It’s a sad fact but for many who have not had the good fortune to visit the country, Colombia is associated with violence. Violent crime related to the production and trafficking of drugs has become entwined with a vicious 50 year civil war to create a reputation for lawlessness and disorder that is difficult to counter. Fortunately, events in 2016 might have begun to shift that perception.
Colombia hit the headlines last year as several years of peace negotiations reached an endpoint- of sorts. In September the government and the largest rebel group, the FARC, signed an agreement on the terms of a permanent cessation to violence. Good news it seemed, but most of the world was then surprised to find that the Colombian people, in the subsequent plebiscite, would reject the deal. Back to square one? Not quite. Aspects of the agreement were quickly renegotiated, congress approved the changes and the peace process took another step forward.
There are other positives to be said about Colombia- one of which concerns its biodiversity. It’s not an especially big country, by land area China is about eight times bigger and India about three times bigger, and yet Colombia has a greater diversity of species than either of these countries. In fact, it may well be the second most diverse country on the planet, second only to its giant neighbour, Brazil. So in a relatively small area, a huge contribution to the conservation of global biodiversity could be made by investing in Colombia.
So, will peace create the conditions for that investment? Well, there are some challenges. The country’s extraordinary biodiversity needs space to thrive- but so too do the millions of internal refugees created by the conflict. The majority of those refugees fled rural areas and the peace accords recognise the need to find land for them to return to. But will that need be satisfied at the expense of nature? Peace also brings the expectation of increased investment in infrastructure to underpin Colombia’s fast emerging economy. With infrastructure comes risks- if new roads, mines and dams open up areas for development will nature be swept aside?
In short- the emerging era of peace in Colombia needs to be managed carefully so that spaces can be created that accommodate both diverse species, and the diverse interests of people. We need to help negotiate the best mix of objectives amongst relevant stakeholders.
Fortunately our colleagues in WWF Colombia are ahead of the game. Negotiating how to accommodate the needs of people and nature is very much part of their approach, and one that WWF UK supports through the Northern Amazon Plan. Bringing diverse interests together to participate fully in negotiating ‘who gets to do what and where’ is a long process, as I have witnessed myself on trips to Colombia. It can start with the most basic of workshops in which local and indigenous people are made aware of their legal rights just to be part of democratic governance. Not until all the relevant stakeholders are fully informed of the possibilities that exist, and have the means and opportunity to represent themselves, can meaningful negotiation begin. Remember, members of rural communities in areas affected by violence may feel very uncomfortable making demands of government officials- or even of representatives of conservation NGOs!
Such work will take years to finalise across the country, but as a new year starts, we can take heart that a real opportunity exists to turn a war torn country into a model of modern, people centred conservation.