One of the greatest natural fighters of climate change is the Amazon rainforest which is one of the largest absorbers of carbon dioxide on planet earth. The Amazon's natural biodiversity also sustains the livelihoods of many natives and informs scientific research through medical breakthroughs and medicines only found in the heart of its vast depths. The continued destruction of the rainforest will not only exponentially increase the rapid onset of climate change but also drive over 10,000 species of plants and animals to extinction. The rapidly worsening conditions has led the forest to develop a strange bedfellow in recent years. A cocaine warlord, Ivan Modesco, the leader of Estado Mayor Central (EMC), has implemented strict sanctions to prevent farmers from cutting down trees. The EMC is a cartel known for drug trafficking, illegal gold mining, extortion, and is now the Amazon's most ardent defender.
The unlikely environmentalist has a support network of 3,000 including 2,200 armed fighters who do not hesitate to use force on those who dare break the sanctions. The sanctions state that the EMC will take 1 million pesos from anyone caught cutting down a hectare of forest without permission. This sanction has risen since its initial implementation and is now a healthy 10 - 20 million pesos per violation. This new standard has caused some shockingly effective results. illegal logging has dropped as much as 50% in certain provinces with a heavy EMC presence.
Is Modesco an environmentalist? His critics have multiple theories about his motivations and the self interest that underlies them. Some believe that Modesco likes having a thick jungle canopy to obscure the size of his armed forces and allow free movement of his troops to exercise control over large swathes of land. Not unlikely considering he is a cartel warlord who is seeking to obscure and conduct criminal activity. Modesco gains a criminal advantage over other cartel groups in the area by holding the Amazon. When deforestation laws are loose, criminal groups seek to run illegal businesses such as gold mining, logging, and illegal farms, ignoring local laws for profit. Since imposing his sanctions, Modesco seems to have little interest in continuing these practices for his own gain.
Some of his other critics claim its a political move designed to strong arm the government. The current left-wing president of Columbia, Gustavo Petro, who is looking to meet with the EMC to discuss peace talks, could easily be strong armed by the EMC using deforestation restrictions as a political tool. Many of Petro's constituents are farmers who require more land to maintain their livelihood. Modesco's ability to allow and restrict land from being used forces the government to play ball with his demands or run the risk of getting voted out. Petro ran on the promise of 'paz total' or total peace in Columbia. His administration has promised to work out a cease-fire with rebel groups and cartels alike. For his political survival, Petro must get results from these talks when he sits down with EMC. Modesco holds a great advantage in negotiations.
However, despite the heavy criticism of their actions, the EMC has claimed to care about the environment. Jose Tomas Ojeda Soleimani, an EMC spokesperson, told Al Jazeera his group’s decision to ban deforestation was motivated by environmental and security concerns. 'We have banned deforestation in the Amazon because we are a profoundly environmental guerrilla,' Ojeda said. 'The trees protect us and we need water for our military operations.'
Unfortunately, what the EMC has done is not enough. The Amazon spans 2.1 million square miles across eight countries. Controlling the area dominant in Columbia is still a small slice of a gargantuan pie. 60% of the Amazon resides in Brazil alone with the rest residing in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname. Reports on the Amazon say it will be dead by 2030 at the current rate of forest loss.
The Amazon rainforest is sitting at a dangerous tipping point according to scientists. As trees grow weaker due to droughts and extreme weather events, they die and do not repropagate themselves, leaving behind dry and rotting wood. This epidemic of dead trees creates a fertile breeding ground for forest fires. When this powder keg heats up, one stray lightning strike could unleash some 90 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the forest dies off, the equivalent of several years of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
This is the reality predicted to occur by 2030, a mere 7 years from now. With the increase in forest fires, hurricanes, and temperatures we see today, an extra 90 billion metric tons of CO2 would be disastrous for all life on earth. In many ways, the unlikely Ivan Modesco is the only one taking action where governments have failed.