Forest-Friendly Development Can Bolster Peace in Colombia, Paper Says

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The Bosque de Niebla in Colombia's

The Bosque de Niebla in Colombia’s “coffee triangle.” Careful use of agroforestry could help shore up the country’s long-awaited peace accord. Photo: Proexport

By Kristen French

As Colombia rebuilds following last year’s historic peace deal with Marxist FARC rebels, it has an opening to advance sustainable land development. A new paper in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution suggests that within Colombia, good systems of forest-friendly economic development already exist that should serve as models for renewal as they would promote food and energy security and lasting peace.

“Colombia is in the process of implementing the peace agreement, and it has so many resources that can enrich this process,” said Miguel Angel Pinedo-Vasquez, one of the authors on the paper, and a researcher with the Earth Institute’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society. “You do have the ecological resources. You do have the desire of some investors and some groups in engaging in low-emissions development and production of commodities. You do have systems that are biodiversity-friendly.” The preservation of large no-go forest reserves is not enough, the authors write.

Major ecosystem types in Colombia. From Nature Ecology and Evolution, Baptiste et al., 2017

Major ecosystem types in Colombia. From Nature Ecology and Evolution, Baptiste et al., 2017 (Click on image for higher resolution.)

Fifty-two years of civil war in the country had a complex impact on Colombia’s forest, which is home to 10percent of the planet’s biodiversity. An estimated 1 million acres were destroyed in the conflict, particularly in the Central Andes, which is in part responsible for a devastating hydroelectric crisis. But regrowth and restoration took hold in other areas abandoned by fleeing farmers, settlers and rebels, such as the San Lucas mountain range and parts of the Amazon and Orinoquía, the authors say. This patchwork of linked restored forest groves could be a focus of transition to sustainable land-use systems in rural development, Pinedo-Vasquez and his co-authors assert.

Already, many large and small private landholders in Colombia have established protected areas on their properties to secure the provision of water, the paper notes. These protected areas act as refuges and “bio-environmental pathways” that help to mitigate floods, droughts and other hydro-climatic upsets, events that are expected to be enhanced by climate change. Tax and other economic incentives could be used to encourage landholders of all sizes, from large investors like Chiquita Banana to small indigenous farming communities, to create such bio-environmental pathways on their properties, as peace agreements are put in place, said Pinedo-Vasquez.

According to the paper, numerous coffee, cacao and fruit plantations in Colombia also employ agrosilvoforestry, a sustainable land-use approach that combines agriculture, forestry and domesticated animal production. Colombian coffee plantations, for example, grow shade plants that protect bird and pollinator diversity. Even the palm oil and sugar cane industries have implemented agrosilvoforestry practices, says Pinedo-Vasquez. Offering upgraded incentives for agrosilvoforestry to small, medium and large landholders and investors could further this approach.

Colombia should heed the lessons offered by post-conflict development failures in other countries, the authors write. In San Martin, Peru, for example, post-conflict crop substitution led to intensive deforestation, which resulted in ecological disaster. Investment in lucrative legal crops to replace coca and other illegal plants in San Martin, which is located in Peru’s Amazon rainforest, made it one of the top coffee and cacao producing regions in the country, and led to an economic boom. But it also exposed farmers there to increasing wildfires as well as landslides and flash floods, which plagued the region in 2015.

“If you keep increasing vulnerability, even when you have a very successful system of production economically, like chocolate, in one day it can be obliterated,” said Pinedo-Vasquez. “If you don’t pay attention to the multiple services offered by biodiversity of the forests, you are not solving the problem of high-risk climate events, particularly El Niño.”

Though the original peace deal struck in September was rejected in a popular referendum in October, Colombia’s Congress approved an amended agreement two months later. Among other measures, it would grant land to rural communities affected by state neglect and conflict, conditional on land-use plans that support social and environmental sustainability, including voluntary crop substitution for illegal drugs, which are big carbon emitters.

Under the Paris Climate Agreement initiative REDD+, Colombia receives carbon finance to support forest governance and sustainable agriculture. The Colombian government has pledged to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 and to implement a low-carbon development strategy, according to the World Resources Institute.

“Promoting forestry-friendly land-use systems in the production of global commodities is the best peace-building strategy that Colombia can bring to the world in light of its international commitments,” the authors of the paper write.

The authors: Lead author is Brigitte Baptiste; she and co-authors Germán I. Andrade, Lina M. Estupiñán-Suárez and Maria C. Londoño are at the Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos, Alexander von Humboldt, Bogotá. In addition to his role at Columbia, Pinedo-Vasquez and Tien Ming Lee are at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia. Victor H. Gutierrez-Velez has a PhD from Columbia and is in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies, Temple University, Philadelphia. Pablo Vieira is in the Facultad de Administración, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá. William Laurance is at the Center for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability, James Cook University, Queensland, Australia.

Kristen French is a freelance writer and editor on science, environment and medicine.

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