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A years-old peace treaty between Colombia’s government and leftist rebels has been bad news for the country’s forests — but in diverse ways and for varied reasons, a new study finds.

Tropical forests, which house at least two-thirds of the world’s organisms, are often “marked by the presence of armed conflict,” researchers noted in the study, published in Frontiers in Environmental Science.

“In these regions, the interplay between conflict and peace shapes an important part of how deforestation trajectories unfold,” the authors wrote.

Researchers found that the peace treaty signed in 2016 has brought rising deforestation to Colombia “even in places where deforestation was declining before the peace agreement.” But this overall picture concealed important local wrinkles, study authors wrote. 

In some regions, deforestation didn’t change much with peace, and in others it increased significantly  — showing that deforestation was driven by several geographic and social factors.

The research also laid out how peace between government and rebel forces opened the way for a new, interrelated form of conflict and deforestation similar to that happening across the Amazon.

The study represents the latest entry in a long-running, fraught debate over whether civil conflicts protect — or help destroy — forests.

As Colombia’s peace talks began in 2013, academics, environmentalists and civil society experts engaged in a spirited debate over the impacts peace would have on the country’s thick, primeval forests.

For nearly half a century, intermittent war raged between a complex mix of U.S.-backed government forces, state-backed paramilitaries and local oligarchs against a network of leftist revolutionaries like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, based in guerrilla camps in the jungle.

The conflict killed 270,000 people and displaced more than 5 million — leaving the country with more internal refugees than Afghanistan, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

But in addition to its human cost, the fighting led to mixed impacts for Colombia’s forests.

A 2019 study, for example, found that areas of Colombia with armed conflict were eight times more likely than more peaceful areas to undergo deforestation, largely because conflict pushed displaced farmers onto new frontiers. Globally, researchers found, conflict-ridden areas were four times times as likely to experience deforestation.

But some Colombian environmentalists and park officials had long suspected that peace would be even worse: that the return of exiled populations would come in tandem with the rise of the sorts of industrial development that the conflict had kept out of the forest.

Peace, as one 2017 study warned, could bring a tide of large-scale deforestation that has been endemic across Latin America in previous decades, keeping Columbia’s forest cover an unusually high 72 percent, according to Global Forest Watch.

Another 2017 study in Nature, published soon after the peace treaty, asked if Colombia’s biodiversity could “survive development” that peace had enabled.

That is an issue with relevance far beyond Colombia. Across the tropical world, in countries like Sierra Leone, Congo and Cambodia that have low incomes, weak states and histories of violent rebellions sheltered by dense forest cover and funded by forest resources, the ends of civil wars have had wildly different results for the forests themselves.

In Cambodia, for example, the defeat and demobilization of the Khmer Rouge opened up the nation’s forests for widespread exploitation by timber mafias centered on the country’s military and police, as Global Witness has reported. In Sierra Leone, deforestation was far lower in areas plagued by conflict than those that weren’t, according to Environmental Research Letters.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, by contrast, the result was more mixed: conflict led to deforestation, but also kept deforestation-prone mining concerns out of the nation’s forests, according to a 2015 study in Biological Conservation.

That study found that “policy interventions designed to reduce violent conflict may have the co-benefit of reducing deforestation, especially in areas with low mining potential.”

But these national-level surveys, often carried out by satellite, have done little to clarify what local factors are most responsible for deforestation following peace treaties.

That’s where Monday’s study comes in. Researchers took a fine-grained look at local economies and societies, assessing how well factors from the presence of cattle farms and coca fields to the size of municipalities — which are thought to have less government control when larger — helped to predict rates of forest loss.

A principal factor was the degree of expansion into a given forest region. In the early stages of settlement of the forest, municipalities were marked by high deforestation and large coca fields, but few cattle.

Then, as wealth flowed into the frontier, coca farms bloomed — and smallholdings in the forest were replaced by large ranches full of cattle, all accompanied by a rise in less-organized conflicts that were actually facilitated by the peace treaty. 

In these “land grabs,” local oligarchs and armed groups seized land from the original colonists — continuing a process by which coca cultivation and canopy cover declined as deforestation and the presence of cattle increased.

The retreat of the FARC rebels ultimately helped open the field for these more chaotic conflicts, as “FARC dissidents, criminal bands, and competing paramilitary groups continue to fight for control over areas previously dominated by the FARC and have promoted livestock production and coca crops as a means to expand territorial control,” the study found.

The authors stressed the importance of not treating forest conservation and peace processes as separate issues but as both part of governance. 

“Such insights can help us understand the role of forest conservation efforts in delivering peace and, likewise, the role of peacebuilding efforts in delivering forest conservation,” they wrote.

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