Perspective from the Field: Will Forests Have a Vote in Colombia’s 2018 Elections?

By Lauren Withey, PhD Candidate

At the end of May, Colombia will hold the first round of Presidential Elections to decide the heir to the challenges of implementing the peace accord current President Juan Manuel Santos reached with the FARC guerillas in 2016. The accord was finalized in the end of 2016, but the hiccups and dramas of the four-year negotiations and ratification have continued through the implementation phase. The current government is trying to realize their commitments in a time of financial strain – with oil prices down, government coffers are depleted, leading to budget cuts that would seem to possibly undermine some of the priorities of the peace deal, particularly in the realm of the environment. The country’s 2018 budget for the environment and sustainable development is down 8.8 percent from the year before.

This dip in funding is unfortunate, especially as there has been much talk of the possibilities of “green” development for Colombia in the post-accord phase: a less extractive-intensive economy aligns well with the spirit of the accord, and there is an expansive opportunity for Colombia to cash-in on its stunning and varied landscapes via ecotourism, an industry long stifled by the conflict. The country has been quick to sign onto international commitments and ambitious goals to reduce deforestation, but reaching these targets hasn’t gotten any easier, as the end of the conflict has seen an uptick in deforestation rates – up 44 percent in 2016 over the previous year. This surprised few, given the role the FARC played in strategically maintaining forest cover in the many forested parts of the country it controlled.

the end of the conflict has seen an uptick in deforestation rates – up 44 percent in 2016 over the previous year

These challenges have provoked great interest on the part of international organizations to fill this funding gap by supporting Colombia in its efforts to maintain forest cover, primarily toward climate change mitigation ends. Colombia’s government has received funding from various bilateral donors (Germany, Norway, and the UK, among others) and multilateral donors (including via multiple programs of the World Bank and the United Nations) to fight deforestation. Much of this ~308 million USD has come in specifically to support the UNFCCC1 program known as REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation “Plus”), which is meant to reduce deforestation and thereby its threats to climate change by paying states and communities for their reductions in deforestation rates.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway and President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia shake hands in front of local indigenous leaders during their April trip to Leticia in the Colombian Amazon, where they announced a new pact to reduce deforestation across Colombia. Whether Norway would continue such support under a new president, especially one that roles back parts of the peace deal, remains unclear. Photo by Juan David Tena – SIG

Most of the money that Colombia has received to date has not gone to ground-level efforts to reduce deforestation, but rather to making plans for reducing deforestation and to building the capacity of the appropriate government agencies to measure forest cover and carbon.2 However, there has been one notable large-scale effort to shift deforestation dynamics on the ground via a REDD+ project sponsored by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). As additional funding begins to flow in from these bilateral donors to support more of these efforts – such as the commitment of 50 million USD per year that the Norwegian Prime Minister made to President Santos in a press conference in the Colombian Amazon in early April – it is important to make sure that they have learned from these initial efforts led by USAID.

The two years I spent (2016-2017) researching this USAID program, which took place in the tropical rainforests of Colombia’s Pacific Coast, indicate that these deforestation reduction efforts are likely to fall victim to the same suite of vexing issues that plague the peace process in other realms. These include, first and foremost, the ongoing control of much of the country by armed actors – including dissident members of the FARC; other guerillas; and paramilitaries and their offshoots, many of whom are tied to politicians. These thrive on deforesting activities of coca cultivation, gold mining, timber harvesting, monoculture agriculture, and land speculation, and do the dirty work of continuing Colombia’s long history of dispossession of rural farmers from their lands in the process. Second, this deforestation is tied to a lack of access to legal means of subsistence for rural dwellers and those pushed off their land as part of the wider conflict.

While those promoting REDD+ in Colombia seek to resolve this latter issue of livelihood access by paying rural communities to defend the forests around them and offering them “alternative development” projects in the short term, the former set of issues complicate this theory of change. Indeed, hundreds of community activists have been killed by these armed actors since the accords took effect, continuing a long trend of threats and death to those who defend their territories against armed groups in Colombia. As I have seen in my research, the best hope for REDD+’s success is among communities that have legal control of their lands and strong leadership committed to maintaining this control and developing access to legal livelihoods for their community members. The fact that so many of these leaders across Colombia have been killed or forced to flee is obviously a threat to the success of any effort to establish peace, offer more secure livelihoods to rural people, and reduce pressure on the forest. Any positive move to reduce deforestation in Colombia then requires strengthening the implementation of the accord, and going beyond that to address the other actors that are undermining these three supposed concerns of the government.

the best hope for REDD+’s success is among communities that have legal control of their lands and strong leadership committed to maintaining this control and developing access to legal livelihoods for their community members

But while President Santos, who prioritized the peace process above all else, may recognize these mutualistic underlying drivers of discord and deforestation, this is not guaranteed to be the case with his successor. Indeed, the presidential candidate currently leading Colombian polls, Ivan Duque, has suggested he would try to roll back at least part of the peace accord – which could doom the process given the painstaking negotiations and tradeoffs that went into each element of the accord. He has mentioned little about forests other than his ambition to “protect biodiversity” and promote tree plantations – and got his facts wrong about the greatest driver of deforestation in the country in a recent debate on the subject. What his policies might look like in practice are, of course, harder to decipher at this stage. Yet, as Colombians head to the polls on May 27th, my work in Colombia’s Pacific suggests that in the balance lies not only the future of peace in Colombia – both with the FARC and with these other armed actors – but also the future of its rural regions and their forests. If international funders like Norway decide to continue to push their agenda to reduce deforestation in the country in the wake of the elections, they would be wise to emphasize the priorities of the accord, and support the new president in coming to grips with the joint underlying drivers of violence, displacement, inequality, and deforestation across rural Colombia.

1 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
2 This is by design within the UNFCCC, which has encouraged a phased approach to REDD+ implementation. The first phase is a readiness phase in which countries are supposed to build up their capacity handle REDD+ funds through these different planning and capacity-building processes.