By Chris Lang
Colombia’s rate of deforestation is among the highest in the world. Between 2000 and 2019, Colombia lost almost 2.8 million hectares of forest. In 2020, Global Forest Watch reported that rates of deforestation were back to the levels seen in 2017 and 2018, after a slight drop in 2019. Almost 170,000 hectares of primary forest were lost in 2020.
A new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency notes that since 2016, deforestation in Colombia has skyrocketed due to land grabbing, speculation, and cattle ranching. EIA’s report, titled, “Tainted Beef: How criminal cattle supply chains are destroying the Colombia Amazon”, can be downloaded here.
The report reveals how beef in supermarket chains, such as Grupo Éxito, Carnatural, and Colsubsidio, in Bogota and other major cities in Colombia comes from cattle illegally raised on recently deforested land in protected forests. EIA writes that,
Due to the failure of supermarkets to conduct adequate due diligence on their beef sourcing, these companies and their unwitting consumers are fueling illegal deforestation in national parks and contributing to financing of armed conflict in Colombia.
EIA’s investigation looked at deforestation in the northern part of Chiribiquete National Park and in La Macarena National Park and adjacent protected Forest Reserves. Between 2016 and 2020, 21,596 hectares of forest were illegally destroyed inside these protected areas. Meanwhile, the cattle ranching population has increased significantly.
Cattle ranching has been explicitly banned inside national parks in Colombia since 1959. In Chiribiquete National Park, EIA writes, a 2018 Resolution bans “all activities other than conservation, education, recreation, culture, research, recovery, and control inside of the national park”.
“These people take care of you”
EIA reports that land grabbing is “one of the main structural caused of deforestation in the Northwestern Amazon, as it encourages new colonization processes and land use change. In this region, land-grabbing is primarily facilitated by extensive cattle ranching and the cultivation of coca crops.”
The government is almost non-existent in this region of Colombia, and illegal armed groups are in effect in control of the forests. EIA’s report states that,
Ranchers interviewed confirmed that they make payments to armed groups at a rate of 10,000 Colombian Pesos (COP) per cow per annum, in exchange for “protection.” As one rancher noted: “These people take care of you.” In exchange for payments, ranchers explain, they are able to move around freely and are protected from cattle theft.
The payments amount to important sources of income for the armed groups in the region. The illegal armed groups also control deforestation, by issuing so-called “permits” to clear forests for pasture.
Timber from the illegally cleared forest is sold on the black market, after being sawn into three- to four-metre-long boards .
Voluntary corporate commitments are “insufficient”
Grupo Éxito, and other companies, have made “Zero Deforestation” commitments. The company is a founding partner of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 in Colombia. It is also a member of the New York Declaration on Forests.
Grupo Éxito claims to be carrying out due diligence in their supply chain. Since December 2020, the company also sells “sustainable beef”, thanks to an initiative supported by Climate Focus and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
But EIA’s investigation uncovered evidence that Grupo Éxito bought meat from suppliers who source from farms located in protected areas. One rancher linked to Grupo Éxito’s supply chain admitted to clearing hundreds of hectares of forest inside Chiribiquete National Park in 2019. He planned to clear much more forest in the future. The rancher told EIA that meat from his farm is sold in Grupo Éxito’s supermarkets.
In its report, EIA points out that,
Voluntary company commitments — in Colombia and other countries — have proved to be insufficient to solve the problems of deforestation and illegality in supply chains. As long as there is no legal obligation to follow a product back to its origin – in the case of cattle, the place of birth – actors along the supply chain will continue to avoid responsibility for due diligence, while armed groups and land speculators continue to profit from environmental crimes with impunity.
Grupo Éxito has 537 shops in Colombia and with a 28% share of the market, it is the country’s leading retail brand. The company is owned by Casino Guichard-Perrachon, a French retailer. Casino Group had revenues of €31.9 billion in 2020. Latin America represents almost half of the company’s sales.
In a press statement, Susanne Breitkopf, EIA Deputy Director of Forest Campaigns, says that,
“Our investigation shows that it’s not enough for companies to rely on statements from their suppliers. They need to implement their own due diligence systems and trace their meat back to the origin of the cows. . . .
“More than ten years of private commitments by companies around the world have proven that voluntary approaches are not going to solve the deforestation crisis. Mandatory supply chain traceability and transparency in the cattle sector needs to become the norm, in Colombia and everywhere.”
This post is part of a series of posts on REDD-Monitor looking at REDD and environmental injustice in the Andes Amazon.