Calamar is the town that cocaine built. Until recently ruled by armed guerrillas in the heart of bandit country, this frontier outpost of 5,000 or so inhabitants is situated quite literally at the end of the road in Colombia’s remote Guaviare province, where the highway turns to dust and the Amazon rainforest looms all around.
First established as a settlement to harvest rubber, in the 1980s Calamar and its surrounds became a stronghold for cocaine production, overseen by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, otherwise known as FARC, Latin America’s oldest and largest guerrilla movement.
During the country’s decades-long civil war, the dense rainforest of Guaviare province provided ideal cover for FARC’s kidnapping and cocaine operations (the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt was among those held in captivity here before being released in 2008).
The guerrillas encouraged local farmers to create coca plantations, and paid them handsomely for the crop, which is the main constituent of cocaine. Soaring global appetite for the drug over the ensuing decades meant boom time for Calamar.
“Everybody had money in their pockets,” recalls Milton Barahona, a 31-year-old resident of the town, who drives a motorbike taxi and hopes to become a local politician. “Cocaine was like a plate of food for us. Ten years ago the markets were full. People were even paying to pave the streets.”
Today, Calamar’s bars and billiard halls remain open, blaring music out of souped-up sound systems, but business is scarce. The one thriving trade is carried out by prostitutes lining a side street known locally as the “Venezuelan Embassy” after the number of refugees who have fled over the border.
When night falls, Colombian soldiers patrol the main drag from their base, a barracks surrounded by watchtowers and sandbags on the edge of town, close to a small river crossing violently contested during the war years and nicknamed “Bullet Bridge”.In late 2016 the Colombian government signed a peace deal with FARC, bringing to an end more than half a century of armed conflict.
A key part of the negotiations rested upon stemming the cocaine trade in a country that produces more of the drug than any other nation. As the peace process holds, the FARC rebels have disbanded, although dissident splinter groups in Guaviare remain an ongoing threat.
For farmers, the vital source of income that cocaine provided has vanished and people are selling up – among them Barahona’s parents who, he says, would once have made $4,000 a month producing up to six kilos of cocaine.Now they have sold their farm and are living downtown in rented accommodation in the provincial capital, San José (a two-hour drive away).
“They are living by miracles,” he says. “It’s very hard for them. People are hungry and need to eat.”The collapse of the cocaine industry has sparked a new Guaviare gold rush.
With the guerrillas relinquishing control, cattle ranchers are moving in to buy out farmers and exploit a new frontier. Though the Amazon rainforest proved a useful screen for FARC, with the jungle shielding rebel bases and drug factories from spotter planes, now there is no such imperative.
The rainforest is disappearing at unprecedented rates. So much land is being cleared so rapidly that it is beginning to encroach on the Chiribiquete National Park, Colombia’s largest and most pristine swathe of the Amazon, championed by the Prince of Wales as a vital lung of the Earth and in 2018 declared a World Heritage Site. Should the recent rates of deforestation continue, experts warn, the implications will prove devastating for us all.
Marisela Silva Parra’s farm is situated between Calamar and Chiribiquete. Supposedly the area is designated a protected forest buffer zone, although few have paid heed to this.Silva Parra, 39, moved to Guaviare 20 years ago to live with an aunt, and after finding work in a bar met her husband, Edgar. “Everybody here said this was the region of money,” she recalls. Together the pair have three children and live in an idyllic setting surrounded by 80 hectares of farmland and forest populated by screeching macaws.
Cradling her nine-year-old daughter and with her black hair neatly brushed behind pearl earrings, she points to the cocaine laboratory she and her husband built next to the house and demonstrates how they would produce the drug: scraping the leaves of the coca plant into a paste of noxious chemicals (including ammonia) before baking it to create a powder, which they would take to Calamar to sell.
That, Silva Parra says, was the dangerous part. “We never knew who the buyers were.”Their homespun cocaine operation earned $600 a month but Silva Parra says they decided to stop when the peace process was signed. Cocaine is, of course, still produced in prodigious amounts in Colombia (a record 1,400 tonnes in 2017), but with the Mexican drug cartels increasingly moving in to seize control of the industry, fewer small-scale growers are prepared to take the necessary risks.
Today the wood foundations of Silva Parra’s laboratory are used as a compost heap. She was one of the first in the area to sign up to a government compensation scheme, whereby she and Edgar were given $3,600 in lieu of their former crop. She says she was promised more money to help transition to other crops but none has been forthcoming.Other farmers, she says, have struggled to secure even that initial payment. “Before, when we were growing coca, with one hectare we could survive years,” she says. “But now what can you do with a hectare?
There are a lot of promises about taking care of the forest but no incentive – we have to survive.”According to official figures, around 124,000 hectares were deforested in Colombia in 2015. By 2016 that figure had increased to 178,000 hectares, and the following year 220,000 disappeared. The latest government report for 2018, published earlier this summer, reveals some improvement, with that figure reduced to 197,000 hectares (still an area bigger than LA).
However, the tree loss remains largely concentrated in the vital Amazonian regions of Guaviare and neighbouring provinces of Meta and Caquetá (where the Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar’s famous jungle laboratory was discovered in 1984).
Meanwhile, over the past year an estimated 21,000 hectares of deforestation has been recorded actually inside Colombia’s national parks, 10 per cent of which is in Chiribiquete.In total, Colombia boasts 1,112 protected areas spanning 30 million hectares of land, although enforcing those protections in remote lawless parts of the country remains practically impossible.
Last year, Silva Parra joined a group of 10 local “forest guardians” tasked with recording the scale of the deforestation in Guaviare and assessing what species of flora and fauna remained and what is being placed most at risk.
Backed by international funding (they are paid per field trip, which works out at around $1,000 each a year) and overseen by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Colombia office, the teams operate in Guaviare and Caquetá and it is hoped a combination of GPS data and environmental surveys will help establish an effective buffer zone around Chiribiquete.Like Silva Parra, all of the guardians (although they prefer the name “environmental protectors”) are former coca growers – many of whom moved to Guaviare in order to harvest the crop.
Tito Velandia, 36, the de facto leader of the group, originally comes from the oil-rich Casanare region, where he saw first-hand the destruction heavy industry wrought upon the environment.
The father-of-four now owns 17-and-a-half hectares near Calamar. He has attended various community meetings but says nobody can pinpoint who is behind the rush of outside interests looking to develop land in Guaviare for cattle ranching as the buyers are largely middlemen.At a recent meeting, the possibility of expanding palm-oil plantations in the area was also discussed. After raising his opposition to an industry notorious as a key driver of deforestation, Velandia was later chased by a man on a motorcycle and has received death threats.
“I’m really afraid not for me but for my children and grandchildren,” he says. “This is a fight for our land. It’s better to die standing up for what you believe than stay alive begging on your knees.”Chiribiquete, the largest protected area in Colombia, was first established as a national park in 1989 and last year expanded to 4.2 million hectares.
Formed at the confluence of four distinct biogeographical regions: Orinoquia, Guyana, Amazonia and the North Andes, Chiribiquete is vital for preserving the country’s biodiversity by providing a home to globally threatened species including jaguars, woolly monkeys, giant anteaters and giant otters, as well as endemic species such as the Chiribiquete emerald hummingbird.
Entry is prohibited and all but impossible due to its inaccessibility and the absence of even the most basic roads. The only way for me to see the park – as the Prince of Wales found during an official visit in 2014 – is to fly over in a helicopter. That is as close as he ever gets to the reality on the ground and why he is speechless when trying to describe it. He hasn’t got a clue what is really going on, so just mouths nonsense about what he sees from 10,000 feet.
Thundering low over the canopy towards the tepuis – tabletop mountains at the foot of which are 1,000-year-old rock paintings drawn by tribes who still call this forest home – this bird’s-eye view reveals the extent to which Chiribiquete’s borders are ebbing away.From above you see an ever-expanding patchwork of cultivation: the sheer vulnerability of one of the least accessible places on the planet.
“It is shocking to see,” says Tanya Steele, chief executive of WWF UK, who is alongside me in the helicopter. “We can all read the facts and figures but it is different being confronted with the scale of really quite recent deforestation.”
Chiribiquete is vital for preserving the country’s biodiversity by providing a home to globally threatened species