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Colombia's President Duque confident in cutting deforestation in half

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Ivan Duque is confident his administration can cut the country’s deforestation rate in half by the end of his four-year term, though it will be impossible to stop it completely, he told Reuters.

Colombia's President Ivan Duque speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bogota, Colombia October 16, 2020. Picture taken October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

Speaking in an interview for Reuters Events Responsible Business USA, Duque said deforestation in the Andean country has been slashed by almost 20% during his first two years in office.

According to the government, deforestation has fallen in part due to policies promoting sustainable use of natural resources, as well as paying thousands of rural and indigenous families to assist in conservation efforts.

“We have set the goal of reducing (deforestation) by 50% by the end of our administration,” Duque said.

“Obviously, I would like to say we have to bring it to zero, but we have to consider that there are activities that have produced so much damage,” he added, referring to the impact of drug trafficking, illegal logging, and other illicit enterprises.

Government plans to plant 180 million trees by August 2022 will offset some destruction, he added. Some 38 million trees have been planted so far this year, and Duque said he was confident of meeting the final target.

In 2018 and 2019 Colombia lost 356,053 hectares (around 880,000 acres), while the millions of new trees are expected to cover some 300,000 hectares (741,300 acres).

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Duque said he would keep fighting illegal logging and mining, drug trafficking and unauthorized clearing of land for cattle rearing, which all contribute to environmental destruction.

In 2019 the government launched a campaign meant to tackle illegal activities like cultivating coca, the chief ingredient in cocaine, and strengthen monitoring systems to anticipate threats to the environment. Dubbed Operation Artemis, the anti-deforestation initiative includes the military.

The drug trade in Colombia is the cause of an “eco-cide,” Duque said, with coca planting driving deforestation in places.

The government wants to destroy 130,000 hectares (321,000 acres) of coca crops in 2020, up from 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) last year, and has signaled aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate could restart.

Asked about the risks aerial spraying would pose to surrounding rainforest, Duque conceded it was not a perfect solution, but said chemicals would be used responsibly.

“I’m not saying I’m a fan of aerial spraying,” he said. “There’s not a silver bullet, there’s not one solution. We have said we’ll do manual eradication, we’ll do substitution, we’ll do productive projects, but when we have to use aerial spraying, we’ll have to use it.”

Duque also spearheaded a 2019 agreement - the so called Leticia Pact - between seven Amazon basin countries, including regional giant Brazil, to curb tree loss and stem Amazon fires.

Duque said he was very optimistic his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro was honoring the pact, adding the 2019 Brazilian forest fires which provoked global outcry were highly politicized.

“The Amazon area of Brazil is almost three times the area of Colombia. How can you prevent on a permanent basis that you won’t have fires?,” Duque said. “It’s very difficult because the fires are a permanent threat.”

In August this year Bolsonaro called surging fires in the Brazilian Amazon a “lie,” despite data from his government showing the contrary.

Reporting by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb, Christian Plumb and Jonathan Oatis