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Safeguarding Colombia's natural resources in the context of peace

Colombia’s unfolding peace process presents a critical challenge to its forests and biodiversity. Going forward, Colombia will need to balance rural expansion in conflict-afflicted areas with goals to expand protected areas and reduce deforestation. Smita Malpani, a Palladium Environment and Natural Resources specialist, explores how the international community can help safeguard Columbia's natural resources in the context of peace. 

Colombia’s forests and ecosystems are home to almost 10% of the world’s biodiversity

Colombia’s forests and ecosystems are home to almost 10% of the world’s biodiversity. Through international agreements on climate change and biodiversity, Colombia has committed to an ambitious environmental agenda that includes an expansion of protected areas and net zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2020.

Rural development, the distribution of land, and agricultural investment are central to Colombia’s ongoing, tentative agreements for peace. Conflict-afflicted municipalities are heavily forested and house a disproportionate share of Colombia’s biodiversity. If actualized, proposed rural and agrarian reforms could result in major land use changes; thus jeopardizing Colombia’s forests, biodiversity, and associated ecosystem services including water supply and hydropower.

As Colombia progresses toward peace, there are various options for promoting rural development and strengthening land tenure that would concurrently improve livelihoods and support sustainability.

Empower ethnic communities to protect communally held land
Approximately 40% of Colombia’s territory is held communally as indigenous reserves and Afro-Colombian land. This communally held land is of prime importance from the perspective of both biodiversity and low emissions development (LED); 50% of Colombia’s primary forests is contained in these areas.

Under conflict situations, communal land tenure rights for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities have been eroded because of widespread illicit crop production and illegal mining. Strengthening tenure through improved capacity and resources for boundary demarcation, patrolling, and dispute resolution would safeguard ethnic community rights, give communities more incentive to sustainably manage their resources and protect against natural resource degradation from agriculture, mining, or logging activities. Tenure could also be strengthened by giving communities control over both “above ground” forests and “below ground” mineral resources located on communal property.

Foster rural and agricultural development that supports LED, agro-diversity, and improved livelihoods
Agricultural expansion is often presented as being at odds with environmental conservation. However, investments in agriculture that promote tree cover and crop diversity can help soil health, carbon sequestration, and genetic diversity.

Agroforestry or other mixed cropping systems that allow for tree cover among agricultural land would help Colombia maintain its transition to LED. In contrast to monoculture plantations that rely on heavy chemical inputs, mixed agroforestry systems can provide habitat for natural biodiversity as well as improved soil and water conservation. In the context of secure tenure for farmers, agroforestry may provide a stable stream of income for small farmers while also improving natural resource management outcomes.

In addition to these initiatives, the non-farm dimension of rural economic growth is important to raising the incomes of rural people without contributing to added demand for land. Improvements in agricultural processing near the site of production, agri-marketing, and strengthened value chains are some ways to raise the incomes of rural Colombians without causing additional pressures on the land.

Establish economic incentives for conservation in biodiverse and critical environments
The economic valuation of natural resources is fundamental to aligning the incentives and outcomes for positive natural resource management. In biodiverse areas, sustainable tourism may help provide economic incentives for species and ecosystem conservation. Colombia’s tentative proposals for peace include infrastructure that would make hitherto remote areas accessible by road. Although this could open up areas for exploitation through mining or logging, sustainable tourism is a non-consumptive use of natural resources that could offer significant and direct benefits to communities living near biodiverse ecosystems.

In critical environments, such as high altitude ecosystems that provide significant ecosystem services such as a stable water supply and hydropower, payments for conservation may help check agricultural expansion and grazing. If Colombia can follow other models from the region, urban consumers could systematically compensate rural, high altitude communities to restrict grazing and maintain other soil and water conservation measures that safeguard water supply and hydroelectric power.

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with FARC leaders in Havana – March 2016

A centerpiece of the Colombia peace accords is the proposed distribution of small land holdings and offering of formal land titles. At the same time, Colombia has committed to ambitious international agreements on climate change and biodiversity that would expand protected areas and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from land use. Observers of the peace process have postulated that the expansion of the agricultural frontier will have negative implications for Colombia’s natural resources. Nevertheless, much can be done to mitigate the impact of rural development on biodiversity and forests in Colombia.

Colombia could, with assistance from the international community, lay the groundwork for longstanding peace by explicitly considering investments that strengthen land tenure, improve rural livelihoods, and safeguard natural resources. Upholding and strengthening tenure for ethnic communities and communally held land would protect the vast amount of primary forests and biodiversity. Supporting agroforestry and agrobiodiveristy would reconcile trade-offs between agriculture and conservation. Improving rural livelihoods through the value-added processing of agricultural produce and non-consumptive uses of natural resources would alleviate any potential negative effects of agrarian reform. Finally, payments for ecosystem services in critical environments would avert the degradation of natural resources that could lead to shortfalls in basic needs for water and energy.

Durable peace rests on the sustainability of Colombia’s natural resources. If thoughtful, proactive measures are considered now, Colombia could chart a course for the future that provides both for its people and its natural heritage.

Smita Malpani shares her insights on peace and Columbia's natural resources.