What does peace in Colombia have to do with the environment?

With the conflict finally over, the Colombian government must turn its attention to protecting biodiversity and natural resources

After 52 years of war, the government finalised a peace accord to cease conflict and construct stable and long lasting peace in Colombia. After four years of negotiations and almost 300 pages, the accord delves into different key points for the ceasefire, the guerrilla demobilisation, the integral rural reform, transitional justice, political participation of ex-combatants and drug policy, among others. The Colombian people narrowly rejected the accord on 2 October – there is no clarity yet regarding what would be the implications of this result for the future of the peace agreement.

Without a doubt, the armed conflict has left a footprint on Colombian landscapes and ecosystems. According to the Colombian organisation Dejusticia, the armed conflict has been accompanied by bombings of oil pipelines, fumigations of illegal crops with glyphosate, chemical pollution due to illegal mining, the presence of armed groups and anti-personnel mines in protected areas, and the expansion of the agricultural frontier as a result of forced displacement.

According to the government, the country could save $2.2bn (£1.8bn) a year in environmental damages. From 1990 to 2013, 58% of the deforestation in the country took place in areas affected by the conflict, with 3m lost hectares. Numerous attacks to oil pipelines during the last 35 years have resulted in 4.1m spilled barrels, the equivalent to 16 disasters like Exxon Valdez.

The end of the conflict brings opportunities to repair the environmental damage and rethink the country’s development. There are many environmental reasons to be happy about the peace accord, not least the potential to decrease deforestation; have greater control over the restoration, recovery and conservation of ecological areas (such as natural parks and paramos); and to create a more sustainable, efficient and diverse economy.

The impact of the war on Colombia’s natural richness has been huge. Sections on “integral rural reform” and the “solution to the illegal drugs problem” in the peace accord show that post-conflict policy will have an impact on economic, social and environmental development. As well as increasing the opportunities, we have to empower the country in its natural resource management.

Colombia referendum: voters react to rejection of Farc peace deal

Empowering farmers

The accord creates a land fund to benefit the rural communities most affected by state neglect and conflict. The fund will have 3m hectares of land during its first 10 years of creation. Some of these lands will come from the update, delimitation, and strengthening of the forest reserve and their granting will be conditional on the formulation (with the involvement of local communities) of plans to guarantee social and environmental sustainability. The accord also establishes that those who benefit from these lands will have to protect the environment, remove illicit crops and strengthen food production.

The government has a deadline of no more than two years to develop an environmental zoning plan where it delimits the agricultural frontier and expands the inventory of areas that require special environmental management such as forest reserves, highly bio-diverse lands, fragile and strategic ecosystems, watersheds, paramos and wetlands.

Conservation and deforestation

Conservation and deforestation are some of the most complex environmental problems linked to conflict and peace. While the conflict has contributed to deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems, it has also limited the exploitation of resources such as wood, mining, and agribusiness in several rural and difficult to access areas, many of which are characterised by high biodiversity.

In other places around the world, post-conflict internal migration has led to increased pressure on natural resources and in many cases, an increase in deforestation.

In this sense, the accord establishes that the reform must guarantee socio-environmental sustainability. There is also an important focus on the protection of natural reserves.

In addition, the section about economic and social reincorporation in the accord establishes that programmes for ex-combatants will pay special attention to environmental protection and recovery and humanitarian de-mining. In a similar fashion, the component regarding the conflict’s victims explains that, as part of victims’ reparation, the Farc is committed to participate in programmes to repair environmental damages like reforestation.


One of the factors that contribute to deforestation and thus, to this sector being one of the largest carbon emitters is the production of illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin. The accord creates voluntary crop substitution programmes to ensure that alternatives are sustainable from an environmental and economic point of view. Substitution plans must include actions for the mitigation of environmental damage in areas of special environmental interest and for forest recovery.

New resources, new challenges

According to the UN, war has limited the economic development that Colombia can achieve thanks to its biodiversity. It is also true that the areas that face the most intense conflict are areas of great biodiversity like Chocó. At the same time, they face great economic need and state neglect. Peace opens an opportunity for these areas to exploit their natural resources in a way that does not enrich illegal groups nor corrupt politicians. This is the opportunity to take advantage of the land to create and implement sustainable tourism programmes and other forms of economic development that do not solely depend on resource extraction, but on their preservation and responsible use to offer a better quality of life to vulnerable and low-income communities.

Much has been said about the economic dividends of peace. Colombia spends approximately 3.4% of its gross domestic product in defence. It is the Latin American country that spends the most on this sector. Although freeing this public budget does not directly mean that there will more economic growth or better social spending, it does open an opportunity to redirect this money to education, health, and environment. According to the government, peace can result in an increase of 1.5% in GDP and 5% to 8% in the regions most affected by conflict.

Some of these issues are being contested under the renegotiation process following the vote, particularly the rural reform. If the government and the guerrilla can agree to go ahead with an accord that includes the elements of the original agreement discussed above, it is possible to reinvent the environmental governance of the country. The great challenge then from now on will be how to manage resources in a responsible and proactive fashion. In order to advance towards sustainable development, strengthening of institutional capacity, monitoring, transparency in implementation, and accountability should all be central components in a post-conflict scenario.

The piece was originally published on Nivela.

Camila Bustos is a lead researcher and Marcela Jaramillo is a policy adviser on climate finance at Nivela. Follow @MaCamilaBustos and @JGMarcela on Twitter.

Join our community of development professionals and humanitarians. Follow @GuardianGDP on Twitter. Follow the conversation on the hashtag #LatAmNow.

Camila Bustos and Marcela Jaramillo

The GuardianTramp

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