what Colombia’s new administration has inherited

“After the court ruling, we have had more attention from the armed forces, but before that, we spent a long time asking for accompaniment. I can not send my people without accompaniment to do operations or technical concepts because they would kill me,” says César Meléndez, the regional director of the Autonomous Corporation of Guaviare.

The Ministry of Defense claims that, in coordination with the Ministry of the Environment, it is the sector that has most propelled the fight against deforestation, but that they also have to prioritize other challenges.

According to Aníbal Fernández de Soto, the vice minister of the Ministry of the Interior, some of those other challenges include combating the members of the FARC and the members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, as well as the situation on the country’s borders, which “will eventually result in environmental impacts.”

“It needs to be understood that we started from zero, and now we have a monitoring mechanism (the Intersectoral Commission against Deforestation and the “environmental bubbles”); we are pursuing concrete cases, and the problem is more mapped,” Fernández de Soto added. “There is more clarity and more awareness. There are results, but this is a process.”

Actions taken too late

Despite all these obstacles, CARs such as that of Guaviare are taking action to place sanctions upon those who contribute to deforestation. They have already demanded between $140,000 and $175,000 in fines, depending on the exact number of hectares that have been deforested.

However, the director of the Autonomous Corporation of Guaviare, recognizes that the collection of those fines will be complicated because, “The people will not want to pay voluntarily, so instead, we will have to make coercive collections.” In other words, they must follow up on the properties that illegal loggers have possession of to later seize them, auction them off, and sell them, thus being able to collect the fines. This is a tedious and slow legal process that does not directly attack the land hoarding problem.

“We should not have dumped the land hoarding problem on the weakest sector of the government — the environmental sector — when we were not capable of resolving it, even with a peace agreement. We’ll start with who administers the land and the unowned pieces of land in the nation. No one comes skin-to-skin with the collective estate,” said Botero of the FCDS.

Botero is referring to the National Land Agency, which is Colombia’s ultimate authority in terms of land. The agency carries out social policies for rural property, manages access to land, and administers rural pieces of land owned by the federal government. The agency is also in charge of the National Land Fund, which was created after the peace agreement with the FARC was signed. The National Land Fund hopes to have three million hectares (over 7.4 million acres) of land to give to farmers without enough land, but the government has recognized that the fund is using deforestation as a survival mechanism.

Although one of the ways that the fund acquires land is by taking advantage of the country’s unclaimed pieces of land, which are also the most hoarded pieces of land in the Amazon, many of them cannot be allocated because they are protected by forestry law. Even so, the director of the National Land Agency, Miguel Samper, told Mongabay Latam that the agency has implemented two measures to take action on those pieces of unowned land, thus responding to the growing demand for land in the region.

The first measure is an “unedited and innovative” mechanism, according to Samper, that seeks to give the rights to the use of those lands to people who promise to use them in a sustainable manner. In other words, those people could use certain forest reserves to develop productive projects and access credits and subsidies through contracts.

“We are already working on the configuration and identification of potential creditors of these contracts. Never, since 1959, when the forest reserve law was approved, has anyone thought of an alternative for the farmers who are in those areas of legal insecurity,” Samper said.

The second measure is directed at attacking land hoarding, and seeks to find those who have gained access to these unowned pieces of land and have therefore committed crimes against the environment. Those people are then prohibited from all of the National Land Agency’s programs having to do with access, rights, and the use or formalization of rural property. Additionally, investigations are being carried out against identified land hoarders, and criminal charges will be filed by environmental authorities.

“We are working with community action committees and with the Ministry of the Environment to send a very forceful message: anyone who threatens the environment will not access a single centimeter of land,” Samper said.

Both measures were approved by the governing board of the entity only two and a half months ago. Because of this, whether or not they will be successfully implemented to combat land hoarding will fall under the responsibility of the next administration.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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