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Greening peace in Colombia

As peace consolidates in Colombia, can biodiversity survive development? We discuss challenges and opportunities for integrating forest biodiversity conservation into developing, war-dilapidated economies of post-conflict regions, paving the way for a green economy and climate resilient society.

If the peace agreement that was recently approved by the Colombian congress holds after 50 years of civil war, what might be the fate of forest biodiversity? Concerns were raised by the scientific community following the narrow rejection of the Colombian peace agreement in a referendum1. Colombian forests are known to contain 10% of the planet’s biodiversity and a great number of these forests are found in regions that have suffered from the conflict, leaving them in vulnerable condition2,3. It has been estimated that half a century of war has led to 1 million hectares of forest loss in Colombia (Fig. 1). Most areas that have been historically affected by conflict coincide with fragile natural forest ecosystems4. Forest biodiversity has been shaped by cycles of gun-point land grabbing and abandonment that have resulted in complex mosaics of spontaneously regenerated vegetation and patches of natural forests2. The extended post-conflict forest regrowth areas are heterogeneous and inter-linked by networks of riparian vegetation along streams, remnants of old growth in slopes as well as clusters or patches of forests in grasslands5.

Figure 1: Map of major ecosystem types in Colombia.
figure1

Administrative boundaries of national parks and post-conflict regions are mapped.

Until now, generalized settlements in forests have been discouraged, although some colonization in critical areas (that is, some national parks) has been promoted by guerrillas (Fig. 1). Coca leaf production for international markets has come to the relief of impoverished farmers2,6, but social displacement due to violence and the war on drugs have pushed farmers to remote forested areas. In areas near urban centres, forests have been replaced by extensive cattle ranching2,6. Unstable and informal economies, in many cases distorted by money laundering from illicit activities, continue, depleting the natural capital of forest ecosystems.

Social peace is expected to increase the proliferation of official and unofficial roads and infrastructure to access natural resources, particularly gold and timber in post-conflict regions7. The ecological resilience of the forested areas could be compromised by the building of roads8 and intensification of illegal gold mining9. Although mining, logging and other extractive activities have produced a shifting mosaic during the conflict times, the construction of the roads and the explosion of legal and illegal mining could negatively impact biodiversity and the provisioning of vital ecosystem services9. Furthermore, land occupation along roads tends to be notoriously difficult to control; any effort to conserve forests might also be offset by the human settlements that would arrive as part of the spontaneous and direct migration8.

In a postwar context, governing bodies need coordinated local responses for dealing with socio-ecological transitions involving economic development and demographic changes. However, opportunities rely upon the very nature of war landscapes. Here, we outline the biodiversity conservation challenges and opportunities facing post-conflict Colombian regions. We discuss how investors could integrate conservation efforts into securing food and energy production systems as well as in investments of global commodities such as cattle and coffee, thereby safeguarding the long term future of Colombian forests and biodiversity.

The legacy of conflict

In over five decades of violence, forest biodiversity was exposed to different spatial and temporal scales of fragmentation and degradation8. For instance, it is well documented that in conflict-ridden Andean landscapes (Fig. 2), many forests located in slopes and narrow valleys were converted to agriculture and pastures5. In contrast, abandonment of lands has left extensive re-growth forests in the San Lucas mountain range6,10, and other areas in the Amazon and Orinoquía natural regions4. Forest regrowth resulted in increased land cover in those areas from 2001–2010, and that has been providing refuge and habitat for several endemic plants and animal species2,6. In contrast, in some parts of the Central Andes an estimated 6.5 million to 10 million hectares of abandoned or illegally acquired lands have suffered deforestation and degradation2,6.

Figure 2: The last march of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
figure2

REUTERS / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Guerrilla fronts are giving up their arms and relocating into peace transitioning zones set up by the Colombian government.

The fragmentation and degradation of forests in the Andes have greatly impacted local hydro-climatic regimens and has made the region more vulnerable to shocks and stresses produced by El Niño and other socio-environmental constraints2,10. Drastic declines in rainfall during El Niño years along with the loss of forests have translated into record low water levels and high rates of sedimentation in the Magdalena, Cauca and other rivers, with severe repercussions on hydroelectric production2,6. The situation is critical considering that the Magdalena–Cauca watershed generates 80% of the national GDP and holds 84% of the hydroelectric power in the country11. In less than four decades, Colombia has transitioned from energy self-sufficient to insufficient3,11.

Learning from others

Regions of countries that have emerged from conflict through peace agreements or military victories provide valuable lessons in dealing with forest biodiversity in post-conflict peace-building situations. For example, the post-conflict region of San Martin in Peru12 is enjoying high GDP but at the same time is undergoing the highest deforestation rates in the Peruvian Amazon13. San Martin is experiencing an increase in the frequency and severity of accidental or escaped agricultural fires as a result of the introduction and spread of exotic invasive species such as kudzu (Pueraria montana), and brachiaria (Brachiaria decumbens) and other exotic ‘wonder grasses’13. Investment to promote legal crops to substitute for coca and other illegal crops have made San Martin one of the three top coffee and cacao producing regions, but has exposed farmers to catastrophic landslides and flash floods, as in the events of 201513.

Could the experience of post-conflict peace building from other regions help Colombians find a path toward sustainable, low carbon emission and biodiversity-friendly development? It is clear that Colombia needs to complement the establishment and management of protected areas (that is, parks and reserves) as well as indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities’ territories with legal mechanisms and economic incentives for promoting biodiversity-friendly land and resource use systems in regions that are transitioning from war to peace2,3. Post-conflict forest biodiversity offers an opportunity for integrating conservation into development investments such as cattle production and plantations of global commodities (for example, coffee, cacao and tropical fruits). For example, forest biodiversity in post-conflict areas could substantially add to the existing coffee shade systems known to protect Colombia's unique and rich bird and pollinator diversity as well as bolster economic development. This is important as Colombia is the third largest global producer of coffee, but it is an example that can also be followed by cacao and other crops.

The way forward

Post-conflict forest biodiversity and the associated diversity of local land/resource use systems can be assets rather than impediments to investing in biodiversity-friendly productive and extractive activities2,3,14. An inclusive development that provides incentives for small, medium and large holders to plant trees, manage forest stands and conserve forest fragments has the potential to secure the sustainable provision of ecosystem services (that is, the mitigation of the impacts of droughts and floods) as well as socio-ecological resilience to climatic, political and market shocks and stress15. It will also help consolidate peace. The present hydroelectric crisis in Colombia also shows that forest biodiversity is valuable not only for the provision of food security but also for the provision of energy security and other valuable ecosystem services3.

Degradation and biodiversity loss are clearly problems that need special attention. However, in some regions the high levels of landscape connectivity caused by the conflict have sustained a variety of species in an anthropogenically accelerated beta diversity turnover2,14,16. The contribution of spatial and temporal changes of post-conflict forests in shaping local species assemblages could therefore catalyse a transition to biodiversity-friendly rural development. The great diversity of habitats and forests are critical resources for the sustainable provision of ecosystem services and benefits to society. Therefore, the inclusion of biodiversity in land-use and rural development plans should not be limited to the preservation of large ‘no go’ areas; it should also be considered in designing a dynamic ecological–economic equilibrium, in which nature has a significant role in the peace-building process (Fig. 1). In fact, large and small private landholders have established protected areas on their properties to secure the provision of water17. Such areas function as refuges and bio-environmental pathways, and play a crucial role in mitigating floods, droughts and other hydro-climatic disturbances, which are likely to be more intense and frequent with climate change5. The provision of tax and other economic incentives could help to encourage private investors to protect forests as bio-environmental corridors in their landholdings.

Colombian attempts to save its vast and unique biodiversity while accomplishing goals of sustainability after five decades of armed conflict will require considerable efforts to access on-the-ground information and field-based evidence. Despite contributions by many sectors, including governmental and non-governmental institutions and experts, reliable information about biodiversity and ecosystem services trends remains elusive4,14,16,17. Although species extinction in conflict areas has not been documented, extinctions are likely to increase in post-conflict situations that promote indiscriminate intensive high-input agricultural production or poorly designed local development strategies. Natural and restored/rehabilitated landscapes, mostly those dominated by forest, represent a great opportunity to shift from unsustainable management practices of the past into a green economy based on low-emissions land/resource use systems. During the war, incentives for forestry were not an option, and related policies were weakened. Now, these incentives can be upgraded so they bring true benefits to people and biodiversity. For instance, agro-silvoforestry (or land-use practices that combine agroforestry and the production of domesticated animals) have proven to be sustainable practices during the past decades, and are being rapidly adopted in cacao, coffee and fruit production systems, and even within the palm oil and sugar cane industry for biofuels3. Promoting forest-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. It is important we support this major endeavour.

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Correspondence to Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez.

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Baptiste, B., Pinedo-Vasquez, M., Gutierrez-Velez, V. et al. Greening peace in Colombia. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0102 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0102

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