- Colombian President Juan Santos was honored by the National Geographic Society last week for his prodigious efforts since taking office in 2010 to expand the protection of Colombia’s biodiversity on both land and sea.
- Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, praised Santos as “one of the foremost champions of the natural world” in an hour-long ceremony at the Society’s headquarters.
- Santos has more than doubled the number of hectares under national environmental protection — from 13 million hectares in 2010 to 28.4 million hectares today, including a doubling of Chiribiquete National Park in southern Colombia, one of the world’s most biodiverse places, from 1.29 million hectares to 2.78 million hectares.*
WASHINGTON, D.C. – He prowled the stage like a puma moving through Colombia’s rainforest. With a deep knowledge of ecosystems ranging from marine to savanna to high mountains, he spoke clearly about why these wild places are important to his country and the world.
He never mentioned jobs, new roads or dams, or leveraging his country’s vast trove of fossil fuels and precious metals for economic development. He was, for an hour on the morning of Sept. 21, a strange international figure in a city whose national leadership on the environment is the polar opposite of his.
“We are a powerhouse of biodiversity,” said Juan Santos, the president of Colombia and the sole recipient of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for ending his country’s 50-year civil war. “With this power comes responsibility. We have a tremendous responsibility to play a role in the world to … preserve the environment and protect the rich assets of our house.”
Santos is said to be more popular abroad than he is at home because of the controversial Peace Agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Yet he came to Washington to be honored by the National Geographic Society for his prodigious efforts since taking office in 2010 to expand the protection of Colombia’s biodiversity on both land and sea.
Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, praised Santos as “one of the foremost champions of the natural world” in an hour-long ceremony in Grosvenor Auditorium at the society’s headquarters. All 400 seats were filled, mostly with Colombians working in D.C., including its ambassadors to the U.S. and an array of indigenous leaders from Colombia dressed in traditional garb.
“President Santos is a shining example of everything National Geographic stands for and supports,” Knell said. “He is a bold leader with transformative ideas and a fearless trailblazer who champions policies that will help achieve a planet in balance — and help change the world.”
Santos stood in stark contrast in a city where the new administration is dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, proposing to shrink the size of U.S. national parks to make way for the extraction industry, and pulling out of the United Nations-brokered Paris Agreement to fight climate change.
Santos spoke for 45 minutes about how “our treasure is the world’s treasure.” Though one-eighth the size of Brazil, Colombia ranks second behind its Amazonian neighbor in biodiversity worldwide. It’s first in its variety of birds and orchids, second in amphibians and butterflies, third in reptiles and palms, fourth in mammals, and fifth in marine and continental ecosystems.
What Santos has done — and pledges to do more of by the time he leaves office in August 2018 — is more than double the number of hectares under national environmental protection — from 13 million hectares in 2010 to 28.4 million hectares today, including a doubling of Chiribiquete National Park in southern Colombia, one of the world’s most biodiverse places, to 2.77 million hectares (10,700 square miles). He has pledged to protect another 1.69 million hectares (6,560 square miles) in less than a year.
Offshore, he has ordered the protection of 4.4 million hectares (nearly 17,000 square miles) of Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage site rich in coral reefs and aquatic life. He is encouraging neighboring Panama and Ecuador to expand their abutting ocean reserves to create a huge Pacific Ocean coastal corridor “for turtles, sharks, and dolphins, which need protection.”
“In doing this,” Santos said, “we are honoring the great American marine biologist Sylvia Earle, who said, ‘No water, no life. No blue, no green. No ocean, no us.’ From that I learned an important lesson — protect the coral reefs. This is critical.”
Colombia’s environmental challenges
What went unmentioned during Santos’ celebratory talk were the increasing challenges to his environmental agenda. Deforestation has risen dramatically in the past year. Coca growing for cocaine is increasing rapidly. The extraction industry is eager to get at Colombia’s enormous underground stores of oil, natural gas, coal, and precious metals, especially emeralds.
Nor did he mention the recent report “Peace and Environmental Protection in Colombia,” which notes that environmental spending by the Santos Administration is “very low,” well behind other Latin American countries, and a third of what it was in 1998.
The partial result has been a lack of enforcement in protected areas as illegal miners and ranchers claim rich land where the FARC once hid but is now leaving unoccupied.
Instead, Santos, attaching part of his legacy to the unpopular Peace Agreement with the FARC, said last week: “For 50 years, the environment was one of Colombia’s war victims. I called it an ecocide. Drug trafficking fed the war, and the war fed drug trafficking through deforestation. The amount of oil spilled in our rivers and seas was equal to 14 Exxon Valdez (spills). That’s why the environmental dividend of our peace is so big. We are not only stopping this destruction, we’re trying to reverse it.”
Much depends on the administration that follows Santos to power in Bogota next summer. His expansion of protected lands cannot be reversed without revising the nation’s constitution. But with poverty rates high and per capita income low, the pressure for economic development in Colombia will be intense.
At National Geographic last week, those were worries for another day, as the society lauded an uncommon elected official’s will to protect, not plunder, his nation’s natural resources.
In closing the ceremony, Mark Plotkin, the well-known environmentalist who leads the Amazon Conservation Team, praised Santos before adding, “The political leaders who ignore biodiversity will end up where they belong — on the ash heap of history.”
*Correction: When originally published, this story misreported the total hectares protected in Colombia in 2010 and today. That error has since been corrected.
Justin Catanoso is a regular contributor to Mongabay and professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso.