Colombian armed forces to form special unit to protect national parks

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the smouldering remnants of a bushfire in La Macarena, Colombia February 22, 2020. Colombian Defense Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia will create a special military unit to protect its national parks and step up operations against illegal armed groups who burn vegetation to clear space to plant coca, the defense minister said Monday.

The announcement follows a fire over the weekend, which the military says was started by dissidents from the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels.

The fire destroyed hundreds of hectares of vegetation near Cano Cristales, a top tourist site in Sierra de La Macarena National Park, in the central province of Meta.

FARC dissidents, who reject a 2016 peace deal which brought an end to the group’s part in an armed conflict that killed more than 260,000, have threatened to kill park rangers in 10 national parks if they did not leave the protected zones, according to the military.

Twelve park rangers have been killed by illegal armed groups since 1994, the government says.

“We are advancing with the formation of a task force to protect the environment, which will bring together existing capabilities and develop new ones to prevent illegal economies from destroying the nation’s strategic assets,” Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told journalists.

The minister did not give any other specific details about the unit, but military sources said it will include troops and equipment from the army, air force, navy and national police.

The South American country has 59 national parks covering 11.6 million hectares, equivalent to a tenth of its territory. Each year some 200,000 hectares are destroyed in farming, illegal mining, and coca production, according to official figures.

Colombia boasts the second highest-level of biodiversity per square kilometer after Brazil, and is home to around 10% of the planet’s flora and fauna, according to international environmental organizations.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Alistair Bell