A field trip to Reserva Natural El Hatico, familia Molina Durán, near Palmira, Colombia, to take carbon measurements in an area of tropical forest, as part of a CIAT-hosted workshop on REDD+. Photo: Neil Palmer / CIAT

A recent tweet by the Colombian government’s environmental information arm, IDEAM, piqued the interest of Dr. Augusto Castro. It mentioned two major reasons for deforestation in the country — expansion of the agriculture frontier, the area where agricultural and forest lands intersect, and praderización, or cultivation of cattle pasture primarily to lay claim to an area of land.


Castro and his research partners noted the effect of praderización (also known as potrerización) in prior research, which investigated the motivations of farmers to adopt forest conservation practices in areas affected by Colombia’s half-century-long armed conflict.

But a more recent study led by Castro sheds light on what may cause deforestation in Colombia to continue following the peace deal signed last year between the government and what was the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Fears are high that deforestation will worsen, as forested areas previously controlled by the FARC become a magnet for agriculture, mining, and logging — both legal and illegal. There are also concerns that former FARC territories could attract the interest of other armed groups operating in the countryside, which could also be bad news for forests.

Figures from IDEAM show that Colombia lost 178,597 hectares of forest cover in 2016, an increase of 44 percent on the previous year. It doesn’t bode well for a country with an ambition to have zero net deforestation of its Amazon region by 2020 and ending all forest loss by 2030.

Castro’s paper published in Applied Geography presents a model showing the relationship between forest cover, deforestation, and armed conflict. It suggests there are distinct stages in the process of forest loss in countries affected by conflict.

According to Castro, the study represents a first, as previous analyses only looked at the links either between forest cover and armed conflict, or between deforestation and armed conflict, but never these three factors together.

The model developed by Castro et al indicates that as deforestation increases, armed conflict also escalates. Areas tend to be more deforested and have more conflict if they are near the agriculture frontier.

In Colombia, the assumption is that some of those who clear remote areas of forest first use the land to farm illicit crops such as coca, which is typically sold to drug traffickers. The farmers then use the profits to clear more forest and convert the acquired land to pasture, introducing one or two cattle. The goal, Castro argues, is not always to build a cattle ranching business but to demonstrate ownership of the plots. Control over these areas then becomes the subject of fighting between illegal armed groups.

This pattern of steadily increasing conflict along with deforestation, though, stops at a certain point, typically when one armed group has consolidated control over the territory.

“Those who clear the forests often don’t formally own the land. And because they don’t legally own it, others can fight them for it and take it away,” he said. “The model suggests that once a few people — such as an armed group — get control over this land, fighting starts to reduce, allowing them to sell it at a later time.”

But forest loss continues because new farmers arrive, or because the farmers who once laid claim to the land are displaced to new areas of forest. They clear that, and the process starts all over again.

Apart from explaining the link between sustained loss of Colombian forests and violence, the study also emphasizes the importance of secure property rights.

Castro and his research partners noted that increasing deforestation rates and conflict are more prevalent in forested municipalities with few areas assigned to “forest commons,” or those controlled and collectively owned by indigenous communities and Afro-Colombians. In these collectively owned lands, forests are abundant, and households can meet their basic needs.

Another type of collective land ownership is the Zonas de Reserva Campesina, which aims to “promote and stabilize the rural economy, overcome the causes of social conflicts, and, in general, create the conditions for the achievement of peace and social justice,” as per the text of the 1994 law that establishes this initiative.

Colombia also has programs that award land rights to those affected by conflict. Providing land rights is a key element of the Reforma Rural Integral, which is considered a centerpiece of the country’s peace process. It entails creating a fund and a registry to formalize land ownership in rural areas affected by conflict.

There’s also Unidad de Restitucion de Tierra, which seeks to restore ownership of lands for those displaced by armed conflict. It is estimated that these lands account for up to 10 million hectares, or about 15 percent of Colombian territory.

“There’s a lot of promising work going on to establish land security in rural areas of Colombia,” continued Castro. “During peacetime, land titling, but in particular collectively owned lands, could be a good strategy to reduce both the causes of conflict and deforestation. Our study confirms that.”

Aside from Castro, several researchers have argued for awarding collective land titles to resolve conflict and preserve forests. They include the late Elinor Claire “Lin” Ostrom, who won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.”

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Additional information

The paper Land related grievances shape tropical forest cover in areas affected by armed conflict is published in Applied Geography. The study was funded by the Valorización del potencial REDD+ y MDL para el desarrollo sostenible del Rio Grande de la Magdalena project (PREPAREDD) and the Global Land Project grant from the University of Copenhagen.

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