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Colombia’s struggle for sustainable development

Following the Peace Accords, issues of governance come to the fore

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The relationship between the natural environment and the armed conflict in Colombia is deeply interwoven and complex, and the issue of governance is at the root of the environmental challenges Colombia faces. Exploitation of the country’s natural resources sustained the operations of armed groups, while acts of sabotage to oil and mining operations were used to weaken government revenue, as well as causing lasting damage to pristine ecosystems.


Hear Melissa MacEwen, author of this article, interviewed on Chatham House’s Undercurrents podcast, Episode 35.


On the other hand, the FARC’s zoning of land and the vast areas which became inaccessible during the conflict may have also had the indirect effect of preventing a higher rate of deforestation during the 50+ year conflict.

The peace deal, signed by former President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC in 2016, directly addresses the environment through the inclusion of environmental restoration as a component of rehabilitation programmes for ex-combatants. There should also be indirect benefits from the ‘Integrated Rural Reform’ component of the deal, which aims to promote countryside development by substituting illegal crops and opening up new areas for investment.

The environmental casualties of conflict

As well as a catastrophic human cost – 262,197 deaths and 7.7 million internally displaced people – the armed conflict also caused serious environmental damage. Attacks by armed groups on pipelines during the last 35 years have resulted in 4.1 million spilled barrels of oil, the equivalent to 16 Exxon Valdez spills (the worst oil spill in US history until Deepwater Horizon). 58% of deforestation between 1990 and 2013 also occurred in conflict areas, with 3 million hectares being cleared as a result of forced displacement for expansion of the agricultural frontier and coca cultivation. The use of mercury in illegal mining has contaminated river basins, affecting downstream communities. Following a spike in gold prices and an agreement with the government to reduce kidnappings for extortion, small scale mining was increasingly used by the FARC to finance its operations.

Figure 1: Environmental damage from illegal mining on the Quito River, Chocó region, Colombia. (Source: UN Environment mission, 2017 © Juan Bello/UN Environment)

No longer off-limits

Yet occupation of territories by the FARC also served to limit some environmental damage. Among the many armed groups in Colombia, the FARC was present mostly across the southern belt, an area with extensive forest cover (see Figure 2). In the absence of the state, the FARC took on a governance role, restricting logging and the proliferation of cattle ranches, with sanctions for non-compliance.

While it is true that deforestation still took place, the rate has sharply increased since demobilisation of the FARC – by 44% in the year the peace accord was signed. Some organisations, like the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation, link this to the power vacuum left by the exit of the FARC and the failure of the government to establish a meaningful presence in these areas, whether due to a lack of capacity, funding, or for other reasons. This has opened up areas which were previously off limits to a whole range of actors – rural smallholders, industry and other armed groups, with the possible expansion of tourism also likely to cause problems such as increased traffic to sensitive ecological areas.

Figure 2: Conflict areas overlaid onto forest reserves and protected areas in Colombia, 2015 (Source: Prepared by the Fundación para la conservación y el Desarrollo Sostenible, Bogota D.C., with data from the National Planning Department Special Projects Group 2015, presented in the National Development Plan 2014-2018, http://www.thedialogue.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Colombia-report-Eng_Web-Res_Final-for-web.pdf)

One park ranger per 500,000 hectares

This speaks to a wider problem of positive advances in environmental commitments by the Colombian government, without the resources to implement them on the ground. In 2008, Colombia signed the “zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2020” agreement; the next year it signed the Intersectoral Pact for Legal Timber and began working with REDD+ (a climate change mitigation solution which incentivises developing countries to keep their forests by promoting conservation and sustainable forest use).

By end of 2018, Colombia had over 30 million hectares designated as protected areas, a territory almost the size of Italy, up from 23 million hectares in 2017. Yet with a budget of only $23 million a year, the National Park Authority has enough to finance just one park ranger for every 500,000 hectares of land and deforestation rates have been increasing.

Around 178,597 hectares of forest were cleared in 2016, a 44 % increase from the year before, increasing a further 23% in 2017. In 2018, 65.5% of the total deforestation in Colombia took place in the Amazon. The signing of Heritage Colombia (HECO) in 2018, a strategy to provide financial sustainability to protected areas, the creation of the Sustainable Colombia Fund, with technical support from UN Environment, and the launch of environmental programmes for the reintegration of ex-FARC combatants – including reforestation and pollution clean-up – may go some way to solving this issue, but the challenges remain great.

Figure 3: Deforestation in Colombia (Source: Colombia Reports, https://colombiareports.com/deforestation-in-colombia-up-16/)

Coca remains the life-blood for small farmers

However, the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops is also floundering. This was a key part of the Integrated Rural Reform component of the deal, whereby coca growers were invited to substitute their crops voluntarily in return for a payment from the government, technical assistance and food security benefits.

Independent monitoring from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has found that while 94% of the circa 99,000 growers enrolled in the programme have complied with eradication of their coca crops, at least 40,000 have received no payments from the government.

Even with the payments and the technical assistance programme, many families are turning to cattle ranching to satisfy their financial needs as an alternative to coca. Continued insecurity has also meant the UNODC has been unable to access monitoring sites on several occasions while, despite the peace deal, coca cultivation overall – among growers not enrolled in the programme – has reached its highest ever level. Coca cultivation has been the lifeblood of small farmers, who do not have the finances to invest in alternative high value crops and where income from easy-to-grow legal crops such as cocoa is too low.

Figure 4: Sierra Nevada, Santa Marta, one of Colombia’s five biosphere reserves https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amanecer_en_la_Cuchilla_-_Sur_de_la_Sierra_Nevada_de_Santa_Marta_-_Ceroxylon_ceriferum_-_Flickr_-_Alejandro_Bayer.jpg

ZIDRES – friend or foe of the environment?

The flagship of the Integrated Rural Reform component of the peace deal is the Zones of Interest for Economic and Social Rural Development (ZIDRES). These are intended to expand economic and social investment in the countryside and bring about sustainable socio-economic development but in the process they raise further governance challenges.

ZIDRES are isolated areas that have been identified by the Colombian government for agricultural development. They have minimal infrastructure, low population density, high poverty, and have higher development costs due to their topographical and climatic characteristics. A map of potential ZIDRES has been produced taking into account protected and forested areas, and the first zone was ratified in Puerto López, Meta region in 2018.

However, there are still concerns around the impact these large agricultural zones could have on the environment, particularly in fragile ecosystem areas like the Altillanura (high plains). Critics have pointed to the potential for widespread livestock cultivation on lands which are unsuitable for pasture, with little water, contributing to soil degradation, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, a study by the NGO Human Rights Everywhere showed that over 75% of potential ZIDRES areas are on land deemed suitable for palm oil cultivation, raising concerns that the ZIDRES will be used for large scale palm oil production, often linked to deforestation. The National Federation of Oil Palm Growers of Colombia, for its part, has responded that Colombian palm oil growers have signed a zero deforestation agreement with the government. As more ZIDRES come online, it remains to be seen whether they will cause environmental degradation, or live up to their promise of sustainable agricultural development with socio-economic benefits for the rural poor.

Figure 5: Caño Cristales river, Meta region, Colombia (Source: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ca%C3%B1o_Cristales)

Wealth depends on the environment

Colombia’s social and economic wealth depends fundamentally on its natural environment. Its wealth of natural resources, agricultural potential and biodiversity offer opportunities to boost socio-economic development now that a peace deal with the country’s largest armed group has been reached. The country’s forests are also critically important both nationally and internationally for their role in mitigating climate change.

The Colombian government has been taking great strides towards bolstering its environmental commitments, integrating sustainability into its post-conflict reform plans and finding new means of financing programmes. However, it does so in a context of enormous internal and external challenges, including upcoming cuts to US aid and the Venezuela crisis which is putting strain on Colombia to accommodate the influx of migrants.

These pressures add to those created by the continued presence of other armed groups within Colombia, filling the vacuum left by the FARC; a lack of resources; and deficient national and sub-national governance. Together, these strains inhibit the proper implementation of the Peace Accords and affect environmental management in general.

In order to protect Colombia’s forests and biodiversity, second only in number of species to Brazil’s, it is not enough to end the conflict with the FARC, expand protected areas or even supplement the environmental budget. It is crucial that the state increase its presence at the sub-national level in ex-FARC territories, to prevent power grabs by other armed groups. And there must be inclusive, transparent, and accountable environmental governance at national and sub-national levels to support the design and implementation of rural reform activities which are truly sustainable in environmental terms.


Melissa MacEwen manages Chatham House’s research and outreach on forest governance, BECCS, extractives led growth and low carbon development, coal and new petroleum producers. She has a special interest in Latin America and sustainability, having lived in Cali Colombia for two years. Previously she worked for multinational strategic communications agencies MSLGROUP and H+K Strategies, specialising in energy, industrials and government work, where she worked with oil majors, renewables developers and climate change think tanks.

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