- Juan Manuel Santos will be forever remembered as the president who ended one of the world’s longest armed conflicts, establishing a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.
- While the peace accords have shaped his image at home and abroad, they do not represent his entire presidential legacy. In addition to lowering the domestic poverty, unemployment, and murder rates, Santos advanced the country’s environmental agenda during his two terms. This should not be undervalued.
- Deforestation in the post-conflict era has grown at an alarming rate. Rather than a policy solution, Santos’ environmental legacy should be viewed as an initial step in securing the fate of Colombia’s forests.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Juan Manuel Santos will be forever remembered as the president who ended one of the world’s longest armed conflicts, establishing a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016. But the same agreement which earned him international acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize produced a wave of opposition in his home country. The esteemed global leader left office on August 7 with a domestic approval rating in the low 20s.
While the peace accords have shaped his image at home and abroad, they do not represent his entire presidential legacy. In addition to lowering the domestic poverty, unemployment, and murder rates, Santos advanced the country’s environmental agenda during his two terms. This should not be undervalued.
Still, deforestation in the post-conflict era has grown at an alarming rate. Rather than a policy solution, Santos’ environmental legacy should be viewed as an initial step in securing the fate of Colombia’s forests.
Protecting Colombia’s natural heritage: A priority of the Santos Administration
Colombia’s National Protected Area System (SINAP) experienced significant growth under Santos. Government sources report that over 44 million acres — an area larger than the state of New York — of national protected areas were established over eight years. Approximately 60 percent of these lands (17.5 million acres) gained national park status, which offers the greatest amount of protection for flora, fauna, and indigenous peoples.
This is unprecedented by any standard. In comparison, Peru, another megadiversity country, created only 6 million acres of national parks in the same period of time.
Under Santos, the government established Herencia Colombia (Heritage Colombia), a financing model for the country’s national protected areas. Led by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and the National Park Service, Herencia Colombia will ensure the expansion of the SINAP system and the long-term management of its lands.
A symbol of Santos’ wider-reaching legacy, Chiribiquete National Park is one of the many areas that will be supported by this initiative. Referred to as the “heart of the Amazon,” the park more than tripled following expansions in 2013 and 2018 and is now larger than the country of Denmark. In addition to its impressive size, Chiribiquete is a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, a haven for biodiversity, and the home of uncontacted indigenous peoples.
Peace brings new opportunities for conservation
Spanning across two remote regions in Colombia, Chiribiquete is located in former FARC territory, making it virtually inaccessible to outsiders during the country’s 52-year conflict. A bombed airplane landing strip in the middle of the park — now slowly returning back to nature — is an eerie reminder of its past history.
Prior to the demobilization of the FARC, an estimated 70 percent of Colombia’s national protected areas were located in conflict zones. Peace made it possible to enter these areas once again. This is an achievement within itself, as it has advanced scientific knowledge and generated a rise in ecotourism.
During his presidency, Santos promoted the scientific exploration of post-conflict areas like Chiribiquete through the creation of the Colombia Bio program. This initiative, as described by the government, is for the country to “know, value, preserve and strategically take advantage of its biodiversity as an alternative for social and economic growth.” Not only is the country’s biodiversity an important part of its national identity and a source of pride for many Colombians, but it also symbolizes a new chapter in Colombian history — one without FARC conflict.
Environmental challenges in the post-conflict era
Despite these advances, the environmental situation in Colombia is far from perfect. Following the demobilization of the FARC, deforestation in Colombia skyrocketed, resulting in the loss of over 440,000 acres of land in 2016, a 44 percent increase from the year before. These numbers continue to grow.
An unintended effect of the peace deal, much of the land that was once FARC territory is now being targeted by criminal mafias, land grabbers, and other groups. Without an enforcement presence, these remote areas essentially became “free” to whoever claimed them first, prompting a race to seize available lands.
The Colombian Amazon has been one of the largest victims of this destruction, as approximately 65.5 percent of the country’s deforestation is concentrated in this region. Between January 2017 and February 2018, an area 27 times larger than the size of Manhattan was lost. What was once dense tropical rainforest is largely now cattle pasture and plots of illegal coca.
The post-conflict plan’s failure to address these issues and cuts to the environmental budget have been cited as enabling factors behind rising deforestation.
A lasting legacy and reasons for hope
The cancellation of the Marginal de la Selva Road exemplifies a government effort to prevent further deforestation. In March, Santos announced that part of Colombia’s $1 billion infrastructure project would not be completed due to the severe environmental risk that it posed to the Amazon. This saved countless acres of land from being deforested, including an area close to three of the country’s prized national parks.
The Santos administration also went to significant lengths to protect the stewards of Colombia’s forests — indigenous peoples. As a part of this work, the former president expanded indigenous reserves, passed a landmark policy protecting uncontacted peoples, and recognized the ancestral territorial rights of a number of communities.
Still, the end of the Santos government signals a new era of environmental policy in Colombia. While the country’s newest president, Iván Duque, and his predecessor do not share similar ideologies, the well-being of Colombian society depends on the country’s natural capital remaining intact and protected from illegal activity.
President Duque now has the chance to establish himself as an environmental leader by achieving new conservation victories and implementing solutions to existing problems. In securing his country’s environmental future, he can ensure his own legacy as a champion of the Colombian people and as a defender of our planet.
Haley Wiebel is a Communications Specialist at Andes Amazon Fund and serves as a Climate Reality Leader as a part of former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. She is based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @haley_wiebel.
Editor’s Note: Mongabay is a grantee of the Andes Amazon Fund. The editorial decision to publish this commentary was not influenced by this financial relationship.
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