Exclusive-Operations to destroy illegal roads in Colombia's Amazon hit standstill, sources say

By Oliver Griffin

BOGOTA (Reuters) -Government measures to destroy illegal roads in and around Colombia's Amazon rainforest are stalled, eight sources told Reuters, with one operation suspended altogether over concerns it could set back peace talks between rebels and President Gustavo Petro's administration.

The construction of roads through rainforests in Colombia by rural communities, cattle ranchers and illegal armed groups is a major contributor to deforestation, environmental experts and scientists say. That is especially critical in the Amazon, which absorbs huge amounts of carbon that contributes to climate change and is already a focus of concern.

There are at least 12 illegal roads in and around Chiribiquete national park - a UNESCO world heritage site in Colombia's Amazon. But there are no known operations underway to destroy them, environmental procurator Gustavo Guerrero told Reuters, despite Petro's promises to protect the environment.

Reuters spoke to the sources on condition of anonymity, who detailed how one government operation to demolish a road cutting into Chiribiquete was halted and several other planned operations not begun. The stalled and suspended plans have not been previously reported.

Petro has made the environment a focus of his speeches both at home and abroad, and his government celebrated a 29% reduction in deforestation during 2022.

The delays could prompt disciplinary action against officials for failing to protect the environment, the procurator's office, an independent public watchdog, said.

Neither Petro, his office nor any national official has impeded the destruction of the Yari Yaguara road, the office said in a statement, referring to one of the roads flagged by the sources.

The Yari Yaguara road has not been discussed at peace talks with the Estado Mayor Central (EMC) rebels, the statement said, adding the process to destroy it was advancing in line with legal requirements.

In comments to Reuters, Environment Minister Susana Muhamad emphasized that operations to destroy roads are part of a comprehensive strategy that includes peace efforts, human rights and the fight against deforestation.

"The operations and their planning continue in the fight against deforestation and environmental crimes," Muhamad said in a text message.

The defense ministry said in a statement late on Monday that all of its operational, intelligence and investigative capacities were available for the destruction of the Yari Yaguara road, but that the operation had to take place with inter-institutional coordination.

Security forces will follow any accords reached between the government and the EMC, the ministry said, adding it could not provide a possible date for destruction of the road.

Six people familiar with the matter said the operation to destroy a road bisecting Chiribiquete was ready last December. The operation did not proceed after the military expressed concerns over potential clashes with locals and broader government concerns about setting back already fraught peace talks with the EMC, who operate in the area, sources said.

The EMC rebels have consolidated control in parts of the country, leading to what some call a pseudo-state where Colombia's government has little influence. A ceasefire has already been canceled in some provinces.

Two sources said an operation to destroy the road was also planned for January, while another said plans were once in place to deal with all illegal roads.

"It's like a sickness that keeps spreading," said one of the sources, referring to the lack of action on illegal roads and the environmental damage they cause by increasing access to once unreachable forest.

'EVIDENT FAILURE'

The procurator's office last year demanded that the environment ministry destroy another illegal road close to Chiribiquete, without results.

"We're not aware of any operation to close or disable any illegal roads in the Amazon," Guerrero said in an interview. "There is an evident failure in the execution of preventive and precautionary measures for those roads."

The police plan to destroy the road highlighted by the procurator's office but have not taken action, one of the sources said.

Guerrero said his office has begun a disciplinary investigation into the government's general lack of progress. The procurator's office has the power to sanction officials up to government ministers and remove them from their posts.

The government expects to report another drop in deforestation for 2023, but minister Muhamad in April warned destruction was increasing in 2024 amid a prolonged drought.

Even if Petro's government has good reason for calling off operations, the lack of action on illegal roads contradicts his promises to address deforestation, one of the sources said.

"In the end, they aren't taking action. Something must be done."

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Rod Nickel and Jamie Freed)