Expansion of Cattle Farms Leads to Rise of Armed Conflict in Colombia

Amid the largest wave of social protests in Colombia in the last 50 years, a special investigation by the International Environmental Agency (EIA) found a connection between illegal deforestation, in part, led by the country’s main supermarket chain, Grupo Exito, and the rise of armed conflict in the region. The groundbreaking report exposes a series of irregularities in the livestock supply chain in Colombia, which were also presented in the report.

But the report went unnoticed by most mainstream media. Similarly, regulating agencies did not take any stance on the matter. Not to mention Grupo Exito, the corporation allegedly involved in destroying the Amazon forest while financing militant groups in the area. A noncommittal message issued by their communications department was the company’s only response to this serious complaint. 

The report traces beef sourced from illegally deforested areas to supermarket chains, such as Grupo Éxito and Colsubsidio, where it is sold to consumers. Through innovative data analysis and extensive field investigations, the EIA uncovered a system marred by corruption, extortion, cattle laundering, and illegal forest clearing in the Colombian Amazon.

But is this really groundbreaking? Most Colombians are familiar with the link between land grabbing, illegal deforestation, and cattle laundering, but this investigation has finally presented substantial evidence to support that claim. The IEA selected two big protected areas in Colombia to conduct their study—Chiribiquete and La Macarena National Natural Parks, both located in the Colombian Amazon region—to show how our forest and biodiversity are in danger because of both legal and illegal meat production. 

“EIA findings are so important that I am surprised by the limited disclosure in the media and the zero impact they had in public opinion,” says Andrea Padilla, councilor for the Colombian capital city of Bogota who was recognized by PETA in 2020 as a “mujer defensora de los animales” or woman who defends the animals. She says that “although it has always been claimed that cattle [are] farmed in environmentally protected places and much has been told about the links between livestock farming and illegal armed groups, especially paramilitary groups, it would be expected that a report confirming these open secrets, detailing areas, figures, dates and the chain of illegality, with strong evidence and testimonies, would have an impact in public opinion and trigger criminal investigations and action by control agencies.” 

On the other hand, some still found the report shocking. “This report is extremely serious,” says Camilo Quintero, lecturer, consultant, and environmental activist in Colombia. “Even the government in its reports and strategies to contain deforestation has documented what is happening in these national parks, but it has not taken any contingent actions in order to effectively contain it.” 

Who looks after protected land?

Colombia’s biodiversity ranks second in the world. Nonetheless, the government has a special relationship with some industrial sectors, such as cattle farming, and often ignores the environmental concerns raised by these types of businesses. According to the National Greenhouse Gas inventory, land usage is the main contributor to greenhouse emissions in the country. This is not the norm. Globally, the main contributor is electricity and power generation. In Colombia, land usage accounts for 61.3 percent while electricity and power production makes up just 30 percent. 

That being said, environmental leaders and activists play a crucial role in reporting illegal activity. EIA’s analysis shows that the areas investigated—where deforestation is illegal—lost 21,596 hectares of forest while cattle ranching expanded dramatically. The cattle population grew more than sevenfold in La Macarena National Park and more than threefold in the Amazon Forest Reserve bordering northern Chiribiquete. 

But the dismay of environmental activists, Global Witness recently revealed that worldwide 212 people were murdered while defending the land from illegal activities like cattle ranching in 2019. This was a record high. “Shockingly, over half of all reported killings last year occurred in just two countries: Colombia and the Philippines,” the report states. 

So in 2020 when Colombia signed the Escazu Agreement, an unprecedented regional treaty aiming to protect environmental activists, people were hopeful about the future of land protection. They did not expect the treaty to be held up by the National Congress. 

“The Escazú Agreement can save lives, overcome environmental conflict brought about by deforestation. It is very sad that it is not being endorsed by Colombia. This shows the interests of certain economic associations to continue taking advantage of our natural resources unscrupulously,” environmental activist Camilo Quintero says. “That’s why it is very sensitive that Colombia, being one of the countries with the most environmental conflicts and one of the most dangerous for the defense of the environment, fails to ratify this agreement.”

The absence of authorities: Complicity or weakness? 

Chiribiquete National Park is the biggest natural park in Colombia and the biggest protected area in the Colombian Amazon. It was also declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The park extends over 43,000 square kilometers (17,000 sq. mi.) and is located in the northwestern part of the Colombian Amazon, a region that has been heavily affected by a long-lasting armed conflict and is now largely unprotected from illegal cattle ranching.

But it is not a sign of weakness that the area remains unprotected. “It is complicity,” says Padilla. “Just as the EIA has confirmed what was a well-known fact [the link between illegal cattle farming and deforestation], it is also widely known that cattle-ranching associations have a large representation in Congress and the national Government.” 

For example, Padilla says “an influential senator for the ruling party” is the wife of Colombia’s National Federation of Cattle Ranchers president, Jose Felix Lafaurie, who is accused of land grabbing and has links to paramilitary groups. 

“As long as the Congress and the Government are taken over by the ruling class that has brought about inequality, poverty, and environmental destruction in Colombia, it will be almost impossible to advance the agendas of environment and peace,” she says.