Felipe “Pipe” Henao is a young environmentalist from the small town of Calamar in southeastern Colombia. At the meeting point of the Amazon and Orinoco basins, it’s an area of abundant biodiversity and an important biological corridor to the Andes mountains.
The forest region was once only occupied by a few nomadic Indigenous communities, but has since seen waves of colonization and conflict, rubber and coca booms, FARC rebel occupation, and most recently, rampant deforestation.
“My parents came here almost 40 years ago to colonize. They came and they made a farm in the middle of the jungle, where there lived nothing but panthers, jaguars and many other animals,” Henao said in an interview with Mongabay. “When we wanted meat, we would hunt an animal. If we wanted fish, we would throw the fishing line … we were very privileged.”
Like many in the community, Henao’s parents arrived in Calamar during a colonization wave in the 1990s to grow coca, the raw ingredient for producing cocaine. Henao remembers being involved in all aspects of the coca production process when growing up, from sowing the young plants and harvesting the leaves, to negotiating sales.
Yet what had the greatest impact on Henao was the forest they lived in, teeming with wildlife. From his family’s farm to town, it would take Henao six hours by boat or nine hours walking through the forest. Now, almost all that land has been turned into pasture for 25,000 heads of cattle.
During the occupation of the region by the FARC guerrilla group, campesinos would be allowed to clear only 1 or 2 hectares (2.5 or 5 acres) for growing coca and subsistence crops, which meant deforestation was kept at a minimum. But following the signing of the 2016 peace agreement between FARC and the government, the rebels left the area and illegal groups moved in.
“We knew that when FARC left the territory, which they had occupied for more than 60 years, the guns would be silenced, but the chainsaws would be turned on,” Henao said. “If those who gave the orders went away, who was going to protect the forest?”
“Nobody was taking their place, so some people with a lot of money came, like cattle ranchers, businessmen, and politicians, and saw empty jungle.”
According to Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), the national deforestation rate hit a peak of 220,000 hectares (nearly 544,000 acres) in 2017, the year after the peace agreement. Deforestation figures have fluctuated in the years since, registering 171,685 hectares (424,242 acres) in 2020, according to IDEAM, showing a rising trend. And the biggest forest-related losses are in Colombia’s Amazonian region, with Guaviare department, where Henao lives, a focal point.
“I believe that the deterioration that we have in the region today is also part of the consequences of a bad implementation of the peace process,” said John Alarcan, a former FARC rebel and co-signatory of the peace agreement.
Today, Alarcan leads Aso Jaguar, a youth initiative that makes art from recycled wood. He’s also completing a nursery that will provide seedlings and trees for restoration projects led by Henao, as well as providing them to communities in the areas most affected by forest loss.
Henao said that if he can involve as many people as possible and get them to change the way they relate to the environment, he hopes they’ll develop a sense of ownership that will make them more willing to protect it.
Through the organization he established, Pipe Q-ida (meaning “care for” in Spanish), he said they’ve connected with more than 150 companies and organizations in Calamar and more than 1,800 families, and mobilized more than 1,000 young people to volunteer to clean rivers, protect wetlands and plant more than 60,000 trees.
Activities like tree-planting days bring together children, families, adults, schools, the National Army—which provides logistical support and the use of trucks—and even former foes like Alarcan. Henao said the real objective of the tree planting is to create awareness.
“Even if a thousand trees fall, we will always plant one, and our message is still the same,” Henao said. “We know that every day they deforest and every weekend we plant 100, 200, 500 trees because every time we gather people to plant, we share with them our message.”
The next generation
Knowing that young people are the future of these efforts, and that they use digital platforms to entertain themselves and talk about the environment, Henao set out to amplify his message by becoming an environmental influencer: creating videos on environmental issues and providing workshops in local schools.
In many of Henao’s videos, he’s accompanied by his seven-year-old stepdaughter, Valeria Rodríguez, known on social media as “Valeria the Guardian.” In addition to talking about environmental issues, she also leads planting workshops with other children while Henao works with adolescents and adults.
Henao said that when Valeria was four years old, she saw him recording, and when he went away, she stood in front of the camera and started to say, “Hello my fellow guardians. I’m Valeria and I invite you to nature.”
Henao and his wife, Andrea, gave Valeria space to explore. And seeing her continued interest in talking about environmental issues, Henao wrote her a script and they went into the forest to record. And she has been recording ever since.
Valeria told Mongabay that she talks with other children about the importance of taking care of nature and of the importance of the jaguar, because if it dies, so do the trees. She also emphasized the urgency of not littering, taking care of water, and not cutting down trees.
When asked about her future plans, she said she wants to make more videos, inspire people to protect the jaguar, and have her own housecat one day.
Yet for this environmental work over the years, Henao, members of his team, and even Valeria, have received threats to their lives. Henao also suffered from extortion and kidnapping and has received so many threats that he now has a full-time government-sponsored bodyguard.
And threats are not to be taken lightly in Colombia, the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmental activist. Just this week, 14-year-old Colombian Indigenous activist Breiner David Cucuñame was murdered while on patrol with an unarmed group that tries to protect Indigenous territories from invasions by illegal groups.
“We have reported deforestation head on. We have gone to court. We have reported illegal tourism. We have reported many things and it has generated so many risks for us,” said Henao, who now takes a less confrontational approach and is also conscious of how gaining greater visibility helps to decrease the risks.
Guardians of Chiribiquete
Just beyond Henao’s hometown of Calamar lies Chiribiquete, a national park the size of Switzerland. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to 75,000 cave paintings, some going back more than 20,000 years, as well as at least three Indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation.
Carlos Castaño-Uribe accidently discovered the group of flat-topped mountains which contain the rock art in 1986 when he was the head of Colombia’s Natural National Parks authority (PNN). He played a fundamental role in that position to establish the national park and helping it be declared a World Heritage Site.
Yet despite its legal protections and value to humanity, Chiribiquete is under threat. According to the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), the park lost more than 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of forest cover from September 2020 to February 2021, with most of the deforestation associated with the clearing of primary forest for illegal cattle pasture.
In 2018, Castaño-Uribe published a book about Chiribiquete and worked with the PNN to promote a “Guardians of Chiribirquete” conservation strategy. It’s underpinned by the idea that the best long-term solution to protecting Chiribiquete is to include the greatest number of people through civil society.
Castaño-Uribe said the book has sold 15,000 copies, with all proceeds from the sales, approximately $370,000, going into environmental education and local capacity-building activities for youth people in the areas surrounding Chiribiquete.
Castaño-Uribe said that although this is a token sum compared to the funding received by other environmental initiatives in the area, it has already done a lot to raise awareness of the need to protect Chiribiquete and is also providing funding for youth-based environmental organizations like Henao’s Pipe Q-ida.
“We are concerned about the future that we can leave to our children,” said Wilfred Guzman, a Calamar councilman. “But right now in Calamar there is a very significant group of young people and older adults who are working to improve and restore what is out there.”
Guzman works with Henao on reforesting and environmental education initiatives. And through the youth entrepreneur association that he’s a part of, Asojec, they also provide young people with opportunities to make a living through protecting the forests.
Their projects focus on sustainable harvesting of Amazonian fruits like sacha, açaí, copazu, borojo and moriche, to make jams, cookies, juices, ice cream and popsicles. They currently sell the products at the local and departmental levels, but the wider aim is to reach the national level, and one day export as well.
“I think that at the end of the day, our biggest objective is to be able to leave a legacy to our children [so] that our children think differently than our parents did, who mistakenly thought that they could come, cut down the trees and just have some pasture there for the cattle,” Guzman said.
“People see the forest differently. They no longer see it as an enemy. They see it as something that has a lot of richness apart from wood and oxygen. It’s what guarantees a life of tranquility and a healthy environment.”