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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

Forest and conflicts in Colombia: Exploitation of natural resources or gunpoint conservation?

According to FAO around 129 millions of hectares of forests, accounting for an area about the size of South Africa, have been lost to deforestation worldwide over the past 25 years. Vast forest areas have been converted into agricultural land or been destroyed by logging and forest fires.

In 2014, forest loss in Colombia was 140,356 hectares. That is like having destroyed an area of ​​forest equivalent to nine times the Tayrona Park or 52 times the island of San Andres.

Forests are being turned into coca plantations. (photo: El Tiempo)

Large parts of Colombia’s forests have been destroyed to make room for coca plantations. (photo: taken from El Tiempo website)

In Colombia, there are five drivers of deforestation: a)  illegal mining, which is concentrated in the Bajo Cauca, Antioquia, Chocó, Guainía, Vaupés and Casanare; b)  the conversion of areas into agricultural land, ie, forests turned into pastures; c)  illegal logging and infrastructure development – particularly grave in the Pacific region where criminal actions feed into a complex market; d)  forest fires; and e) the production of illicit crops.



The last driver is adherent to the story of Colombia. The country has suffered from long lasting armed conflict. Civil conflicts not only harm human life but also the environment and therefore, there is an evident relationship between conflict and the state of the forests.

Fumigation of coca plants. (source: BBC)

Fumigation of coca fields. (photo: taken from the BBC website)

Armed conflicts may increase deforestation through a number of channels. The armed groups are often found to exploit natural resources in order to finance their military campaigns. There is evidence that shows that in regions such as the northern Andes, Chocó and the Amazon which are used by guerillas to cultivate coca, forest cover has decreased. In a period of 15 years Colombia lost at least 608,000 hectares of tropical rainforest, and 35 or more species of mammals are threatened with extinction due to the planting of coca crops. Furthermore, the manual and sprayed eradication campaigns led to a constant relocation of coca producers which led to further deforestation.

However, some empirical evidence from Colombia on the subject also suggests that the armed conflict might be indeed a force of reforestation. How come? In some areas the presence of armed groups might actually protect the forest as the region becomes less accessible for other actors. International examples include the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and the revival of forests in Mozambique after land-mining has made certain regions inaccessible. In addition, for El Salvador there is evidence which suggests that woodlands have expanded in certain areas that were under guerilla control.

So there is no clear consensus whether conflict is a driver of deforestation or whether in fact, conflict paradoxically helps to conserve forests. At the moment, we are trying to answer this question for the Colombian case using econometrics and a unique panel data based on satellite imagery. The results will follow shortly in the next blog post. In any case the findings will clearly indicate a need for increased protection of Colombia’s forests.


Rafael Isidro Parra-Peña S., – Public Policy Analyst – @ LFM-CIAT – PhDc Economist , University of Sussex, UK.

Jana Bischler, Visiting Researcher @ LFM-CIAT, University of Oxford, UK

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