The lack of policies against indiscriminate deforestation in river basins, in synergy with the rainy season, which is heavier than usual this year because of the La Niña climate phenomenon, has had devastating effects in Colombia.

This "winter," as the rainy season is called in this country, there have already been 600 local disasters caused by gale-force winds and constant, heavy rainfall. Rivers have burst their banks, and landslides and avalanches of all kinds have occurred, meteorologist Max Henríquez told IPS.

The rains began in September and will probably only let up in mid-December, because of La Niña. "Throughout 2007 and for several months this year we have experienced this climate phenomenon, caused by the cooling of the surface waters in the Pacific ocean, which brings above normal rainfall," the meteorologist said.

So far no one is venturing to predict when the winter season will end. According to the National Disaster Prevention and Response System (SNPAD), 50 people have been killed, 85 injured, nine are missing and 735,000 have been left homeless.

The government of President Álvaro Uribe has announced deliveries of aid, and the Colombian Red Cross has organised solidarity campaigns which recently allowed it to provide over 600 tonnes of food, clothing and utensils.

"The problem is not nature; nature is not deliberately out to get anyone, as some people think. Human beings are the problem, because we don't do the right things," Henríquez said.

"Cutting down trees in the river basins means that the rains are not contained, but sweep down rapidly into streams and rivers, which rise and overflow. Deforestation causes problems by accelerating the water cycle on land," he said.

The expert said that those responsible for uncontrolled deforestation included coca farmers, as well as those who build luxurious holiday homes, "campesinos" (small farmers) who fell trees for firewood, and carpenters who use them to make furniture, but above all, cattle ranchers extending their pasture lands.

"Sixty percent of deforestation in Colombia is due to cattle ranching," he said. The expansion of the agricultural frontier alone has invaded 312,000 hectares of forests in the last 20 years, while illegal crops like coca and opium poppies have taken over about 30,000 hectares.

"The relatively young geological age of the Andes mountain chain" is also a factor in disasters, with its propensity to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and so is poverty, as people with no other options settle in places unsuitable for habitation, and the ambition and greed of construction firms that do not carry out the necessary studies and build in an irresponsible manner.

In addition, the inertia of the planning offices that do not fully comply with regulations for authorising and inspecting buildings can lead to tragedies such as happened this year in an exclusive neighbourhood of Medellín, the capital of the northwestern province of Antioquia.

In El Poblado, the most affluent and exclusive district of Medellín, a landslide of 65,000 cubic metres of earth buried six houses on Nov. 16, leaving 10 people dead.

Medellín Mayor Alfonso Salazar said at the time that in addition to saturating rainfall owing to the wet winter weather, a filtration of groundwater had occurred that destabilised the soil. An enquiry was set up, involving the builders as well as the government urban planning office that authorised the construction of the houses.

But in Colombia "there are many other cities built on unstable soil, such as Manizales, the capital of the central province of Caldas, Armenia, the capital of nearby Quindío province, and even Bogotá," Henríquez warned. The risks are ever-increasing, "although they would diminish if the proper controls were in place," he said.

Biodiversity at Risk

Botanist Jesús Orlando Rangel, of the National University of Colombia's Institute of Science, told IPS that in fact Colombia is losing 598,000 hectares of forest, equivalent to 2,340 football fields, every year.

The National University of Colombia says that close to 500 species are under threat, including the wax palm, Colombia's national tree, while the Alexander von Humboldt Institute claims there are 2,500 endangered plant species. Species unique to the high altitude grasslands are also suffering harm, such as flowering bushes and spongy mosses which grow only one centimetre a year. This vital but fragile ecosystem is being encroached on by coal mining, potato growing and cattle grazing.

Until the Environment Ministry takes adequate measures, the ill effects of the rainy season will continue to add up.

"The situation is terrible for any country, but more so for Colombia, which possibly has the richest biodiversity in the world, but the government doesn't take proper preservation measures," Rangel said.

"The National University's Institute of Science has been working for over 60 years, without resources and with great difficulties, but all the Environment Ministry does is repeat our work, instead of devoting itself to compiling the information and enforcing regulations. It omits the most important thing, which is monitoring," the biologist said.

A valuable achievement by academics and activists, according to Rangel, was to thwart the "disastrous" draft forestry law which was being considered in parliament last year. Nevertheless, Colombia is approaching the situation in Africa, where 990,000 hectares are deforested every year.

"We're close to 50 percent of the rate of deforestation in Africa, which is awful," Rangel said. And this is happening amid the indifference of Colombians, "who wake up every morning without giving a thought to the priceless natural heritage that we are losing," he complained.

Amid all these negative factors, however, there is one that is positive, the SNPAD, which Henríquez said is "one of the best disaster prevention and response systems in the world."

On Nov. 20, the Nevado de Huila volcano erupted to a height of 10 kilometres, causing subsequent avalanches in Belalcázar in the southwestern province of Cauca. "The action by SNPAD was outstanding," as they were in time to swiftly evacuate the population from the path of the avalanche, he said.

Ten people lost their lives, while in a similar situation in 1994 the death toll was 1,009, most of them indigenous Nasa people.

Even so, Henríquez agreed with Rangel on the importance of consolidating programmes to move people away from danger areas. They emphasised that the issue must be included in municipal development plans, with adequate budgets.