Arvey Alvear Daza’s life has been dominated by fear for most of his 37 years. A farmer in Caquetá, a district in southern Colombia, his land on the northwestern edge of the Amazon rainforest placed him in the middle of a decades-long conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the Colombian government.
“You were aware of things that happened to people ― dying, disappeared, being hurt,” Alvear Daza says. “We had to exist one way or another and learn to survive, to live day by day.”
Like thousands of those who lived in the rebel-occupied countryside, his movements were dictated by the guerrillas ― from having curfews imposed on his working day to rigid restrictions on the size of his farm so the forest cover would protect the FARC from government air raids.
Two years ago, things began to change. Colombia signed a historic peace deal with the FARC, ending a 52-year civil war that saw about 260,000 people killed and millions more displaced. Alvear Daza says he feels a sense of calm after so many years of turmoil.
Unfortunately, this transition has had other consequences. In two years of post-conflict Colombia, a large power vacuum has formed in vast rural areas where the guerrillas relinquished control, leaving previously inaccessible areas vulnerable to destruction. Record levels of deforestation have followed, driven ― in part, at least, experts say ― by armed groups illegally clearing forests to grow cash crops, such as coca.
In response, a group of young Colombians sued the government at the start of the year, stating that its failure to reduce deforestation threatens their fundamental rights, including their rights to a healthy environment, food and water.
These issues are all interconnected when it comes to deforestation. On a local level, the loss of tree cover drives soil erosion, making land less fertile, clogging waterways with sediment and worsening flooding. Globally, rainforests do a vital job of absorbing carbon, preventing greenhouse gases from accumulating in the atmosphere and warming the planet. Once the trees are cut down, however, they release the stored carbon, accelerating climate change. Deforestation is believed to be responsible for about 10 percent of heat-trapping global emissions.
Colombia lost more than 1.04 million acres of tree cover in 2017, according to the latest data published by the World Resources Institute (WRI) ― a 46 percent rise in deforestation from 2016, which was more than double the rate of loss from 2001 to 2015.
WRI says land speculation and the illegal clearing of forests for coca, mining and logging by armed groups that have emerged since the civil war ended has contributed to this dramatic increase in tree cover loss. The government’s foreign investment push has only intensified this scramble for land, according to a recent report by Global Witness, an international nongovernmental organization.
Forest clearance is out of control, says Carolina Gómez of the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, which monitors the health of Colombia’s biodiversity.
“In some regions, we have documented some of the highest deforestation rates for Colombia in its history,” she told HuffPost. “It is very sad. Before, the guerrillas were very strict in the use of natural resources, so places had some protection. The government should have continued doing that, but now there’s nobody there.”
In central Bogotá, just a few streets away from a polluted, traffic-heavy main avenue, some of the 25 plaintiffs who brought the deforestation claim against the government meet up ― bright-eyed young men and women talking animatedly about Colombia’s environmental future.
“People are hungry, people need to work, people are going to take advantage.”
They are in the airy offices of Dejusticia, a research and advocacy organization that coordinated the group’s lawsuit in its desire to do something practical to hold the government to its international commitments to reduce deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
Inspired by similar cases led by young people in Europe and the U.S., Dejusticia sought out those living in Colombian cities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change who were actively interested in protecting the environment, and asked them to be part of the lawsuit.
“We’re the first generation to live in peace in Colombia, but we are destroying our most biodiverse ecosystem,” says 26-year-old Gabriela Eslava, a lawyer for Dejusticia and one of the plaintiffs.
Those involved in the lawsuit acknowledge the tensions in appearing to link the FARC with land conservation. “We didn’t want to make the impression that we were pro-war,” says 26-year-old Valentina Rozo, one of the plaintiffs who lives in Bogotá. “We never wanted to thank the guerrillas, but it was clear that we had to show that paradox […] to make it clear that it was the government’s fault.”
The group submitted its claim to the court in January, and a supreme court ruling in April gave the government four months to form an action plan to reduce deforestation.
The plaintiffs told HuffPost they were humbled by the court’s verdict. For them, it was an opportunity to hold the government to account. “I think it opened the door for them to say we have made mistakes, and maybe it was the first step to be able to change,” Rozo says.
Walter Vergara, senior fellow at WRI, says Colombia’s deforestation situation is “worse than expected,” although he also says the government has taken some action to halt tree cover loss. It has canceled a major highway that would have run through the rainforest, for example, and launched a “green belt” initiative to protect a 22.7 million-acre forest corridor ― a move Vergara describes as the most important forest conservation effort in Latin America in terms of scale.
Luz Marina Mantilla Cárdenas, director general of the Amazon Institute of Scientific Research, a governmental organization, says it’s not just companies that threaten Colombia’s environment, it’s normal people trying to support themselves and their families, for example by cutting down forests to produce timber for domestic use.
“For everyone’s benefit, it is important to include people after the conflict. They should be involved in decisions about the land that is relevant to them and where they live,” she says.
Alvear Daza agrees, although ultimately he doesn’t believe the government has the capacity to regulate what’s going on in these large spaces. Nor does he believe it cares.
“It’s a very worrying situation,” he says. “There’s no concern for the environment and the environmental effects of deforestation [...] Naturally people saw an opportunity to cultivate more farms, and therefore increase productivity. People are hungry, people need to work, people are going to take advantage.”
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