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Colombia puts deforestation fight on table in 'total peace' agenda
Colombia's Environment Minister Susana Muhamad looks on during an interview with Reuters at the COP27 climate summit in Red Sea resort at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 12, 2022. REUTERS/Emilie Madi
What’s the context?
Protecting the Amazon forest is closely linked to President Petro's ongoing peace effort, the country's environment minister says
- Government puts deforestation on peace negotiating table
- Protecting the Amazon requires increased state presence
- Record high environmental budget to stem tree clearance
BOGOTA - Colombia's pledges to stem rising deforestation and protect its Amazon rainforest go "hand in hand" with the government's push to end decades of violence by negotiating with illegal armed groups, Environment Minister Susana Muhamad said.
She said deforestation issues were on the negotiating table as crime gangs, drug traffickers and dissident guerilla groups seek possible peace or surrender deals under President Gustavo Petro's effort to bring "total peace" to the Andean country.
"The environmental agenda on deforestation goes hand-in-hand with the total peace process," Muhamad said in an interview, adding that promises by armed groups to stop tree clearance in areas they control were being viewed as a goodwill gesture.
"We have included in the exploration process with the armed groups in the areas, especially in the Amazon, the issue of no deforestation, as an initial goodwill commitment," said Muhamad, who took office after Petro was sworn in as the nation's first leftist president in August.
"We have seen that this has worked in containing the process of deforestation in some Amazon areas ... I cannot say by what percentage," she said.
Muhamad, an environmentalist, noted that the government's peace commissioner was in charge of the ongoing negotiations with more than a dozen criminal groups that aim to bring an end to six decades of bloodshed.
The talks aim to reduce violence by getting the armed groups to lay down their weapons in exchange for benefits like reduced jailed sentences. As of early February, members of four armed groups have agreed to ceasefires.
For decades, Colombia's forests have been used by a myriad of criminal groups and guerrillas as hideouts, drug trafficking corridors, and strongholds that until recently protected forests from widespread destruction.
But swathes of forest opened up to agriculture and cattle ranching after the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels signed a peace deal in 2016, along with criminal gangs who moved into former guerrilla areas.
Tree clearance is also driven by illegal gold mining and the relentless spread of coca crops used to make cocaine - a trend Petro has said he will tackle by making voluntarily agreements with coca farmers to switch to legal crops.
Protecting the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest spread across eight South American countries, is vital to curbing climate change because of the vast amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide its trees absorb.
In 2021, deforestation across Colombia rose 1.5% versus 2020 levels to 174,103 hectares (430,218 acres), of which about two-thirds was located in its Amazon, government figures show.
Colombia aims to cut deforestation to 140,000 hectares (345,947 acres) a year by 2026, and to restore 1.7 million hectares of degraded or damaged forest by 2026 - three times more than the amount achieved by the previous government.
The outcome of such deforestation goals will be partly determined by the commitments made by armed groups in peace talks and coca substitution programs, experts say.
"Any peace policy will have to include environmental issues and changes to drug policy for deforestation efforts to be successful," said environmentalist Rodrigo Botero, who heads the Bogota-based Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).
Petro, himself a former guerilla, has pledged to implement the 2016 peace accord with now-demobilized FARC rebels, which analysts say is crucial for halting deforestation and to secure land tenure.
"The issue with deforestation in Colombia is that it is deeply associated with the capacity to build the peace process in the territories," Muhamad told Context during the recent interview at her office in the center of Bogota, the capital.
"So when you had a previous policy where this process was not the main priority, the deforestation impact was higher."
With poor infrastructure and few sources of jobs or income in rural areas, isolated farming communities sometimes have little option but to participate in illegal gold mining and coca growing run by organized crime groups.
To counter this, the government is working to give poor communities land titles and bring state education and health services as a way to build trust with people living in conflict-ridden regions, Muhamad said.
The roots of Colombia's 60-year conflict, which has killed at least 450,000 people and displaced some eight million, are linked to unequal land distribution and competition over land.
In turn, protecting Colombia's Amazon and tropical forests, which cover half of Colombia's territory, is inextricably tied to land ownership, experts say.
"Deforestation is about land. It's that simple – who owns it and who controls it," Botero said.
Academic research shows titling land, including granting land deeds and reserves to indigenous communities, is an effective way to preserve forests and curb deforestation.
Environmentalists have welcomed record high government investment to protect the country's forests with at least an extra $150 million a year allocated to the Environment Ministry for the next 20 years following a tax reform.
"The government is including deforestation goals in the national development plan, which gives the issue political importance, and is allocating significant state funds through carbon taxes to stem deforestation," said Botero.
Eighty percent of funds collected from carbon taxes will be used to fund Colombia's ecosystems and restoring forests, including the Amazon, through strengthening regional government agencies and community-run projects, Muhamad said.
Regaining state control
Tackling deforestation is a huge challenge in parts of Colombia's southern Amazon provinces and coca-producing regions not least because state presence is either limited or non-existent, allowing criminal groups to exert dominance.
"As we build the state in territory, which is the main challenge of the peace process, and we create this coalition with the communities, I think violence will come down," Muhamad predicted.
She said the government favors more "social dialogue" and a less "punitive approach" in contrast to the previous conservative government's strategy of going after small-scale coca growers and illegal miners.
Instead, Muhamad said she has called on state prosecutors to "follow the money" and target the big bosses behind drug-fueled deforestation and illegal gold mining and logging.
That will also mean targeting corrupt local mayors and governors, who are often seen as "untouchable" in remote areas, she added.
"This is where the investigation should go," said Muhamad.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Helen Popper)
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