Last year, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that, before or on March 23, the government would sign a peace deal with the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
This deal is a historic step towards ending 50 years of guerrilla violence in this country. Building the country in a post-conflict era will be the largest challenge faced by the government and its citizens, but hopefully a task attainable by taking into account the great natural capital this country possesses.
Many Colombians are optimistic that the long internal conflict will come to an end. In particular, they hope the peace deal will allow economic growth as it reallocates resources from war to peace and fosters a more equitable distribution of resources.
Even though many traditional means of economic growth have detrimental consequences for the environment, it is crucial that we reflect on the changes planned and the importance of sound environmental policies.
During the last half-century, left and right-wing armed groups have ruled over rural and impoverished regions with little state presence. These regions are frequently close to forests and far away from the main roads.
Forests have provided refuge for guerrillas for decades, producing positive and negative effects on natural habitats. On one hand, forests have recovered in regions where armed groups have forcibly expelled farmers. But on the other hand, the FARC’s control has led to illegal mining and cultivation of illicit crops.
Both activities are linked to deforestation and the pollution and erosion of our rivers.
The first point of the peace deal is an agricultural development plan, which includes incentives for agricultural production and infrastructure. It will also improve access to land by formalizing titles and allowing the development of non-productive lands.
This point represents important risks for the environment. Incentivizing agricultural production can be an invitation to expand the agricultural frontier — the number one cause of deforestation in the world and Colombia.
Similarly, improvements in infrastructure will help people in remote areas reach markets, but it will also allow access to protected forests, which may lead to the the harmful exploitation of natural resources.
We should bear in mind that so-called non-productive lands are of great importance for preserving biodiversity and delicate ecosystems. Today, we have the knowledge to reduce these risks while keeping the goal of agricultural development a priority.
The government and FARC seem all too aware of how critical it is to promote agriculture as one of the main pillars of economic development and success for a post-conflict scenario.
The government has already started investing in this project. It recently launched the Colombia Siembra (Colombia Plants) program, a $500 million investment to expand industrial agriculture to 1 million hectares.
We need to consider four important aspects to secure economic success and protection of our natural capital: invest in upgraded technology, advocate agroforestry systems, empower communities of small farmers to be competitive in a globalized world and respect the forest’s frontier.
Much of the agriculture in Colombia depends on tools designed in the early 1900s. So it is key to implement a modernization program and update existing technologies to maximize productivity on each newly planted hectare.
Agro-forestry systems should prioritize alternatives to the traditional plantation model, which remains highly dependent on expensive and toxic chemicals. Additionally, agro-forestry should provide a refuge for our natural biodiversity and ecosystems.
Protecting our forests is also social responsibility, helping to ensure that small farmers are competitive with respect to large landowners and agrocorporations. We must support the establishment of greater association schemes and cooperatives for farmers as a critical step forward in securing and sharing wealth justly.
Lastly, we need to urge planting outside natural areas. New industrial plantations cannot exist at the expense of already diminishing forests. There are large portions of land dedicated to low-productive activities, such as extensive cattle ranching, which can be replaced by new plantations to lower our carbon footprint and enhance the efficiency of our land usage.
If we follow these guidelines, the investment of Colombia Plants will be safeguarded — and so, too, our forests. The two sides have struck a peace accord with one another, and now we must strike one with nature.