Flying over the Amazon jungle, the pilot, a former Brazilian colonel, descends from 1,500 to a thousand meters in altitude to approach the majestic Puré river.
The Puré crosses the border between Colombia and Brazil, a site that has become strategic for illegal mining and drug trafficking. In its channel, more than 30 mining vessels can be seen from the colonel’s plane – working tirelessly to extract gold, illegally, from its waters.
In 2015, Colombia’s National Parks built a cabin called Puerto Franco in honor of researcher Roberto Franco, the first to discover uncontacted indigenous peoples in Colombia, people who in recent centuries have decided not to have no contact with Western civilization. From the air, only the remains of the hut built in honor of Franco are visible. Illegal armed groups burned it down during the pandemic.
This hut had a very important purpose: to protect the isolated indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon. In fact, deep in the Amazon jungle, very close to Puerto Franco, live the Yuri, an indigenous group that lives in voluntary isolation.
The Río Puré National Park was created for their protection and with it the most remote cabin in Colombia. Park ranger Luis Rivas, 70, a traditional expert of the Cubeo ethnicity, lived here, tasked with keeping illegal miners, drug traffickers and guerrillas away from uncontacted natives.
One night, in the midst of the pandemic, Rivas dreamed he was in danger and asked park officials to keep him away from the area. When he reached the nearest town, he caught Covid-19 and died. Some time later, national park officials discovered the destruction of Puerto Franco during a flight over the Puré River. Since the pandemic, they have not been able to access protected areas in the Amazon due to threats from illegal groups that now dominate this territory.
The rangers of this national park, like those of nine others in the Colombian Amazon, which covers nearly 15 million hectares, had to leave their territory overnight. “We had to send a plane and get everyone out. We didn’t have time, they threatened us,” says a former national parks official who prefers not to give his name for fear of reprisals from the guerrillas. This former official believes that these threats respond to the government’s implementation of the Artemisa strategy, a program to stop deforestation in the Amazon.
In 2020, Colombia was the most dangerous country for the second consecutive year for environmental defenders. According to the British NGO Global Witness, 65 environmental leaders have been murdered.
Although this crisis had been brewing for decades, it has worsened since the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in 2016. “Organizations trying to protect the Amazon have come into conflict with the interests of these powerful groups. . and, therefore, they are increasingly the target of attacks,” says Juan Carlos Garzón, researcher at the Ideas for Peace Foundation.
“I am threatened by the guerrillas,” explains anthropologist Arturo, 45, who prefers not to give his real name precisely for this reason. He has traveled through the Amazon region with a security detail since reporting to the Global System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition in 2020 that the Carolina Ramírez guerrilla group once arrived at the park cabin where he was working and told them that they had to leave. “They told us they had declared war on Parks and they didn’t want white people in uniform in the protected areas,” he recalled.
The guerrillas stole their petrol, their cameras, their computers and all the equipment they used to study the terrain. “They only left us a small motor boat to go out,” says Arturo, who decided to leave as soon as he could when he saw his life in danger. Since that time two years ago, every time he tried to come back, the threats did the same. Indigenous officials remained in charge of the parks while Arturo tried to continue directing the projects as best he could from a distance.
However, he recently decided to leave his post: the situation, he says, was becoming more and more frustrating. Arturo was part of a group of park rangers who presented a report to the Truth Commission and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in which they asked to be recognized as victims of the armed conflict, believing that the guerrillas “have taken away under threat and everything was abandoned. I feel very helpless,” he said.
Arturo wonders, what have the national parks done with those who are threatened for trying to take care of a territory that belongs to everyone?, although in truth he knows the answer: nothing. According to official data, 12 park rangers were killed between 1994 and 2020.
The deputy director of Colombia’s national parks, Carolina Jarro, explains that they are currently under very strong pressure from illegal mining, an activity which they say represents almost three billion Colombian pesos in profits for criminal groups. every year. The proceeds, moreover, are used to launder the resources obtained from drug trafficking: “Attempts have been made to control illegal mining in the Puré River because isolated indigenous groups are there”, explains Jarro, citing the Puerto Franco shack fire.
The deputy director also notes that the guerrillas do not just threaten the park rangers, claiming that they have stolen equipment from the organization that the rangers need to do their job. “Outlaw groups prefer no one to see what’s going on, that’s why they kicked us out,” says Jarro
Although officials are currently unable to be inside the parks full time, they are using remote sensing technology to monitor activity in these protected areas. “We can see when the guerrillas build a house, when they create a road. Thus, we can file criminal complaints regarding the damage caused. We haven’t abandoned the place, we have to get out to protect ourselves. But we’re still watching,” Jarro says firmly.
Jarro has worked as a public servant in a park in the Amazon region for 10 years. A sociologist by training, she rose through the ranks of the administration before taking the helm of a specific area, the name of which she cannot reveal because of the threat of the guerrillas. His mission was to protect a group of natives who came out of isolation a few years ago, to be enslaved by the miners and rubber tappers who exploited the resources of the region. Today, many of these natives, of the Nukak ethnic group, are very resistant to contact: “In the beginning, it was the natives themselves who negotiated with the guerrillas so that they let us enter and work with the communities . There’s never been a bigger problem.”
However, after the peace process, everything changed. “The guerrillas held me hostage for two days, then they told me that I couldn’t set foot in the park again,” says Juana.
The government’s response: militarize
The only solution offered by the Colombian national government has been to militarize these protected areas through a program known as “Operation Artemisa”.
In 2020, President Duque said in an interview with the World Economic Forum that “our strategy to fight deforestation is a combination of carrot and stick. We fight against illegal activities that destroy the tropical jungle. At the same time, we are building nature-based solutions. Over the past two years, we have managed to reduce the rate of deforestation by 19%. Duque has since said his government is aiming for an overall reduction of 30%.
This month, the Minister of Defense, Diego Molano, announced that 10,000 million pesos will be invested in the military bases of La Pedrera and Tarapacá for the control of illegal mining and the fight against drug trafficking. .
Esperanza Leal Gómez is director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Colombia. She says protecting environmental leaders is the responsibility of the entire Colombian state, which must guarantee conditions for workers in national parks so they can “operate… without putting their lives at risk.”
Gómez explains that the park guards are not only essential for the conservation of the environment, but that they hold off those who want to exploit it: “The most latent threat is the territorial dispute between various illegal armed actors and civilians, who are being left unprotected.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Colombia director Sandra Valenzuela agrees. “As long as these threats persist, national parks, their rangers and isolated indigenous peoples will be at risk. Colombia must find a way to guarantee security and ensure the survival of the lungs of the world.