Operation Artemis: Colombia’s failed military operation to stop deforestation

Operation Artemis: Colombia’s failed military operation to stop deforestation

In 2019, the Colombian government, led by Colombia’s former president, Iván Duque, launched Operation Artemis, which sought to stop deforestation, but it barely tackled 3% of the total deforested area in the country between 2019 and 2021, according to calculations by Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública.Although Operation Artemis cost Colombia more than 3.4 billion Colombian Pesos (about $765,000), deforestation did not slow down, going from 158,894 ha (about 392,636 acres) lost to deforestation in 2019 to 174,102 ha (about 430,215 acres) in 2021.Former President Duque also promised to recover the rainforest in the regions targeted by Artemis, but so far, there has not been any forest restoration work in those areas, according to what Colombia’s Network of National Natural Parks told Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública. *This report is part of a journalistic collaboration between Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública, a Colombian news source.

In 2019, the Colombian government launched a military offensive against deforestation known as Operation Artemis. Led by former President Iván Duque, the Colombian Army supported the initiative and affirmed that it would effectively stop forest loss in Colombia’s national parks. “This operation seeks to tackle the crime of deforestation that has been affecting our country … so that we achieve three goals: stop continuous deforestation, recover our tropical rainforest [and] our forests, and prosecute those who are behind it,” Duque said during the launch on April 28, 2019. Yet, an investigation by Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública reveals the campaign barely tackled 3% of the country’s total deforested areas in the next two years — despite the operation’s substantial size and expense.

During the first year of Operation Artemis, 540 million Colombian pesos (about $120,000) were spent and 23,000 members of Colombia’s Public Forces were deployed, according to information shared by the Ministry of National Defense with Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública. In 2020 and 2021, funding for the operation was approximately 1,469 million Colombian pesos (about $330). Between 2019 and 2022, the total amount allowed for 21 military operations, of which 20 took place in national natural parks and forest reserve areas in the Colombian Amazon, mainly in the departments of Guaviare, Meta, Caquetá, Putumayo and Amazonas.

According to former President Duque’s administration, the results of these operations were reflected in the amount of territory taken from illegal groups, as announced by then-Minister of Environment Carlos Eduardo Correa Escaf in June 2022 when he discussed “the recovery of 27,046 hectares[about 66,832 acres] through Operation Artemis.”

Why do many people criticize Operation Artemis? The experts interviewed for this article agree that its most important goals — stopping deforestation and finding those responsible — were not achieved. Those 27,000 ha pale in comparison with forest loss figures from 2020, when 171,685 ha (about 424,243 acres) were deforested, and 2021, with 174,102 ha (about 430,215 acres), according to data from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM).

“At the end of last year, we came to suffer firsthand the effects of Operation Artemis. There were pretty tense situations with the military and they captured the governor of La Esperanza, made up of people from the Nasa community,” said Luz Mery Panche, a member of the Nasa Indigenous group from San Vicente del Caguán in the Caquetá department. “They released him, but during another operation in March 2022, two community members were taken, and for having complained of abuses in that operation, in April … they captured the governor once again. Artemis only brought us more conflicts.” Panche is also a member of the National Ethnic Coordination for Peace.

This is what parts of the Colombian Amazon look like after deforested areas are set on fire. Image courtesy of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).
Despite Operation Artemis, deforestation remained relentless
The operations were led by Colombia’s Joint Task Force OMEGA, which consists of the Army, the Air Force, the National Police and the Navy, and aims to protect the country’s resources and combat illegal armed groups and international crimes. Each operation, or phase, of Operation Artemis involved the participation of 10 high mountain battalions, an anti-drug trafficking brigade and another brigade against illegal mining. Coast Guard units, the Colombian Naval Infantry and the National Police also participated.

Five natural parks and one forest reserve were prioritized during Operation Artemis: Serranía de Chiribiquete, La Paya, Tinigua, Picachos, Rio Puré, and the Forest Reserve Zone of the Amazon (Zona de Reserva Forestal de la Amazonia, or ZRFA, in Spanish).

As a result of the campaign, 113 people were captured: 96 were arrested as they were caught while committing a crime and 17 were arrested using court orders. So far, there are 13 convictions, according to information shared by the Office of the Attorney General with Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública. The Office of the Attorney General also has 13 legal processes in the trial stage and four cases under investigation, according to what the entity told Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública in response to our request for information. In terms of the infrastructure targeted by Operation Artemis, 53 structures — including houses, seven bridges and 12 illegal roads — were destroyed, alongside tools such as 13 branding irons used to mark cattle, 34 chainsaws and 18 scythes. The report stated that 29 weapons, seven vehicles and several cattle were also confiscated.

All of these results were obtained in just 3% of the total deforested area in Colombia between 2019 and 2021. According to IDEAM data, in that period, Colombia lost 504,682 ha (about 1.2 million acres) of forests.

Looking just at the Colombian Amazon, the situation barely changes. Only in the first half of 2022, it lost 52,460 ha (129,631 acres) after having lost 109,302 ha (270,091 acres) in 2020. If in 2019 62% of deforestation in Colombia was concentrated in this region, in 2021, that figure went up to 70%, according to information from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

“If one looks at Operation Artemis relative to deforestation rates, forest loss did not decrease; instead, it increased. From that point of view, it was a failure,” said Manuel Rodríguez Becerra, Colombia’s former environment minister.

Rodrigo Botero Garcia, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), said “the largest debt” of former President Duque’s administration was deforestation, especially “the 700,000 ha [about 1,730,000 acres], which the country had cleared in those four years. … The military component, instead of recovering the deforested lands from the big land-grabbers, was used for the weakest part of the chain. He was unable to hold responsible those big deforesters, neither with the law nor with the Army. It is a huge debt,” said Botero.

In some Colombian national natural parks, like Sierra de la Macarena and Tinigua, the operation did not even cover one-quarter of the areas deforested during the same years. In Sierra de la Macarena National Park, for example, between Sept. 2, 2020, and March 9, 2022, 1,448 ha (3,578 acres) were intervened in, even though the forest loss reached 6,878 ha (16,996 acres), according to data from the FCDS. This means, based on calculations by Mongabay Latam and Cuestión Pública, that Operation Artemis only covered about 21% of the deforested area in Sierra de la Macarena National Park.  » …
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