A Voracious Fire Put Caño Cristales[1] At Risk

El Espectador, February 26, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The emblematic “River of Seven Colors” has been threatened by fires caused by the hands of criminals and which have destroyed dozens of hectares of vegetation. The Armed Forces blame FARC dissidents, but investigators warn that the problem is more complicated. Who is behind this ecocide?

For several months, the Armed Forces have been advancing Operation Artemis in the National Natural Parks (PNN in Spanish) La Tinigua, Mountains of La Macarena, and the Los Picachos Range—located on the border between Meta and Cáqueta Provinces. Thanks to the Operation, according to the Defense Ministry, they have been able to save 1,900 hectares to stop the advance of deforestation in that area. After Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo presented an analysis of the Operation, last Saturday night, a voracious fire consumed an area not yet measured, but that threatened to reach Caño Cristales. Although the Armed Forces pointed the finger at the FARC dissidents—who control the land in that area—to blame them for the conflagration, other voices assure that the problem is more complicated.

According to Homes Trujillo in his presentation last Saturday, the Residual Organized Armed Groups use areas of the park “as air bases and corridors for the movement of criminal activities. This compromises not just the strategic resources of the nation, but also the lives, the integrity, and the rights of the communities.” He added that “they are destroying the forests in order to plant coca, to keep on killing, to keep on destroying the environment and contaminate water sources. That is what drug trafficking does.”

The Public Defender’s Office, which announced an alert Saturday night about the fire, did it with a tough message: “The fire started against the mountains of La Macarena, at the point of Caño Cristales, is an attack on humanity.” Even though the National Risk Management Unit reported that the conflagration was completely controlled, it is not yet clear who might be behind it.

Twelve men and eight women were captured last Saturday, and charged with environmental crimes for actions related to deforestation. According to a statement signed by the Colombian Jurists Committee, the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, and other organizations, “a document was read to them in which they were charged with the crime of invading a National Natural Park,” Some of them, said Trujillo, had previous arrest warrants and others had been caught red-handed. 

What the organizations that are following the case are complaining about is that “they have systematically arrested and charged campesinos for the simple fact that they live in national parks, without considering the fact that many of them have lived there long before the area was declared a national park” and that in “these operations, there is ample evidence of violations of due process.” Besides that, they point out that the campesinos that live in the area, even though it can be proved that they are directly involved in the deforestation, they end up in that situation because the government has abandoned the place and they have to live in the cross fire between the FARC dissidents that control the area.


Officials close to the process insisted to this newspaper that it is unlikely that the dissidents are behind the fire, because it is precisely the plant growth that has helped them hide out in this part of the country. According to a source, this is a place that is “totally ungoverned”; it’s “no man’s land” and it’s very hard to find out who is responsible for crimes committed here, since there are only 27 prosecutors in the whole country who are specialized in environmental law. Not even one for every province.

A source in the control agency told this newspaper that “the first ones to be investigated will be those that have an interest in exploiting the area.” Similarly, the Inspector General’s Office explained on its Twitter account that “this kind of fire is part of a perverse plan that seeks to degrade environmental protection in strategic territories of ecological importance, in order to obtain permits for their use.” That is to say, they burn reserves so that the government will be more lax, for example, with permits for mining exploitation in the area.


Deforestation is not a new subject, and Colombia has been trying fruitlessly to stop it for several years. In spite of the fact that the country committed to reduce it to zero by 2020, with numerous efforts in that direction, it hasn’t succeeded. In 2017 the country lost 219,973 hectares and in 2018, 197,159 hectares were deforested, the equivalent of Bogotá twice over.

Not even the protected areas have been free of the loss of forest: the most recent report of the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (Ideam in Spanish), estimates that just in 2018, the National Natural Parks lost 21,046 hectares. To make things worse, in those territories—that make up more than 12% of Colombia—inhabit 32% of the biodiversity identified in the country.

The most recent of the government’s efforts to stop deforestation has been military intervention, known as Operation Artemis, begun in April of 2019. Its objective, as President Iván Duque announced then, was to stop the “deforestation hemorrhaging in recent years, recover the humid and tropical jungle, and prosecute those behind these illegal practices.” The increase had created concerns among communities, the Armed Forces, and the illegal groups that operate in these areas. The result has been an increase in the tensions in these protected areas.

In fact, in October 2018, an operation against deforestation in Los Picachos Park ended in protests and confrontations between campesinos and Colombia’s Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (Esmad in Spanish). A year later, in La Paya Park, a new operation, led by the President’s Office and the Armed Forces, resulted in complaints of excessive force and the destruction of some campesino houses. The same thing happened at another operation in Chiribiquete in April of that same year. Now, with a fire in the forest near the Caño Cristales, one of the country’s principal tourist attractions, recognized internationally for its beauty and biodiversity, after the fourth phase of Operation Artemis, this delicate matter is once again the subject of debate.

Considering this panorama, the case of Tinigua National Nature Park, where the mythical river of seven colors in located, is one of the most worrisome. Tinigua has an area of 214,261 hectares and forms part of the Special Management Area in La Macarena (AMEM in Spanish). It was created in 1989 to protect the different ecosystems that come together there. Three other National Nature Parks are part of AMEM: Sumapaz, the Los Picachos Range, and the Mountains of La Macarena. That area serves as the important link connecting the Andes, the Orinoquia region, and the Amazonia region. This function is now endangered because of deforestation.

“Tinigua is tremendously complicated. It is one the places that is most deforested in the area. It has the highest rate of concentration of deforestation both in Colombian Amazonia and in continental Amazonia,” says Rodrigo Botero, who was the Director of territorial Amazonia of the National Nature Parks for ten years and now is Director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development. “This process of deforestation has shot up since 2016, when the country entered the final phase of the signing of the Peace Agreement. Even though Tinigua had had a procedure for historical occupation for a long time, it is not comparable with what is going on now: new people have entered to take part, social organization has changed, and there are new armed actors,” he insists. Residents, investigators, organizations, and entities of control identify cattle raising as one of the principal causes, as well as the illicit crops and the out-of-control colonization.

According to Botero, there were nearly 18,000 hectares deforested just in the last year. The worst thing is that the area is becoming fragmented. This directly affects the objective of national conservation and connectivity among the Andes, Amazonia, and the Orinoquia regions. “Between the years 2009 and 2012, PNN made an enormous effort to solve the problem of occupation, using proposals such as voluntary relocation and even the possible creation of a Campesino Reserve Area in the Park’s buffer area. But those efforts were a mistake, and it had drastic repercussions,” he explains.

Even though when the peace agreement with the FARC was signed, you could see a feeling of hope and finally the directors and officials of PNN could go to the area that they were protecting, the situation did not change. The threats against environmental leaders, PNN officials, and Cormacarena[2] got worse; they were declared military objectives. And the tendency of deforestation was toward increase. According to data from the Monitoring Project of Andean Amazonia (MAAP in Spanish), it is the national park that lost the most forest between 2017 and 2018.

“The threats to the park officials acted like a boomerang, because they are like a call to forceful action. It’s very difficult to enter into a process of conciliation and dialog while there are positions like that. And vice versa, the military operations unfortunately are the worst fuel, because the activities in fact continue escalating. They don’t consider the effects of the force they use and they end up capturing campesinos and their children. The persistence of the use of force against the weakest part of the chain is directly proportional to the fighting in these parks,” comments Botero.

The Colombian Jurists Committee has also reiterated that militarizing conservation is not the answer to solving the conflicts in protected areas. Nevertheless, the Defense Ministry insists that “the Armed Forces have the constitutional mandate and the President’s order to protect the environment.” Meanwhile, the complaints on that subject keep being the same: the biggest deforesters have not yet been captured.

[1] “Caño Cristales is sometimes known as the “Liquid Rainbow” or the “River of Seven Colors”.

[2] Cormacarena is the environmental protection agency for Meta Province.

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