Peace, The Nemesis of the Rainforests

When Colombia’s government signed a peace deal with leftist guerrillas in 2016, it ended one of the world’s longest-running conflicts and inspired hope for the country’s future. It also had an unexpected downside. The return of normalcy led to a spike in rainforest-clearing, as landowners mowed down former guerrilla hide-outs to establish cattle ranches and plantations. Colombian researchers say that much of the country’s portion of the Amazon jungle is now in danger. Peace and economic development are a welcome turn, of course, for poor, conflict-racked countries. But such shifts have been accompanied by a striking pattern in regions that hold roughly a quarter of the globe’s tropical forests, including some of the biggest. When conflicts end, developers rush in to take advantage, and rates of deforestation accelerate. Governments tend to be unprepared to enforce preservation of the sensitive, newly accessible territory. “Everyone tries to take advantage of the lack of transparency and accountability,” said Kevin Woods, a senior policy analyst at the environmental group Forest Trends.

In a paper published last month in the journal Land Use Policy, researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of Waterloo showed how dramatically rainforest destruction sped up after peace arrived in Peru, Sri Lanka, Ivory Coast and Nepal in the past dozen years. In those four case studies, the average annual forest loss was 68% greater in the five years after conflicts ended than in the five years before. Forest loss also has increased globally but more slowly, at an average annual rise of 7% since 2001. Peru and Ivory Coast suffered the biggest absolute rainforest losses. Peru lost almost 840 square miles annually—an area roughly the size of Jacksonville, Fla.—in the five years after the Shining Path rebel group effectively acknowledged defeat in 2011. That was 58% more than the average during the prior five years. Or consider Indonesia, whose Aceh province contains the last place on Earth where tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans share a habitat. In the five years after 2005, when separatist rebels and the government ended decades of fighting, more than twice as much rainforest was lost than in the previous five years, according to data developed from NASA satellite imaging by the U.S.-funded Global Forest Watch monitoring project. The pace of destruction has risen further since then, the data show.

By contrast, conflict has continued to deter development in Indonesia’s remote Papua province, where armed separatists recently attacked a major roadway project through the area, killing more than a dozen workers and forcing a temporary halt in construction. The province lost less than 2% of its tree cover from 2001 to 2017, according to Global Forest Watch data, while Indonesia lost 15% overall. In central Africa, the world’s second-largest rainforest, after the Amazon, actually expanded during the 20th century, partly because of the area’s violent history, Yale University researchers concluded in a 2017 study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. During the same period, development in west and east Africa contributed to forest cover decreasing by more than 80%.

Rainforests emerging from conflicts are drawing increased attention partly because of the depletion suffered by forests in historically more stable places such as Brazil, which lost about 10% of its Amazon forest cover from 2001 to 2017. More than 80% of major armed conflicts from 1950 to 2000 occurred in areas considered to be biodiversity hot spots, researchers reported in the journal Conservation Biology in 2009—in part because guerrilla fighters tend to choose remote areas to stage wars. “Wilderness is shrinking very fast, and the remaining wilderness is around conflict,” says L. Roman Carrasco, an associate professor in biology at the National University of Singapore. “These big patches are becoming important.” In Colombia, the leftist FARC movement limited rainforest clearance in areas it controlled to protect its fighters from aerial bombardment and to ensure they could slip away from military incursions. But ranchers and coca growers have moved in quickly, often without any formal claim to the territory. In 2017, Colombia’s rainforest tree cover disappeared at three times the rate of 2015, the year before the peace treaty was signed. The government inadvertently encouraged land-grabbing by promising to formalize land ownership in former FARC territory as a part of the peace process, says Paulo Jose Murillo Sandoval, a Colombian researcher at Oregon State University. Everyone from local peasants to national ranching interests cleared areas in hopes of being grandfathered in as legal owners. “Buy some land super cheap, clear-cut it, put some coca and animals on it and get some money. That’s the mechanism,” Mr Sandoval said. Even Colombian national parks that were formerly under FARC control are being aggressively cleared, according to local researchers and Global Forest Watch.

The chaotic aftermath of a peace deal often encourages profiteers to rush in to clear the forest and make money quickly, not knowing how long they’ll be allowed to stay. “If future access is uncertain, it incentivizes rapid and unsustainable exploitation of resources,” said Carla Staver, an assistant professor of ecology at Yale involved in the central Africa research. She says that governments need to establish clear land-tenure systems after conflicts end. Some locals are taking post-conflict rainforest protection into their own hands, but enforcement can be a struggle. Since 2012, when a cease-fire was declared between the government of Myanmar and rebels of the Karen ethnic group, deforestation has proceeded at double the prior rate in the south-eastern state where the Karen largely reside. Myanmar’s military has worked with companies to dramatically expand industrial agriculture, mining and road-building. In response, Karen conservationists officially established a 1.4 million-acre “peace park” for forest protection this past December. The park is now forming an elected governing council to try to prevent land grabs and is working with local authorities to provide farmland for war refugees away from protected zones. In Indonesia’s Aceh province, locals had hoped for an orderly rebuilding process following the devastation of the tsunami that struck the area in 2004. In the aftermath, the insurgent Free Aceh Movement signed a peace deal with the Indonesian government, and many guerrillas took positions in local government. Conservationists recruited other former insurgents to patrol forests to fight poaching and illegal logging. “It was very effective because they really knew the forest and were experts at patrolling,” said Rudi Putra, an Indonesian biologist who took part in the effort. Initial funding came from international donors, he said. But before long, major palm oil companies, which had abandoned the area because of the fighting, swept in and began clearing forest for plantations. Villagers impoverished by years of war saw the profits that could be made from palm oil and followed suit. The patrols weren’t enough to halt it, said Mr Putra, especially because it was tolerated by local officials, “No one was afraid of opening land in the forest anymore.”

Credit: Jon Ermont for The Wall Street Journal, 29 March 2019.