Peace in Colombia: A Key Opportunity for Sustainable Development

After 52 years of war, the Colombian government has finalized a peace accord to cease conflict and construct a stable and long lasting peace. In this article, we explain what does the peace and ceasefire accord have to do with the environment and why voting YES on the plebiscite is also a YES to opportunities for sustainable development.

After 52 years of war, the government has finalized a peace accord to cease conflict and construct a stable and long lasting peace. After four years of negotiations and almost 300 pages, the accord delves into different key points for the ceasefire, the guerrilla demobilization, the integral rural reform, transitional justice, political participation of ex-combatants, and drug policy, among others. On October 2nd, Colombians will have the opportunity to vote on whether they accept the peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla group. In this article, we explain what does the peace accord and a ceasefire have to do with the environment and the new opportunities that will emerge for sustainable development if the country decides to vote YES in the plebiscite.

War, post-conflict, and environment

Although the accord does not have a component on environment or climate change, peace has a lot to do with these two topics. Last year, in front of the international community, Colombia committed to reduce its emissions by 20% by 2030 on a business-as-usual scenario to tackle global climate change. In other words, a 20% reduction compared to a projection in which the country did not do anything to reduce its emissions. In a document presented to the United Nations, Colombia considered the challenges that a future peace would bring to the country in terms of sustainable development. For example, the document specifically identified deforestation patterns in a post-conflict scenario. It also mentions how the process to consolidate peace can result in negative environmental impacts due to migration patterns, pressure on natural resources in the most vulnerable areas, and an increase in deforestation.

Without a doubt, the armed conflict has left a footprint on Colombian landscapes and ecosystems. According to the Colombian organization 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, among others.

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

The end of the conflict brings opportunities to repair the environmental damages and rethink the country’s development. The accord presents this vision, which includes considerations for the social and sustainable development in the country. Among the environmental reasons to say “YES to the peace accord” are the decrease in deforestation, greater control over the restoration, recovery, and conservation of strategically ecological areas (such as natural parks and paramos), planning of environmental lands, and a more sustainable, efficient and diversified economy.

The Opportunities and Challenges of Peace

The impact that war has had on Colombia’s natural richness has been unprecedented. The accord’s sections of “Integral Rural Reform” and the “Solution to the Illegal Drugs Problem” play a central role in the implications that post-conflict policy will have on economic, social, and environmental development and the opportunities we have to empower the country in its natural resource management. Next, we explore some of these opportunities.

1. Integral Rural Reform

One of the most important components of the peace accord is the integral rural reform section, which seeks the structural transformation of rural areas, creating well-being conditions for the rural populations. One of the great objectives is not only to reverse the effects that conflict has left on the countryside, but to change the conditions that facilitated the persistence of violence and are linked to the historical causes of the conflict. The accord states that farmers and other rural communities can contribute to the closing of the agricultural frontier and that, under the reform’s framework, any plans and programs that are developed must guarantee environmental sustainability.

The accord also creates a Land Fund with free distribution to achieve democratization in terms of land access and thus, benefit the rural communities most affected by state neglect and conflict. The Fund will have 3 million 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 accords also establish that individuals who participate in settlement and re-settlement programs with the aim to protect the environment, substitute illicit crops, and strengthen food production will benefit from these lands.

The agricultural reform also addresses the need to delimit the agricultural frontier and protect areas of special environmental interest. The government has a deadline of no more than 2 years to develop an environmental zoning plan where it delimits the agricultural frontier and thus, allows to update and expand the inventory of areas that require special environmental management such as forest reserve, high biodiverse lands, fragile and strategic ecosystems, watersheds, paramos, and wetlands among others.

2. Conservation and deforestation

This is one 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 characterized by high biodiversity. If the peace accord is approved through the plebiscite, it is possible to facilitate the access to these areas and resources, which could lead to unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. Furthermore, in other places around the world, post-conflict processes have led to internal migrations that increase the pressure on natural resources and in many cases, result in an increase in deforestation.

In this sense, the accord establishes within the considerations and principles of the integral rural reform that the plans and programs developed in the framework of the reform must guarantee socioenvironmental sustainability. There is also an important focus on the protection of natural reserves, in which the government will have to support the structuring of plan and programs related to the closing of the agricultural frontier and environmental conservation like the payment for environmental services, silvopastoral systems, reforestation, and farmer reserve areas.

In addition, the section about economic and social reincorporation in the accord establishes that programs and projects 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 programs to repair environmental damages like reforestation.

3. Drugs

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 marihuana, cocaine, and heroine. The accord creates voluntary crop substitution programs to ensure that alternatives are sustainable from an environmental and economic point of view. The accord also explains that the national substitution program must contribute to the closing of the agricultural frontier. Substitution plans must include actions for the mitigation of environmental damage in areas of special environmental interest and for forest recovery. In this areas, there will also be silvopastoral projects, payment for environmental services, and others.

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, these are areas 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 programs 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 defense, being the country in Latin America that most money devotes to 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.

Another component we have not yet mentioned, but that the accord explains is that of political participation. This point states the importance of strengthening the Territorial Planning Councils for a more inclusive representation of actors, among them environmental ones. The plan identifies the need to strengthen the institutional design to improve citizen participation that, while it not only applies to the environment, will have important ramifications on issues related to environmental democracy.

If the government and the guerrilla sign the peace accord, it is possible to reinvent the environmental governance of the country. The great challenge 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.

Follow the authors on Twitter: @MaCamilaBustos @JGMarcela

*The authors would like to give special thanks to Helena Duran for her contribution to this article.

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