In Greek mythology, Artemis, daughter of Zeus, is the goddess of the hunt, guardian of wildlife, protector of forests. It is hardly a coincidence that on April 28, 2019, President Iván Duque named one of the largest military operations after the deity, replacing her bow and arrow for helicopter gunships, not to protect her temple at Ephesus – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – but the natural wonders of Colombia’s National Parks.
According to Colombia’s Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, the protection of the Amazon and Orinoco territories is “a national security priority,” safeguarded by the 1991 Constitution, which requires support from the air and ground by the country’s Armed Forces. Artemisa is a pillar of the government’s 2019/2020 National Development Plan, and for Presidential Security Advisor Rafael Guarín, its core mission is to target catastrophic deforestation […] and guarantee the nation’s integrity by protecting citizen’s essential right to water, clean environment and biodiversity.”
The joint Army-Police strategy works at three levels starting with conservation, in which natural habitats are monitored for predatory activities, in archaeological sites, land colonization by cattle farmers, traffickers in search of frogs, birds and monkeys, and illegal miners panning in rivers. The proliferation of illicit crops and coca laboratories have also contributed to a land grab inside, or in areas surrounding national parks. With the rapid surge in deforestation of the Colombian Amazon, from 124,000 hectares in 2015 to 198,000 hectares in 2018, Artemisa is the new frontline in the battle to save forests, and one that involves a specialized brigade to combat illegal mining, four Anti-Drug Battalions, six Jungle Battalions, six Jungle Infantry Battalions, 10 High Mountain Battalions and 19 Special Road Battalions.
Once threats have been foiled by Colombia’s full-metal eco-warriors, the recovery process of large swathes of land falls under intergovernmental agencies coordinated by the Ministries of Environment, Defense and the Attorney General’s Office.
Artemisa is part military strategy, part education campaign, involving rural communities whose economic survival depends on a heightened security presence of the State. According to Ricardo Lozano, Minister of Environment, “95% of the fires blazing in the Amazon are man-made, the result of criminals, not extreme weather.” The senior government official told The City Paper that “Colombia is prepared to face the eventuality of fires in the Amazon, because all our security personnel have assumed a great responsibility in monitoring all the elements that can destroy our biodiversity.”
Artemisa’s reach extends coast to coast, after initiating operations in the largest and most pristine park in the country – PNN Chibiriquete. Declared in 2018 a World Heritage Site and championed by the Prince of Wales during a 2016 visit as “a vital lung of the Earth,” Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de Chibiriquete, covers 42,800 km2 – or 1.2 million hectares – of dense tropical rainforest. In its narrow canyons, table-top tepuys and unchartered waterways, fit Switzerland and Luxembourg. The other parks where Artemisa is expanding to include PNN Sanquianga on the Pacific, PNN Paramillo in Antioquia, PNN Catatumbo in Norte Santander, PNN Sierra de la Macarena (Meta) and PNN Yaigojé Apaporis.
Since launching earlier this year, Artemisa’s 22,000-strong jungle guardians have managed to recover 136,000 hectares of tropical forest belonging to Chiribiqute and the Llanos de Yarí watershed. In over 60 military sorties, more than 120 persons have been arrested and charged with environmental crimes, including setting fires in protected parklands.
For the many entities engaged in the on-going fight to preserve and protect Colombia’s flora and fauna, the challenge they face is enormous, yet they have extended a helping hand to hundreds of endangered species rescued from traffickers.
According to Guarín, Artemisa marks a fundamental turning point in the long-term objectives of Colombia’s Armed Forces in the post-conflict. “For the first time in our history, we are aligning our domestic agenda, foreign policy, and national security objectives with the sole aim of protecting natural resources,” he said.
With some 85,000 fires raging out of control this year in Brazil, President Iván Duque summoned in Leticia, capital of Amazonas, the Presidential Summit “For the Amazon,” accompanied by his counterparts from Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Suriname. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro attended virtually.
The signing of the Leticia Pact for the Amazon on September 6, secured regional initiatives to protect the most biodiverse territory on Earth, with integrated disaster response teams and satellite monitoring for deforestation. “It is our moral duty to make our societies increasingly aware of the protection of our common home, of our mother earth,” said Duque at the signing. “This Pact forces us to coordinate the many causes of deforestation, such as illegal mining, drug trafficking and illegal extension of the agricultural frontier […], but it also forces us to share scientific cooperation,” said Duque. “I believe we are making history.” And as nations around the world face their own environmental threats due to climate change, Colombia, with the help of a Greek deity, is leading by example.