With the disbanding of Colombia’s largest military guerrilla group, FARC, Colombia’s forests could come under pressure from developmental goals. Home to almost 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, Colombia is listed as a “megadiverse” country by the Convention on Biological Diversity. It is home to 314 different types of ecosystems.
Colombia now faces a unique set of challenges. The country’s rich biodiversity is, in large part, what makes it vulnerable.
Some in the international community have argued that the peace agreement presents a chance to seriously deal with environmental development and protection issues. After five decades of armed conflict with FARC and their related coca-growing and cocaine processing operations, Colombia’s globally significant ecosystems now face the dangers of exposure to long-delayed development.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the conflict with FARC was the cause of violence in environmentally protected areas, including deforestation and soil degradation caused by illicit crops. Landmines planted during the conflict have also made Colombia home to the second largest amount of landmine victims in world, after Afghanistan.
The UNDP has emphasized that a sustainable development dimension of the post-war panorama is critical.
“The environment is essential for achieving post-conflict reconciliation and stabilization at the global level,” wrote Arnaud Peral, UNDP’s Colombia Resident Representative. “In Colombia, a culturally and biologically diverse country, such resources are of paramount importance.”
Arnaud argues that areas in Colombia such as the Andean and Amazon regions have significant needs – and promise.
“Peace will usher in an opportunity to showcase the environmental potential of these Colombian regions in addition to generating dynamic economic and social development,” he added. Attention to environment development will also bring business to the country through biodiversity products.
Analyzing the risks and potential
Against this backdrop, The Palladium Group, an international think tank and consulting organization, gathered experts last May to question the challenges and opportunities for a post-conflict sustainable Colombia. The Group found, in discussion with government and non-profit leaders, that in spite of a significant legacy of problems, there is also massive potential opportunity.
Some of the biggest problems are difficulty with land access, a high degree of inequality, years of conflict, and an illicit economy.
Rural development and land tenure rights of the indigenous populations are particularly problematic. Yet the Palladium Group found that ultimately, it is a rare moment of potential and a chance for civil society and the donor community to have a direct and positive impact.
“This moment in history represents a critical opportunity for Colombia to put into place policies that improve the long-term well-being of all Colombians,” stated the group in their report. “These policies can strengthen protection of the country’s rich biological heritage.”
The irony of the conflict was that it had the effect of slowing environmental exploitation on a large scale. Somewhere between 5.8 – 6.7 million people were displaced and 6.5 – 10 million hectares of land were either abandoned or taken illegally.
That represents about 15 percent of Colombia. From 2001 – 2010, the Palladium Group pointed out that there was a measurable forest recovery trend.
Following the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Colombia made significant environmental commitments. They include a plan to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 and a Low-Carbon Development Strategy, according to the World Resources Institute.
But Palladium Group experts also pointed out that peace will bring a broad swath of openings for international organizations to open oil and mining operations. Displaced farmers may return to, and reclaim land. Some of that land may need significant soil remediation after decades of being poisoned by chemicals from cocaine production.
Tenure rights of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities that live in and around most of Colombia’s forests will no doubt come into play.
Concerns over deforestation
Other experts argue that there are significant deforestation issues independent of FARC and the conflict. Carlos Tapia, a senior researcher of the Colombian-based Humboldt Institute, is one of them.
According to Tapia, even where the conflict has not occurred, deforestation has advanced at great rates. He said this proves a social and political ineptitude and unwillingness to halt deforestation processes not attributable to the war.
The extractive and agricultural and livestock industry models are often illegally intertwined with political power. In many regions they have been relevant factors challenging the environment as a whole, and they could continue.
Broadly speaking, the peace agreement is based on a ceasefire and a few issues considered critical. As pointed out by Tapia, rural development, the original interest of FARC´s struggle, and illicit economies in forests represent the environmental dimensions touched by the agreement.
Tapia believes that the management of rural areas has the most potential.
Management of these areas would include a discussion about how the territory would be used in order to produce justice and allow for generating a clearer set of laws and the planning of sustainable economies and livelihoods. However, this is precisely the setting that the interests of the most powerful conglomerates are concentrated.
Tapia says that many know that the government’s stance in terms of human rights and a viable economic model are weak. For example, negotiations with Chinese companies to led to options to build hydroelectric dams nearly everywhere. He adds that outside of the government, critics depict the central government as “desperately willing to find money from anywhere, at any cost.”
This raises questions about how the peace agreement will be financed.
Loans and credit
In addition to a new set of environmental taxes, unfavorable conditions might be attached to potential loans.
Colombia Sostenible is an initiative created within the peace agreement’s framework to combine the social and environmental recovery of areas most impacted by the conflict. The program operates under the auspices of the Inter-American Development Bank (BID in Spanish), the main source of multilateral funding in Latin America.
Colombia’s Minister of Environmental Affairs and Sustainable Development, Luis Gilberto Murillo, said during a speech earlier this month at the University EAN of Bogotá that Colombia Sostenible could help.
“The BID and other countries will give the government a credit of 300 million U.S. dollars,” said Murillo. “In addition, last year we signed an agreement with Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom where these countries will pay us for our results in fighting the deforestation in the Amazon region.” Murillo was referring to the UN-REDD+ program.
He added that access to zones where there is great biodiversity highlights the need to offer alternative livelihood to people who have survived with economies detrimental to the environment.
Arguments over economics
Though the government’s position is that cocaine ruins forests, some in the academic realm argue that production of the drug is profitable in the tropical forests and replacing it won’t be easy. It’s also argued that the impact is no worse than what the cattle industry or other systems of production have caused.
Murillo says that under the government brand of Colombia BIO, the country aims to move toward a bio-economy, which according to OECD projections could amount to 2.5 of Colombia’s GDP in 10 to 15 years.
Part of the Colombia BIO model is to help green businesses flourish, and give space to initiatives like ecotourism and park ranger positions to people from indigenous and local communities already living in environmentally fragile areas.
“We are working on a new legislation that should assure a payment in return for environmental services provided by the communities,” said Murillo.
According to Murillo, the government knows that the knowledge of local communities should be part of political knowledge so the overall domestic conservation can change. It is widely believed that once the peace agreement is functioning, there will be opportunities to focus on environmental issues.
Yet Humboldt researcher Tapia points out that the discourse on the green economy is more rhetoric than reality. In the end, he says that there will be a need to prioritize the least damaging outcome. According to Tapia, economies of subsistence will probably maintain until the state finds other solutions for these populations.
Nowadays defenders of the territories and biodiversity are popular movements among local communities. These people are gaining political power and a voice over a government that is often responsible for bad policies against the environment. They will be able to influence the discourses about Colombia’s development model.
In this sense, the agreement represents “a chance to renegotiate social pacts, allow for debates over democracy, systems of production, the reinvention of our political ecology,” according to Tapia.
Photo: A rainbow skink in coastal Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
“Post-conflict Colombia: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Landscapes.” (Post-event notes, May, 2016) http://thepalladiumgroup.com/knowledge/Post-conflict-Colombia—Challenges-and-Opportunities-for-Sustainable-Landscapes
Convention on Biological Diversity, Colombia
“Latin America and the Caribbean: A Biodiversity Superpower” (UNDP, September 30, 2010)