by Austin Michael Bodetti. He researches the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia.
The conclusion of a five-decade armed conflict between the Colombian military and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November 2016 represented a critical step toward ending the conflict in Colombia (see also here: Michael Martelle, “Colombian Defense After FARC“, offiziere.ch, May 24, 2017). In the regions that have achieved peace, Colombians have gained countless opportunities.
The resultant stability in these regions has empowered the petroleum industry, which fuels much of the Colombian economy. As neighbors from Brazil to Venezuela have struggled to move past political stalemates, Colombia is reaping the benefits of the peace process. Even so, the almost end of Colombia’s decades-long civil war has harmed the South American country in one respect: deforestation has increased across the country in the time since the 2016 demilitarization of the FARC.
By opening the doors to further economic development in a former war zone, the conclusion of a political settlement between the Colombian government and FARC has reintroduced the wood industry to forests that used to double as battlegrounds. Colombia’s half-century of political violence had the benign side effect of preventing the private sector from exploiting the country’s old-growth forests, a promise of security that components of the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil and Peru never enjoyed.
The end of the conflict allowed illegal logging to spread throughout Colombia as criminals once afraid of coming between FARC and the Colombian military moved to take advantage of the opening provided by a peace treaty. In 2016, the region of the country affected by deforestation grew to 178,597 hectares, an increase of 44 percent from 2015, when combat slowed, but FARC remained active.
“Almost three-quarters of the country’s municipalities reportedly lost more than one hectare of virgin forest, primarily due to coca cultivation, large-scale agriculture, road infrastructure projects, and illegal mining,” observed Colombia Reports in 2017. “The rapid increase in deforestation goes against promises made by the national government at the 2015 Paris climate change summit, where it promised to reduce deforestation in the Amazon region to zero. Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom jointly vowed to support Colombia’s promised effort with one hundred million dollars.”
In a pattern that resembles Colombia’s experience, Laos, Myanmar, and other countries with histories of conflict have wrestled with explosions in deforestation after peace processes enabled the wood industry to enter forests no longer isolated by ethnic conflict and political violence. The excitement of peace has distracted Colombian politicians from confronting a plethora of environmental issues.
“Colombia faced one of the most dramatic increases in tree cover loss of any country, with a 46 percent rise compared to 2016, and more than double the rate of loss from 2001–2015,” noted the World Resources Institute in 2018. “Almost half of the increase happened in just three regions on the border of the Amazon biome — Meta, Guaviare, and Caquetá — with new hotspots of loss advancing into previously untouched areas. The rapid increase in tree cover loss happened as peace came to the country.”
Despite the connection between deforestation and peace in Colombia, observers must refrain from viewing the conflict there as a boon for the natural environment. In fact, FARC even participated in illegal logging on a smaller scale — as did many other paramilitaries, including militias supporting the Colombian government’s anti-FARC campaigns. Conflict, like peace, complicated environmental degradation.
“Colombia’s conflict has had several negative impacts on the environment,” reflected the United Nations Environmental Program after Colombia and FARC’s political settlement. “In the last decades different armed groups and criminal gangs gained control over large parts of the territory, where they exploited natural resources or taxed extraction to finance their operations. As a consequence, environmental destruction from unregulated extraction of minerals and other natural resources, illicit crops, deforestation and the unregulated use of hazardous chemicals like mercury has taken place.”
Now that FARC has refocused its energy on politics and the Colombian government no longer needs to expend quite as many of its resources on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, environmental protection must become a priority for Colombians across the political spectrum. Colombia suffers from not only deforestation but also air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water pollution. The UN Development Program has also described the country as “at high risk from climate change impacts”.
“Colombia has enjoyed impressive economic growth in recent years, but it remains one of the world’s most unequal countries,” the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said of Colombia in a 2014 environmental impact assessment. “Its rich biodiversity and ecosystems are coming under significant pressure from extractive industries, livestock grazing, road traffic and urbanisation. Internal armed conflict has undermined the rule of law, exacerbated many environmental pressures, and restricted access to protected areas and the management of natural resources.”
A comprehensive environmental policy would represent the most effective solution to Colombia’s challenges. The Colombian government can look to well-resourced environmental organizations such as the Amazon Conservation Team, Friends of the Earth, and the Nature Conservancy for assistance. One of the Colombian government’s closest allies, the United States, has instructed its intelligence agencies and military to prepare for climate change. They too could help Colombia prepare for global warming.
“The water, coasts and mountains of Colombia directly benefit 80 percent of the population—and are critical to protecting against climate impacts,” observed the American environmental organization Conservation International. “Colombia is one of the countries most vulnerable to these impacts, due to its large coastal, marine, and mountain ecosystems that provide direct benefits to its population.”
Countries such as Iraq and Sudan show how climate change can exacerbate political violence, and South Sudan offers a startling example of how conflict can accelerate the effects of global warming. For its part, Colombia demonstrates that peace can have unintended consequences for the natural environment. If Colombian politicians succeed in stopping deforestation by arranging a thorough environmental policy, their country can become a model for others on the cusp of peace, such as Afghanistan, which has its history of deforestation as well as many other environmental issues tied to conflict.
The peace process has given Colombians the opportunity to pool their political resources and put them toward ending deforestation and supporting the environmental movement. Only then can Colombia begin to ready itself for the effects of global warming, the newest threat to a country that escaped its latest conflict only a few years ago. This considerable responsibility falls to Colombian politicians.