved into former guerilla strongholds.

Research published in February in scientific journal Nature said cattle-led deforestation has been "unprecedented" following the peace accord.

"With the peace process, the Amazon is a new frontier. Before it was a forbidden land," said Yunis, adding that deforestation rates doubled in the year after the peace deal was signed.

Amazon provinces, like Putumayo, saw the arrival of land speculators, displaced communities, including indigenous groups returning to their lands, and people - both rich and poor - seeking to build a new future.

"It's a market of cheap land. Where else are you going to get cheaper lands than in the Amazon?," Yunis said.

In 2021, deforestation across Colombia rose 1.5% versus 2020 levels to 174,103 hectares (430,218 acres), of which about two-thirds was located in its Amazon, government figures show.

Data also shows that 18.7% of deforestation involves small clearings of less than 10 hectares (25 acres), meaning small-scale farmers are also clearing land, much of it for cattle.

Outside temptations

With many of the FARC demobilized, indigenous people and children are no longer recruited into rebel ranks.

But indigenous youth are still being pulled away from their communities by the coca cultivation surrounding their reserves.

While coca is not grown by the Inga people or used in their rituals, the illegal crop is a constant threat to their culture.

Indigenous communities struggle to keep young people in their rainforest homes as they are lured away with the offer of high wages as coca pickers - who can make from $20 to $40 a day, more than double what a farm laborer would receive.

"Some of our youth do leave to earn money as coca pickers. The biggest risk is that youth lose their culture. Who will wear traditional dress after leaving?" said Jasbleidy Olivo, a female governor of the Inga's Albania rainforest reserve, a two-hour drive from Putumayo's regional capital, Mocoa.

Jasbleidy Olivo, a female governor of the Inga indigenous people stands in their Albania rainforest reserve in the province of Putumayo, Colombia. February 3, 2023

Jasbleidy Olivo, a female governor of the Inga indigenous people stands in their Albania rainforest reserve in the province of Putumayo, Colombia. February 3, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney

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The 30-year-old indigenous leader hopes the fruit oil plant will be an alternative source of jobs and income for Inga youth.

"We want our youth to stay and not leave, to be united, and to keep our traditions. This project provides our youth with opportunities and a sense of belonging," said Olivo.

Along with harvesting and collecting the canangucha fruit from their reserve, the women-led community of 30 families is also betting on eco-tourism to bring in income and has built a 2.5-km (1.5-mile) trail for visitors through regenerated forest.

Fragile state presence

Putumayo shows the complexity Colombia faces when aiming to reduce deforestation in coca-producing regions.

It is a huge challenge because as coca-growing figures show, years of coca spraying has failed to eradicate coca or offer poor farmers viable alternatives to wean them off the leaf.

Moreover, the government does not have control over some rural areas of Putumayo where state presence is either limited or non-existent, allowing criminal groups to exert dominance.

Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel operates in Putumayo, and locals say criminals, who identify themselves as members of the cartel, impose a 6 p.m. curfew in some remote rural areas and prohibit villagers from drinking alcohol during weekdays.

Such a complex environment, where the security situation and rule of law is fragile, makes combating deforestation difficult.

Despite the challenges, Petro, a leftist former guerrilla who assumed the presidency in August, has pledged to make protecting the Amazon a government priority.

This is backed by an additional $200 million a year allocated from state funds to the Environment Ministry following a tax reform, Yunis said.

Using satellite imagery and data, there is also a plan to stop deforestation by targeting 22 identified hotspots of acute forest clearance, including in Putumayo, that aims to lower tree-felling in Colombia's Amazon by half, Yunis said.

"We're going into areas of active deforestation to promote sustainable forest management and a forest economy with an added value chain," Yunis said.

That will also involve environmental education and financial incentives, like loans and subsidies, to farmers and cattle ranchers to preserve the forest.

"The work at hand is to set up a different economic model where the forest is at the center," Yunis said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Helen Popper)

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Silvana Nihua, president of the Waorani Organization of Pastaza (OWAP), travels along the Curaray River where indigenous communities reside in riverside villages in the Amazon province of Pastaza, Ecuador, on April 26, 2022

Part of:

The Amazon rainforest and climate change

The Amazon rainforest is crucial to maintaining a stable climate on the planet - what is being done to try to stem deforestation?

Updated: August 11, 2023


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