Exclusive: Colombia's Amazon reserves suffer staffing delays, risking environmental damage
BOGOTA, March 10 (Reuters) - Protected areas in Colombia's Amazon region are at risk of increased damage because of lengthy staffing delays as the government has yet to renew contracts with national parks staff this year, according to government data and interviews with officials, would-be employees and environmental advocates.
Reuters spoke to 11 people who reported contract delays for would-be workers at nine reserves in the Amazon region, including Chiribiquete, which spans an area more than twice the size of Wales and is home to several Indigenous communities.
Just over 6% of the Amazon rainforest - an ecosystem scientists consider vital to curbing climate change - is in Colombia, according to United Nations figures, some contained within 11 national protected areas.
Small numbers of permanent staff at national parks rely on much larger numbers of contractors to run community outreach programs, do ecological work or serve as park guards, among other roles.
"We (permanent staff) are few," an official at one Amazon park, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. "There's no management of the parks because those of us (who are working) can't do anything."
Park rangers are the vanguard for protecting ecosystems against criminal interests and irreversible degradation, said Bram Ebus, a consultant for the International Crisis Group.
"Colombia's national parks institute has been understaffed and underfunded for a long time, but not taking care of regular contracting of park rangers also makes (parks) uncontrolled," said Ebus.
Some 1.86 million hectares of Colombia's Amazon were deforested between 2001 and 2021, according to the government, and Crisis Group said in a 2021 report that staffing is well below best practice.
Swathes of the country's forests are destroyed each year for cattle ranching and illegal mining, among other causes, according to the government.
As of Friday morning, 22 contracts for personnel for working on the national parks agency's Amazon reserves had been published via Colombia's national contracting agency.
Last year, at least 107 contractors had deals for work on Amazon reserves by January, data from the agency seen by Reuters showed.
Setbacks are due to plans to overhaul the system for hiring contractors and budget cuts inherited from the previous government, which impacted timelines for hiring staff despite a spending increase now in place, said national parks director Luisz Martinez.
The government of leftist President Gustavo Petro, who took office seven months ago and has pledged to lower deforestation, plans to initially replace annual contracts for national parks workers with four-year.
"Ideally, we wouldn't have stopped. Ideally, it would've been well planned, but it didn't go that way," Martinez said, adding delays are not expected next year.
The Environment Ministry declined to comment.
Five would-be park workers told Reuters the delays meant they had been forced to find other jobs. One contractor has received their offer but said colleagues are still waiting.
All nine employees and would-be workers voiced concern about protection of parks amid staff shortages.
"Processes that have been in the works get pushed back, like restoration, environmental protection and community outreach," one former employee said.
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