Artemisa: The security model of environmental defense and the rights of rural communities

Source: iStock/gorodenkoff

According to figures from the Ministry of the Environment of Colombia, the Artemisa campaign in 2022—just four years after it launched—had secured more than 22,000 hectares of forest it had identified as at risk of deforestation. However, this campaign has also been called a case of greenwashing and of military violence against rural and Indigenous communities that have historically been marginalized.

The Artemisa campaign, a government initiative of then-president Iván Duque, consisted of a major military offensive aimed at protecting environmental heritage. Its main effort was led by the Omega Joint Task Force, made up of the army, air force, police, and navy, with the objective of protecting state resources, combating illegal armed groups, and preventing transnational crimes, specifically in the country’s national natural parks (PNN). There were nearly 22,000 men from the public force and nearly 3.4 billion pesos (700,000 USD) allocated to this campaign, whose mission was to safeguard and protect vast areas of land with high environmental value in the Amazon and Orinoquía regions, such as PNN Serranía de Chiribiquete, PNN La Paya, PNN Tinigua, PNN Picachos, PNN Serranía de la Macarena, the forest reserve zone of the Amazon, and the Nukak natural reserve.

This campaign, which arose as part of the reinforcement of the government’s defense and security policy, involved the integration of different environmental, judicial, and administrative authorities in Colombia, such as the public force, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, the Attorney General’s office, the National Natural Parks administration and the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM). The campaign had a total of sixteen operations, resulting in the extinction of ownership rights and the confiscation of property for perpetrators of crimes such as damage to natural resources. It also resulted in the capture of 113 people: 96 detained in flagrante delicto and 17 by court order. In Colombia, the Environmental Crimes Law of 2021 supports the legal and criminal framework against deforestation in addition to creating five other environmental crimes, with penalties of up to 15 years in prison.

Despite these efforts—the deployment of resources, the coordination between different national and supranational entities, and the work of public forces—the deforestation did not stop. Forest loss in 2022 increased compared to previous periods and, contrary to expectations, was largely concentrated in these natural areas. 

Additionally, the campaign has been branded unfair and unnecessary because of its punitive and carceral emphasis and its targeting of historically excluded and marginalized individuals and groups, such as rural and Indigenous communities, instead of the big hoarders of land and the criminal structures that operate in those territories. According to the Colombian Ministry of the Environment, the biggest triggers of deforestation are illegal extensive livestock farming, coca crops, and illegal logging.

Beyond these problems, the environmentalist framework that surrounded the campaign is worrying. Rural communities mainly dedicated to agricultural and planting activities have made use of the legal system to denounce these military operations that appear to focus on reproducing historical patterns of violence instead of delivering environmentally favorable results. Rural and Indigenous communities have denounced the campaign for cases of arbitrary arrests, the destruction of private property and seizure of materials, violence against ethnic communities, and the violation of their civil rights, particularly free movement. This outcome is especially concerning, considering the historical situation of communities that have been victims of multiple violence derived from armed conflict, the presence of groups outside the law, lack of institutions, and deprivation and/or limitations in access to basic services.

The victimization and sometimes revictimization of these communities through coercive means and scenarios of terror due to military incursions provides a critical case study in the defense of human rights. Although states have a special interest in the protection of environmental heritage, the use of military force against civilians is not the solution. This practice not only increases distrust among rural and Indigenous communities towards the military but also confirms what different civil defense and human rights organizations have stated: that these communities are the main victim of the armed conflict in Colombia, not only because of the magnitude of the violence against them but also because of the absence of positive changes in their situation. 

The Artemis campaign ultimately reinforced patterns of violence, exclusion, and discrimination. The solution to environmental harm cannot be to regard members of marginalized communities as criminal actors. Rather, these communities should be actively integrated in the fight against deforestation. According to the latest statements by the Minister of the Environment, Susana Muhammad, “The Police and the Military Forces will now focus on more preventive issues and work hand in hand with the community to contain further deforestation of forests in the country, especially in the Amazon where in the last twenty years more than one million 800 thousand hectares have been devastated.” 

If this is the case, it is essential to promote policies that will foster reconciliation between environmental conservation and the subsistence activities of the communities that inhabit the territories. Additionally, it is essential to work on the recognition of these community members’ rights, provide them with full citizenship, abandon practices of cultural minimization, and work towards the creation of safe redistributive and participation scenarios in which communities are given an active role in the decisions made in their territories.