Three years of relative peace with rebels in Colombia has opened once-forbidding jungles to settlers. Illegal gold mining is fuelling forest loss in Peru. Cattle ranchers in Bolivia are razing rainforest to meet beef demand in China.
Deforestation at breakneck rates is depleting the vast expanses of Amazon forest contained in South American countries neighboring Brazil. Forest loss in those nations, which host roughly 40 per cent of the Amazon, underscores how the fires now ravaging parts of Brazil and provoking global alarm are just one piece of a broader regional crisis.
The push by land speculators, ranchers and miners into forests around the Amazon basin also shows how advances in political stability and economic integration can drive deforestation, especially when safeguards remain weak.
"We've gone in Colombia from gunpoint conservation under the guerrillas to a massive deforestation spike," said Liliana Dávalos, a field biologist at Stony Brook University who estimated that deforestation climbed 50 per cent from 2017 to 2018 in Colombian national parks formerly controlled by armed rebels.
Fears of renewed fighting in Colombia flared this week, when a former commander of the country's largest rebel group said the government had reneged on the terms of a 2016 peace deal. The commander, who played an important part in peace talks, issued a new call to arms that could threaten the deal.
The potential for the guerrillas to regroup is one factor that environmental leaders are analysing in Colombia, where decades of internal war had kept some forested areas off limits to settlement.
For now Colombia is emblematic of rising deforestation in South America. Its loss of about 490,000 acres last year was one of the highest annual rates Colombia had ever seen, government statistics show. Land grabs and crop cultivation for illegal drugs are among the factors driving deforestation.
But scientists say the deforestation was primarily set off by demobilisation of the main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, as a result of the 2016 peace deal.
Before the agreement was reached, the FARC strictly enforced limits on fires used to clear lands under the group's control. The rebels maintained the forest cover to protect encampments from aerial bombing and drone surveillance.
With that motivation gone, members of illegal armed groups and some former FARC guerrillas themselves are racing to occupy lands by clearing forest, according to a report by the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group.
Land speculation is fueling much of the rush in Colombia, with developers benefiting from an incomplete land registry, shadowy methods for obtaining land titles and low taxes on cleared land.
"Part of the deforestation problem is that the state doesn't respond fast enough," said Humberto Sánchez, mayor of San Vicente del Caguán, a onetime haven for the FARC in southern Colombia that is now surrounded by deforestation areas.
"Military and judicial authorities delay taking action, then comes the enforcement," Sánchez continued. "But by that time, the damage is done."
Colombia's government contends that it has taken steps to curb some of the forest loss: expanding Chiribiquete, a large national park; forging greater cooperation between indigenous peoples and the National Park Service; and deploying army units to crack down on illegal clearing.
Colombia's meteorological institute said that the deforestation rate, while high, actually slowed slightly last year compared with 2017. Still, the rate was 59 per cent higher in 2018 than 2015, the year before the FARC demobilised.
Some of Colombia's recent measures to preserve the Amazon drew inspiration from Brazil, which pioneered developing-world strategies to protect tropical forests and reduced deforestation rates by about 80 per cent from 2004 to 2012.
The relaxation of protections in 2012 under the leftist Workers' Party led deforestation to climb again in Brazil. During the tenure of President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing nationalist whose foreign minister says climate change is a Marxist plot, forest protection agencies have been gutted.
Bolsonaro's aggressive weakening of forest protections seems to be influencing officials in neighboring countries, just as Brazil's previous leadership on the environment did. The governor of one Colombian province where deforestation has skyrocketed, for instance, has called for cattle raising to more than double.
President Ivan Duque of Colombia and President Martín Vizcarra of Peru are organising a summit meeting next week of the leaders of Amazon nations to coordinate protection strategies. It was unclear whether Brazil would participate in the meeting, to be held in the Colombian city of Leticia.
Venezuela, which has endured a severe economic crisis, has a relatively low deforestation rate compared with other countries sharing the Amazon forest. "Deforestation levels dropped the past two years, but could be in danger of rebounding amid Venezuela's instability," said Matt Piotrowski, a senior analyst at Climate Advisers, a Washington policy group.
In Peru, where the Amazon constitutes about 60% of the country's territory, political tensions over forest protections have been intensifying.
The government curbed the independence of Peru's forestry auditor in December, drawing accusations that it was violating commitments made in a 2007 trade deal with the United States. The move prompted a rare threat of sanctions by the Trump administration over environmental degradation.
In April, Peru reversed course and restored the forestry agency's independence. Still, the country is grappling with deforestation driven by a growth in the production of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, and illegal gold mining.
The spread of small-scale mines in Peru has destroyed about 170,000 acres in just five years, according to a 2018 study by researchers from Wake Forest University.
Responding to deforestation in the Peruvian province of Madre de Dios, Vizcarra declared a state of emergency in the region in February and deployed 1,500 police officers and soldiers to crack down on illegal mines.
Luis Hidalgo, the governor of Madre de Dios, said in a telephone interview that his government was also struggling to respond to fires now burning in remote parts of the region.
"We are not prepared to respond to a fire of great magnitude," he said, emphasising that the entire province had only one firefighting unit, and it was based in the capital, Puerto Maldonado.
Hidalgo added that the fires in his region involved internal migration driven by economics: Settlers from the highlands had moved to lowlands for greater opportunities and, once there, had set fires to plant crops on small plots of land.
Environmental leaders in Peru are also bracing for the effects of the Interoceanic Highway. The project, intended to foster greater trade between Peru and Brazil, is already fueling forest loss in adjacent areas now open to farming.
Agriculture and ranching are also producing a surge in deforestation in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales has made expanding the country's agricultural frontier a priority, sometimes by distributing land to farmers.
The opening of China's beef market to Bolivian exporters is thought to be driving some of the forest loss this year as ranchers seek pastures for expanding herds. After trying to play down fires in the Amazon, Morales shifted his position last weekend and sent soldiers to fight them.
And on Tuesday Morales said his government had suspended land sales in Chiquitania, the region hit by fires this month. Still, the blazes provided an opening to political rivals and environmental groups critical of Morales.
"Let's be clear: This is no natural disaster," said Carlos Mesa, a leading opposition candidate who is running for president against Morales. "These fires were caused by Evo Morales and his policies."
Researchers are just beginning to reckon with the consequences of this year's fires. From January through July, deforestation and subsequent fires in the Brazilian Amazon released between 115 million and 155 million tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions, according to an analysis released Friday.
The amount is roughly equal to the total annual carbon dioxide emissions for the state of North Carolina, according to Wayne Walker, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, who led the analysis. In the Brazilian Amazon alone from January 1 through August 14, people have deforested an area almost equal to the size of Rhode Island, the research center said.
Written by: Simon Romero
Photographs by: Federico Rios Escobar
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES