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Why do crocodiles look the same today as they did 200 million years ago?

The location of the Catatumbo region is on the border with Venezuela, making it a strategic route for armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for drug trafficking outside Colombia. Territorial disputes over coca production areas are reported to occur on a daily basis, and residents say they live in fear of displacement or even death if they talk about illegal drug trafficking activities in the region. Those who agreed to speak to Mongabay did so on condition of anonymity; their names have changed in this story.

“Be very careful with this information,”

; said Pablo *, a farmer.

Recently cleared land in the Catatumbo Barí National Nature Park. Vulcano Colombian Army Task Force

In addition to the threatening environment for local communities, the illegal cultivation of coca and its cocaine production appears to be due to the cost of the region’s forests. Even the areas with the highest level of protection are not immune – including the Catatumbo Barí National Nature Park, where satellites find deforestation creeping deeper and deeper into the park’s old rainforest.

The rise of coca

Today, Pablo grows legal crops, but until a few years ago he was a coca producer. He said he had watched coca fields expand to the edges of roads and the banks of the Catatumbo River with complete impunity, thus violating old coca growers’ practice in more remote, hidden areas.

“Now people are burning pastures to grow coca, which used to be for livestock or fruit growing … They don’t respect anything, not even the river,” Pablo said.

Pablo says that since the arrival of coca in 1997, the region has not been the same and that the situation has worsened further since the signing of the FARC peace agreement in 2016.

“There are almost no trees left and the wells in the rivers and the river where I bathed as a child no longer exist because of the landslides,” said Pablo, who has lived in the same region for more than 50 years.

Pablo added that, in the end, farmers have chosen the money that comes from growing coca, in the peace of growing legal crops.

“Business is not bad if you cultivate yourself [coca leaves]”Not like the leftovers I had,” he said, referring to less than 10 hectares (24 acres) of land he once owned. He claims that the coca fields are now larger, measuring about hundreds hectares.

According to Pablo, one kilogram of coca paste sells for approximately 2.7 million pesos ($ 790). If the buyer is someone from the guerrilla group, they sell it for 2.58 million pesos ($ 755). Meanwhile, the price of a kilogram of cocoa – a popular legal crop in the area, which the government has encouraged to fight the coca industry – is only 8,000 pesos ($ 2.30).

Government policies and strategies aimed at reducing coca cultivation are controversial.

“The programs are aimed only at families who grow illegal crops,” said Jericho, a cocoa producer. “Families that do not have these crops are displaced and are indirectly told that they must grow coca in order to be beneficiaries of the programs.”

Increasing deforestation

UCatatumbo Barí National Park is nestled at the foot of the eastern mountain range in the department of Norte de Santander and covers 158,125 hectares (390,735 acres) with an elevation ranging from 70 to 2,000 meters (230 to 6,562 feet) above sea level. The park is dominated by orchids, bromeliads, lianas and heliconias, as well as trees over 45 meters (148 feet) high. It is part of the Catatumbo Wetlands Ecoregion, the only area north of the Andes inhabited by Amazonian plants and animals – and severely degraded by agriculture and oil production.

Much of the forest in the Catatumbo area is fragmented. Vulcano Colombian Army Task Force

Catatumbo Barí is more than six hours from Cucuta, the capital of the department of Norte de Santander, and there is little, if any, passable access road. The best way to get there is by boat with the help of Bari, the indigenous group that occupies a sector of the park in two reserves: Motilon Bari, which covers 108,900 hectares (269,097 acres) and Gabara-Catalaura of 13,300 hectares (32 865 acres) On the way to the park you can easily see the fields with coca crops. “The crops are reaching Cucuta,” said a resident of the region. Tibu is one of the municipalities that have jurisdiction over the park. It is also the municipality with the highest deforestation rate in Norte de Santander. According to the latest report of the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Research (Ideam), 7,103 hectares (17,551 acres) were cleared in Tibu in 2019, representing 72% of its area. According to the United Nations Integrated Monitoring System for Illegal Crops (SIMCI), 41,711 hectares (103,070 acres) of coca crops were processed in the region in 2019, an increase of more than 76% compared to 2016, when SIMCI registered 24,831 hectares (61,358 acres) of coca cultivation. Norte de Santander lost 11% of its wood cover between 2001 and 2019, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland (UMD), while the Catatumbo Barí National Park lost 6.2%. In both areas, preliminary UMD data for 2020 show several deforestation peaks that were “unusually high” compared to previous years.

Catatumbo Barí National Nature Park protects some of the region’s last primary rainforests. But satellite data shows that deforestation continued to decline in 2020, including in the park.

The National Parks of Colombia (PNN) is the environmental authority that controls Catatumbo Barí. Areas outside the park are monitored by the Northeastern Regional Autonomous Corporation (Corponor), which manages renewable natural resources in Norte de Santander. Sandra Gomez, deputy director of Corponor, explains that the high rate of deforestation outside the park is mainly due to the expansion of the agricultural border, illegal crops, illegal logging and timber trafficking. “Entry is difficult and inaccessible due to (lack of) roads, ongoing conflict and security issues. All of this facilitates illegal activities,” Gomez said. The latest SIMCI report identifies 1,448 hectares (3,578 acres) of coca cultivation in Catatumbo Barí in 2019, representing 15% of the area deforested between 2001 and 2019 and a 60% jump compared to 2018. However, this may fade in compared to 2020; According to a government source who studied the area and spoke on condition of anonymity, 90% of the deforested land in Catatumbo Barí is now planted with coca crops, and the remaining 10% is used as arable land for plantain and yucca, or as reported. of SIMCI, coca crops have reached two local reservations in Catatumbo Barí since 2019, with 411 hectares cultivated in the Motilón Barí reserve and 43 hectares in the Gabarra-Catalaura reserve. A total of 454 hectares (1121 acres), this marks a 66% increase in coca cultivation in both reserves compared to 2018. Juan Carlos Quintero, president of the Catatumbo Small Farmers Association (Ascamcat), said that coca cultivation as and the expansion of large-scale oil palm plantations is worrying. He added that leaving government oversight following the signing of the 2016 FARC peace agreement creates an atmosphere of impunity in the region. “The national government is present only with the army,” Quintero said, adding that armed groups soon invaded the territory left vacant by the FARC and unprotected by the government.

Gomez said the situation in the Catatumbo region stems from a structural problem that facilitates land grabbing. Under a law dating back to 1959, the government designated forest protection areas; however, they have not officially registered the land, which would avoid land use disputes and help mitigate the environmental degradation of protected areas.

“The problem is land grabbing and illegal land use change … because there is no physical registration, people buy land and then process coca,” Gomez said. “If he goes wrong, they sell him. [These lands] are free accounts and belong to the nation. “

Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), says the Colombian government wants to formally map the ownership of all the various plots in the region, which is the first step needed to register ownership, use, expansion, borrowing time. and legal status of the land.

Long-term consequences

Catatumbo Barí National Nature Park has untouched areas of rainforest that have not yet been explored by the scientific community. Carlos Hearney Caceres Martinez, a biologist who has done research in various Colombian parks, has been trying for years to enter the protected area to do genetic testing of the Andean bear (Ornaments Tremarctos). The project aims to characterize the connectivity of Andean bear populations in Colombia, and of the eight different regions where its presence has been recorded, Catatumbo Barí is the only area where sampling is not yet possible due to the difficulty of accessing the park.

The Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus), also called the spectacled bear, is the last remaining species of short bear. He has been identified as vulnerable by the IUCN. Futureman1199 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Cáceres said deforestation, like what happens in and around Catatumbo Barí, has cascading effects that can spread across ecosystems and dependent human communities. “When a wet forest is affected, everything is affected: carbon capture, oxygen equalization, water regulation, erosive processes (…) Not only are plants or animals lost as society loses a free service that our planet offers to have a healthy life, “Cáceres said. He added that fires, which are often used to clear land, could be particularly destructive to the region’s forest. “We know it is very difficult for them to return to their natural state,” he said. “For [a forest] to recover 50%, they need at least 100 years. “This is a translated and adapted version of a story first published by Mongabay Latam on December 2, 2020. Editor’s note: This story was provided by Places to Watch, the Global Forest Watch Initiative (GFW), designed to quickly identify losses The world’s observation sites are based on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis.In partnership with Mongabay, GFW supports data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch.Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over stories reported using this data.Reported with permission from Mongabay.

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