By: Tanya Dimitrova and Steve Zwick Ecosystem Marketplace 

Colombia’s civil war had the perverse effect of protecting the forests in and around the Tolo River, but peace brought loggers and cattlemen, while poverty drove desperate forest people to begin chopping trees. Here’s how they used REDD to fight deforestation and build the foundation for a more sustainable future.

Five young men are cutting their way through dense rainforest in the northernmost part of Colombia, each wearing a sweat-drenched t-shirt colorfully emblazoned with the word “COCOMASUR” – an acronym distilled from “Consejo Comunitario de Comunidades Negras de la Cuenca del Río Tolo y Zona Costera Sur, which means “Council of the Black Communities of the Tolo River and Southern Coast” in Spanish.
At the head of the line is Frazier Guisao, a young Afro-Colombian whose ancestors settled along the Tolo River after the abolition of slavery in 1851. His brother Eusebio follows a few steps behind, along with three other community members – all of whom spent their youths in exile after fleeing in the late 1990s, when mercenaries hired by rich land owners ruled the region through torture and murder.

Today, police and army soldiers patrol both the streets and the countryside, but former mercenaries still live in town. Yet the Tolo River crew is not afraid to perform the forest patrols. They go for their daily perimeter checks, armed only with cameras and GPS-enabled cell phones, looking for evidence of illegal logging. When they find what they’re looking for – a recently-cleared patch of forest, or logging tracks – Ferney Caicedo photographs it and records the coordinates. The slender 21-year-old recently completed a professional forestry course, and aims to make this his life’s work.
The Downside of the Peace Dividend“This wood is worth around three million pesos ($1,500 USD),” says Frazier, gesturing toward a smaller tree in front of him and applying the knowledge he learned when he first came home – when he was forced to earn his living chopping the forest he now protects.

All of these men could easily make more money as loggers, but they’ve chosen to protect the forest instead – a choice made possible by the Chocó-Darién Forest Conservation Project, a trailblazing REDD project that began coalescing in 2005, when community leader Aureliano Córdoba took advantage of a critical provision in the 1991 Constitution that allowed indigenous and Afro-Colombian forest communities to claim their ancestral lands. By securing collective title to the land for his people, Córdoba was able to begin rekindling the attachment to the forest that many of his people lost while in exile.

“I used to be afraid,” says Córdoba. “But no more. I have 1,500 people behind me now. If something happened to me, the entire community would stand to defend me.”

“Our only defense is that we are organized and determined enough to seek our rights,” says Eusebio.

With civil war hostilities waning and his people in clear possession of title to their land, Córdoba began to look for ways to create jobs as his community recovered. He initially explored logging, but soon found that his people weren’t the only ones flooding into the territory after the danger subsided – outside loggers were coming for trees, and cattlemen along the perimeter were quietly expanding their ranches illegally.

Instead of just harvesting the forest, Córdoba realized, he should be saving it if his people were going to maintain their quality of life – but how? His own people needed to make a living, and many were either logging or working on cattle ranches, which were owned by wealthy and well-connected businessmen.