- A recent investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency found that some Colombian supermarkets may be selling beef from cattle raised in Chiribiquete National Park.
- There are large gaps in the traceability of the beef produced in Colombia.
- The Colombian Agricultural Institute is responsible for vaccinating all 28 million head of cattle in Colombia and has important information that could help authorities design effective strategies to prevent cattle ranching in natural protected areas.
Behind some of the beef sold in Colombian supermarkets is a story of deforestation in protected areas and illegal armed groups who benefit from cattle ranching.
The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) is in charge of vaccinating all 28 million head of cattle in Colombia, whether they live in protected or non-protected areas. The ICA has records of the exact locations and names of ranches, villages and cattle owners, the number of cattle owned by each farmer, and the origin and destination of these cattle. This information may be useful in reducing Colombia’s deforestation, illegal cattle ranching, and land grabbing.
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has documented the links between the deforestation of protected ecosystems, cattle ranching, and the supply chain behind the beef sold in Colombia.
The last link in the chain
The EIA says that a direct supplier of Grupo Éxito and Colsubsidio, two Colombian supermarket companies, purchases between 100 and 300 head of cattle per month from a farm in Chiribiquete National Park, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2018.
This direct supplier has a relationship with an indirect supplier who, in turn, has a business partner who is responsible for fattening the cattle. The cattle are fattened on an 800-hectare (nearly 2,000-acre) farm in the northern part of Chiribiquete National Park, which is Colombia’s largest national park.
The EIA confirmed that 400 hectares (nearly 1,000 acres) of land, or half of the farm area, was deforested and converted into pasture for the cattle in 2019. According to the EIA, as of September 2020, the owner of the farm has 600 head of cattle and plans to deforest the rest of the land for the same purpose.
Although the owner acknowledges that his farm is within a protected area, he said that Colombia’s national parks administration does “sometimes bother you to not deforest anymore, but they hardly ever do.” Those who really exercise control over the land in the area are the illegal armed groups, according to the owner of the farm. These groups even charge him a “tax” of $2.79 per head of cattle that he owns.
Although the owner of the farm did not name anyone specifically, the Colombian army says that “an armed organized group from the extinct FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]” operates in the area and has about 1,500 active members.
The beef value chain in Colombia is composed of four parts: production, commercialization, transformation, and consumption. The challenge is that “the market cannot differentiate between livestock associated with deforestation, either through [direct deforestation] activity or through land grabbing,” according to a study by the National Wildlife Federation and the University of Wisconsin.
To corroborate the link between this direct supplier and the two supermarket companies, the EIA said that it contacted and visited the slaughterhouse that processes some of the beef for the two companies.
“Given that in Colombia there is no traceability system for livestock that allows the consumer or buyer to know the true origin of the meat, this involuntarily supports the destruction of protected forests and extortion by armed groups and paramilitary organizations responsible for multiple human rights violations in Colombia,” the EIA said.
The challenge of traceability
In May 2019, Grupo Éxito, along with 36 other entities, signed a voluntary agreement in which they pledged to “eliminate deforestation, promote restoration, and thus reduce the carbon footprint of the beef value chain.” In other words, the goal is to guarantee to the final consumer that the beef they purchase in Colombian supermarkets comes from “cattle that — during all its production phases (breeding, raising, and fattening) — have taken place in areas of Colombia that have not had deforestation since January 1, 2011.” According to the document, these policies will apply to direct, indirect, and intermediary suppliers.
Javier Ortiz, director of the Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA), said most of Colombia’s mechanisms for tracing and monitoring livestock are within the ICA and the Colombian Federation of Cattle Ranchers (Fedegan).
Ortiz told Mongabay Latam that the Colombian government has “such a solid monitoring system — so much so that we can have daily deforestation alerts — yet there is not sufficient action.” He said that although he does not know why this is, he believes the solution lies with the government, not private companies or civil society.
Although several organizations say the ICA is extremely protective of its information, Mongabay Latam formally requested it and received relevant documents within 15 days.
In the three most deforested departments in the country — Caquetá, Guaviare and Meta — there are almost 5 million head of cattle. The ICA found that tens of thousands of them live inside or very close to protected areas.
The ICA’s director of animal health, Andrés Osejos, told Mongabay Latam that the ICA has been sharing information on the number of cattle in several municipalities with the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Defense. “We have been turning in the little [information] we have to counteract this phenomenon,” Osejos said.
Osejos added that the role of the ICA is not to combat deforestation; rather, it is to vaccinate animals to avoid putting public health and the economy at risk.
Mongabay Latam asked Osejos whether the ICA knows exactly who is deforesting land outside of the agricultural frontier. “As you say it, it sounds like ‘you know and don’t do anything,’ but what we have is a health program, I repeat. When the vaccinator goes to a department, that person does not know with certainty whether that place is a natural park or not. That is learned later, upon seeing satellite images, maps, and other information,” Osejos said.
When Mongabay Latam asked Osejos whether the ICA has considered that this information may be relevant to help stop deforestation, he said the agency has very little time to work on the issue of deforestation because of its day-to-day work. However, Osejos said that during work meetings, the ICA does provide the information on deforestation that it has. He added that government entities can also request this information.
Deforestation and military operations
Chiribiquete National Park spans 4.3 million hectares (10.6 million acres) and is one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Amazon Basin; it contains ancient rock art on its sheer stone walls, earning it the nickname “the Sistine Chapel of the Amazon.” Scientists have found evidence that this dense rainforest has been inhabited for at least 12,600 years. Not only is Chiribiquete National Park a strategic site for ecological connectivity with the Andes, but it is also a key to understanding the history of human settlement in South America.
None of this has been sufficient to stop the advancement of chainsaws, highways and cattle. The Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) has recorded 5,315 hectares (13,134 acres) of deforestation in Chiribiquete National Park since 2000. About 41% of this forest loss occurred in 2018 alone.
Additionally, a recent report from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) warned that Chiribiquete National Park lost more than 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres) between September 2020 and February 2021. “Much of this deforestation appears to be associated with the conversion of primary forest to illegal cattle pasture,” the report says.
Another report, the “National Policy for Deforestation Control and Sustainable Management of Forests” from the National Economic and Social Policy Council, says cattle ranching is responsible for 50% of the total amount of newly used land in Colombia between 2005 and 2012.
The report also says that conservation strategies have not succeeded in reducing settlement or the development of prohibited activities because of “the low coordination between national guidelines and local realities in terms of environmental land use planning, informality in land occupation, and agricultural production that does not take the aptitude of the soil into account, causing environmental harm and social inequity.”
According to the Colombian military, nine operations against deforestation have occurred between April 2019 and February 2021 as part of the Artemis Campaign (Campaña Artemisa). Four of these operations took place in Chiribiquete National Park, leading to the recovery of more than 5,800 hectares (14,330 acres).
There are currently 22,300 members of the security forces (including from the army, navy and police) dedicated to the “protection of water, biodiversity and the environment” throughout Colombia. The military says a total of 12,358 hectares (30,537 acres) of land in Colombia’s natural parks have been recovered. Additionally, tens of thousands of pounds of illegal items have been seized, including timber, fish, and raw materials used in the processing of narcotics.
Despite this, the EIA discovered the falsification of livestock transportation records, the sale of timber from protected areas, and a lack of coordination between government entities. The EIA recommends “a structural reform to care for many of these problems, starting with declaring the principles of transparency and livestock traceability to be in the public interest.”