By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA - Colombia is fighting a losing battle against the destruction of its rainforests in war-hit regions where the government remains weak, a Norwegian climate envoy said during a visit to the country.
Norway, rich from offshore oil, is a key financial backer of Colombia's efforts to conserve its rainforests, which include the Amazon, the world's most ecologically important rainforest.
The threat to the forests has grown since a 2016 peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government created a power vacuum in former conflict areas in the jungle where illegal deforestation now goes unchecked.
"The main challenge is that you see deforestation levels go up the most in the post-conflict areas of the country where you have very weak institutions," said Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway's climate and environment vice-minister, late on Thursday.
"So you see a lot of cases of land grabbing, of both big and small actors going into forested areas to expand farming, raise cattle, illegal logging and illegal mining," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Colombia had the fourth greatest loss of primary rainforest of any country in 2018, according to a report by the World Resources Institute.
Protecting forests helps cut carbon emissions, a key driver of climate change. When forests are degraded or destroyed, the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere.
Norway is the world's biggest donor to protect tropical rainforests, and it is financing forest conversation projects worth billions of dollars from Brazil to Indonesia and Guyana.
Deforestation rates in Colombia rose 23% in 2017, according to figures from the environment ministry, which estimates they increased by another 25% in 2018. About 200,000 hectares (770 square miles) of forest are lost each year in Colombia.
Colombia's President Ivan Duque pledged to increase surveillance of natural parks with unmanned aircraft and send in more troops to address what he described last month as a "deforestation hemorrhage of recent years".
"When you have an area where the control of the government is rather weak, it's hard to enforce rules that may be good on paper but don't work in reality," Rotevatn said.
"You can tell a poor farmer that they can't expand their territory and go into the Amazon, but if he doesn't see another option, he might do it anyway."
Colombia has received tens of millions of dollars in payouts from Norway, along with Germany and Britain, for meeting verified targets to reduce emissions by slowing deforestation.
Last year Norway said it would extend an agreement with Colombia that could see the country receive up to $50 million annually to 2025, providing targets were met.
The payments are usually distributed to farmers, as well as to community and indigenous groups and local environment authorities working on forest protection.
Ensuring indigenous communities and farmers have formal land tenure and providing ways to boost their income are seen as helping to slow deforestation.
"We are anxious to see what the numbers are for 2018," Rotevatn said.
"Hopefully we will see the numbers going in the right direction soon, and that's also when the big funds from Norway will be unlocked."
Norway on Wednesday pledged to give Colombia $17 million for this year to fund projects aimed at stemming deforestation mainly in the country's southern Amazon.
Funding will also be spent on promoting sustainable rural development in war-torn regions, restoring deforested areas and helping farmers and indigenous communities to safeguard forests.
"We have made a pledge that we will be spend not tens of millions of dollars but hundreds of millions of dollars that we are able to funnel into projects here as long as we have positive deforestation levels," Rotevatn said.
"We are committed to being in the game for the long run," he said.