Deforestation in Colombia falls to lowest level in 23 years

<span>The National Serrania de Chiribique Park, Guaviare, Colombia, 2019. </span><span>Photograph: Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda/EPA</span>
The National Serrania de Chiribique Park, Guaviare, Colombia, 2019. Photograph: Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda/EPA

Deforestation in Colombia fell sharply in 2023 to its lowest level in 23 years, the country’s environment ministry has said.

The amount of forest loss fell from 1,235 sq km in 2022 to 792 sq km in 2023 – a 36% decrease, official figures revealed.

Most of the environmental gains were in the Amazon rainforest, where the Colombian government is focusing much of its conservation efforts.

“It is a truly iconic year in this fight against deforestation,” Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s environment minister, told journalists in Bogotá.

Deforestation in Colombia rose to a record high in 2017 after the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Farc, demobilised, leaving a power vacuum in the country’s forests.

Runaway deforestation has since been reined in and reversed under Gustavo Petro’s government, the first leftist administration in Colombia’s history.

The Petro government has made conserving the Amazon through increased surveillance and launching new sustainable projects a key priority and called for rich nations to cancel foreign debt in exchange for slowing climate change.

The two main successes in protecting Colombia’s forests have been reaching agreements where farmers are paid to protect the land and negotiations with armed groups who are the de facto authority in deforestation hotspots.

“We have identified that there is a direct association between peace and the outcome of deforestation. Peaceful conditions lead to reduced deforestation,” Muhamad told reporters.

Last year marked the second successive year of falling deforestation in Colombia. Official figures show forest loss has decreased 54% between 2021 and 2023, well above the national target of 20%.

The Andean nation, which is the world’s second most biodiverse, is seeking to position itself as a global leader in the fight to halt climate change and will host the Cop16 biodiversity conference in the city of Cali this year.

Muhamad said that the figures for 2024 did not look as promising due to the El Niño phenomenon that causes hotter, drier conditions in the Amazon, and has been pushing deforestation higher this year.

Equally concerning, say experts, is the breakdown of negotiations with the Central General Staff (EMC), a key group of armed rebels which controls vast swathes of the rainforest.

The armed rebels U-turned on their policy of outlawing deforestation in November, instead permitting and even encouraging the practice.

“We will see this reflected in the deforestation figures for this year as the EMC have been limiting access of state officials into the forests and pressuring local communities to cut down trees,” said Angelica Rojas, a liaison officer for the Guaviare department at the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), a Colombian environmental thinktank.