Ecologist Special Report: Ecological Conservation in Post-Conflict Colombia

Colombia is now closer than ever to finding a peaceful resolution to generations of violence. With so much to gain in a post-conflict world - as much for the Colombian people as for their environment - the sudden prospect of losing it all will make for tense months ahead writes FOREST RAY
For the better part of 60 years, people concerned with the health of Colombia's vast ecosystem have had to watch from the sidelines, as bitter foes have battled each other throughout some of Earth's most biologically rich landscapes

Colombia stands at a crossroads. The Colombian government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) recently signed a peace accord, signaling an end to the Western Hemisphere's longest running war. The deal was signed with extensive international assistance, particularly from the United States, whose continued financial and military aid will be needed to successfully field and maintain an effective security presence in former conflict zones.

The conflict with the FARC has left deep scars in Colombian society and on the environment. For the better part of 60 years, people concerned with the health of Colombia's vast ecosystem have had to watch from the sidelines, as bitter foes have battled each other throughout some of Earth's most biologically rich landscapes. As the country begins the disarmament and reintegration process for thousands of FARC fighters, Colombian ecologists will finally be able to assess the state of ecosystems long off-limits to research and development.

While concerns regarding the social aspects of peace, such as complete disarmament, reintegration of guerrillas into society and compensation and reconciliation for the multitudes of people displaced by the war receive the most press, environmental concerns cannot be ignored. Environmental stewardship and economic development go hand in hand. In particular, the issues of how to end coca cultivation, the potential of the land to yield useful scientific discoveries and ecotourism as a form of economic development each highlight how environmental concerns can form integral parts of the peace effort.

Colombia is one of the planet's greatest sources of cocaine, which is derived from the coca leaf. Cultivation of coca contributes to profound environmental and social damage. Grown largely beyond the reach of Colombian law enforcement, coca has existed as an unregulated industry. This lack of regulation has led to many cases of deforestation, as land has been cleared to make room for coca fields.

As Dr Liliana Dávalos, of Stony Brook University and a leading researcher in the field of environmental conservation in conflict zones explains, patterns of coca plantation underwent a marked shift around the start of the 21st Century, as efforts to eradicate those fields evolved. Until approximately the year 2000, she says, coca plantations had been clustered about the foothills bordering the Andes Mountains and the Amazon Basin.

The proximity of each field to the others made them too difficult a target to defend, however, leading to a redistribution of plantations west of the Andes and into the Chocó region, wherein the rebels could use the forest cover as a form of natural camouflage

The Chocó region is known as a biodiversity hotspot. It contains a high number of species, many of which are endemic to Colombia, living together in a high density.  Although the distributed fields appear to cause less deforestation than before, Dr Dávalos explains that they can still cause great harm to their ecosystems through habitat fragmentation. Scattered growing fields connected by an irregular road system carve continuous habitats into a patchwork system of smaller habitats, which complicates the free movement of local animal species throughout their former territory. This leads in turn to altered patterns of seed dispersal, plant growth and nutrient access.

For the better part of 60 years, people concerned with the health of Colombia's vast ecosystem have had to watch from the sidelines, as bitter foes have battled each other throughout some of Earth's most biologically rich landscapes

How the government deals with coca plantations and any communities that may have sprung up around them will have profound environmental effects on those areas. In Guaviare department, for instance, coca cultivation was severely curtailed through a combination of policing and the development of good land connections and services. This strategy, while largely successful in limiting coca production and bringing much needed economic development to the region, also resulted in the destruction of a significant portion of the region's forest.

Any plausible post-coca scenario for these regions must involve economic development. As Dr Dávalos points out: "places that grow coca do so because they are underdeveloped."  Removal of coca plantations and the ecological damage that they cause therefore necessitates some form of economic development. "If there is economic developent," says Dr. Dávalos, "then coca will decline. If it's just more policing and that's it, coca will persist and continue to move into less controlled territories."

A healthy environment encourage ecotourism investment

Conservationists like Dr Dávalos hope that the government will take more current research into account when planning the restoration and development of former FARC territories. The health of Colombia's wilderness will be a boon to the communities living there, as a healthy environment encourages ecotourism investment, already a strong economic driver throughout Latin America. It also benefits the world at large, as places with high biodiversity are typically sources of great biotechnological innovation. 

Colombia's staggering biodiversity makes it prime real estate for the search for microbial, plant and animal species from which commercially valuable compounds such as medicines can be derived.

Plants, in particular, have a history of medicinal use dating back thousands of years. Even in today's highly tech-driven pharmaceutical companies, an estimated 11% of the 252 drugs considered to be basic and essential by the WHO come from compounds found in flowering plants. Plant compounds form the basis not only of simple drugs like aspirin, but also of powerful anti-cancer medications like paclitaxel and camptothecin.

Beyond plants, recent animal studies have demonstrated that several Colombian frog species secrete substances from their skin, which have anti-yellow fever effects. Rare in the developed world, yellow fever is endemic in throughout Central and South America and Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that yellow fever was responsible for between 29,000 and 60,000 deaths throughout Africa during 2013 alone. If the frog skin secretions can be successfully developed into marketable medicines, they could have profoundly positive effects on the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Colombia is known far and wide as a major coffee producer. With coffee plantation comprising 17% of Colombia's agriculture, it makes for one of their biggest exports. The economic value of coffee has prompted extensive research into the soil conditions that make coffee grow so well in Colombia. As Dr. Juan Bueno, a chemist planning microbial biodiversity surveys in the Quindío region, where much of Colombia's coffee is grown explains, "Colombian ecosystems contain a large number of species in a high degree of symbiosis and interaction."  Understanding how various biological organisms in play conspire to produce such fertile soil can provide profound benefits to agricultural initiatives in other areas of the world.

Two factors holding back research efforts in the Colombian forests are access to the land and enforcement of treaties protecting indigenous intellectual property related to biotechnology.

Regarding land access, researchers interested in knowing what useful species abound in these regions must be able to perform detailed surveys of the species found therein. These surveys not only help those interested in the biotechnological features of the land, but also help conservationists establish clear and rational plans for restoring and protecting degraded regions. Until the conflict zones are open and secure, no such surveys can take place.

Biopiracy is a point of contention

Regarding the protection of indigenous intellectual property, Colombia was an early signer of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Article 80(j) of the treaty mandates that signatory nations protect indigenous knowledge by establishing laws to share any benefits derived from their knowledge of the land, such as profits from a novel prescription drug, among the community from where the knowledge of that drug came.

Although Colombia quickly ratified this treaty and has established a legal framework to support it, enforcement of the treaty has been found lacking by some researchers. In a recent publication, human rights researchers Drs. Leonardo Güiza and Diana Bernal found that bureaucratic delays and weak enforcement of bioprospecting regulations led to an increase in biopiracy within Colombian borders. Biopiracy is a significant point of contention between indigenous communities and the rest of Colombian society.

Both human rights researchers and scientists, like Dr. Bueno, hope that a peaceful future will enable more resources to be applied to upholding laws regarding responsible research into natural resources and in upholding treaties such as the CBD, that form the legal basis from which healthy relationships between indigenous communities and researchers can grow.

One of the most economically valuable pursuits in the renewal of communities in conflict zones will be that of tourism and of ecotourism in particular. Tourism doubled in Colombia between 2006 and 2016, with ecotourism playing a significant role in that growth. Given Colombia's natural richness, this is not surprising. As María Claudia Lacoutoure, Colombia's Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, recently stated, "The growth of tourism cannot be uncoupled from [environmental] sustainability."

Tourism has rightly been criticized for contributing to some environmental degradation. However, as numerous ecotour operators interviewed pointed out, tourists don't come to places that don't hold a natural charm and that charm is incompatible with environmental degradation. The trick is to strike a balance between the ecological needs of the land and the community needs for tourist dollars. Finding and maintaining this balance is not an easy task.

Tour operators and community members are not alone in this task. There to help is the Colombian Network for Ecological Restoration (Red Colombiana de Restauración Ecológica, or REDCRE). REDCRE is a group of scientific, legal and administrative experts, whose mission is to fortify ecologically degraded land within Colombia's borders. A fundamental aspect of REDCRE's strategy for providing aid is to teach remote and often indigenous communities how to best take an active role in the development of their communities and the conservation of their land.

Dr Jéssica Rubio, an ecologist at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá and secretary of REDCRE, explains, "The people living in rural communities are far more in tune with the needs of their community and the state of the land than any distant professional, but they often lack the knowledge and scientific rigor involved in designing effective strategies to balance personal economic needs with regional ecological needs."

The members of REDCRE strive to bring scientific knowledge and technical skills to remote communities and to work with community members to generate ideal strategies for the long-term health of each community. As the country turns towards a post-conflict future, REDCRE increasingly focuses on communities found in FARC-occupied territories.

Despite REDCRE's organized efforts, they still rely on government support in the form of security and government investment in support of community and ecological development. To this end, the Colombian government created the Agency for the Renovation of the Territory (Agencia de Renovación del Territorio, ART), which is tasked with coordinating just such efforts. The Colombian press, however, has criticized the ART for not having clearly defined powers of enforcement. Further fueling skepticism, the ART does not present itself in a particularly transparent manner. The Agency lacks an official website and did not reply to repeated requests for information.

Funding for ‘Plan Colombia' is now under review

Beyond bureaucratic opacity, one of the greatest impediments to a successful resolution of Colombia's conflict comes from what should have been a very unlikely source. For the past 18 years, Colombia has received significant military and diplomatic aid from the United States under an agreement called Plan Colombia. Despite past criticisms of the plan's execution, the military support it provides forms one of the pillars of a successful peace deal. On 22 January, the new U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, cast doubt on the continuation of Plan Colombia, stating that he would "review" both that agreement and "seek to review the details of Colombia's recent peace agreement, and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it".

Under the terms of Plan Colombia, Colombia is due to receive $450 million dollars from the United States to reinforce recent security gains and to extend the rule of law into areas that have long existed under FARC control. Without that ability, there exists a legitimate fear that, rather than fully demobilizing, FARC fighters will be recruited into other armed groups, which will extend their own rule into these areas and over the long-oppressed communities found therein, much as occurred with the EPL and AUC, other armed groups from past conflicts.

Colombia is now closer than ever before to finding a peaceful resolution to generations of violence. With so much to gain in a post-conflict world, as much for the Colombian people as for their environment, the sudden prospect of losing it all will make for tense months ahead.

This Author

Dr Forest Ray holds a PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University. He has published a dissertation on genomic sequencing technologies and has a paper on low-cost sequencing methods under review. He currently lives in Mexico, where he has gained an interest in how scientific research is used to improve public health when research budgets are constrained.


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