By Anastasia Moloney
CAQUETA, Colombia, June 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Seen from the air, muddy rivers snake through rolling forested hills stretching to the horizon in Colombia's southern province of Caqueta that for decades were rebel lairs and an epicentre of the civil war.
A peace deal signed last year between the government and the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ended half a century of conflict.
The accord has seen about 7,000 FARC fighters leave their strongholds and gather in 26 demobilisation zones where so far rebels have surrendered about a third of their weapons to the United Nations.
But now a new battle is on: to preserve Colombia's forests that are under threat from farmers seeking grazing land and criminal gangs cutting down trees for illegal gold mining.
Colombia is home to a swathe of rainforest roughly the size of Germany and England combined.
It is in war-torn areas like Caqueta where deforestation is on the rise following the FARC demobilisation, and where Colombia - in partnership with Norway - is focusing efforts to halt forest loss with a scheme that offers former fighters training and jobs as forest guardians.
As FARC fighters abandon their jungle strongholds, once no-go conflict areas are opening up for business.
Farmers are pushing deeper into forests, cutting down more trees to make way for grazing land for cattle and agriculture.
"We are seeing early signs of this already in Colombia so that is definitely a concern," Vidar Helgesen, Norway's environment minister, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"With peace and with the prospect of FARC handing in their arms, existing farmers are ... more offensive in their approaches, they are more daring in that they are also expanding and engaging in practices that are not sustainable," Helgesen said this week on a visit to Colombia to launch the new forest conservation programme.
Norway is donating about $3.5 million over two years to the pilot project it hopes will stem deforestation by offering paid jobs to ex-FARC fighters and communities to safeguard forests.
When forests are degraded or destroyed, the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere, with deforestation accounting for 10 to 15 percent of carbon emissions worldwide.
"We hope this project can be the way for more activities whereby peace comes with green dividends," Helgesen said.
About 1,100 ex-FARC fighters, as well as villagers in Caqueta, will be trained in how to track and report illegal logging, along with sustainable farming methods and eco-tourism projects - a way of helping them integrate back into civilian society.
Some jobs will be offered as forest guardians in national parks, others in local government environment agencies.
"Reintegration is very important for the return to civilian life and when giving economic opportunities there's a bigger chance that the reconciliation process will succeed," Helgesen said.
Joshua Mitrotti, head of Colombia's reintegration agency, said integrating thousands of ex-guerrillas into society requires access to education and training, and on businesses and rural communities willing to give them a second chance.
"This programme is the first initiative that combines environmental protection with reincorporation .. while protecting land and creating income generation," Mitrotti said.
Many former fighters have spent most of their lives fighting in the jungle and have few other skills and little education.
The first challenge is getting ex-fighters back in schools, said Christian Visnes at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the aid agency carrying out the project on the ground.
A survey of about 6,300 FARC fighters by NRC this year showed about 10 percent are illiterate and only two in five have finished primary school.
By providing skills training and jobs, rebels are less likely to pick up a weapon again and join other criminal groups.
"It's about creating opportunities to take away the incentive to become part of another (criminal) group," said Visnes, Latin America director of NRC.
PAID TO PROTECT FORESTS
Colombia has declared the goal of zero net deforestation by 2020 and halting the loss of all natural forest by 2030.
Norway is also helping Colombia and other countries to stem forest loss through the United Nations programme aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+).
Countries participating in REDD+ receive payouts for meeting verified emission reduction targets for slowing deforestation over several years.
The payments are usually distributed to farmers, grassroots communities and indigenous groups working on forest protection.
Under the REDD+ programme, Colombia on Wednesday received a payment of $10 million from Norway aimed at promoting sustainable rural development in war-torn regions.
This follows the first payment of $6 million last year from Norway, Britain and Germany for reducing emissions from deforestation in its Amazon rainforest in 2013 and 2014.
Rich from offshore oil, Norway is the biggest donor to REDD+, and is also financing projects to help protect forests from Ethiopia and Liberia to Peru and Guyana, as well as projects worth $1 billion each for Indonesia and Brazil.
But the programme has struggled to attract private funding and governments need to do more to get businesses on board, Helgesen said.
According to a 2015 report by U.S.-based environmental group Forest Trends, REDD+ is "significantly short" of estimates indicating at least $20 billion per year is needed to reduce global deforestation by 50 percent.
"We are way short of where we should be in terms of funding," Helgesen said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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