As Colombia pursues peace, nature could be powerful bridge

anti-FARC march, 2008

An anti-FARC march in 2008. (© AlCortés/Flickr Creative Commons)

UPDATE 12/1/16: After months of discussion, the Colombian government approved a peace deal with rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by their Spanish acronym FARC) that would formally end a 52-year armed conflict in the South American country.

How the country moves forward remains to be seen, but one of Colombia’s greatest assets offers a powerful route toward reconciliation: nature.

The conflict

Beginning as a dispute between political parties, the armed conflict in Colombia eventually escalated into Latin America’s longest-running war in which more than 220,000 people are estimated to have been killed, 40,000 are missing and more than 5.7 million have been displaced to other areas of the country (the second-highest rate of displacement in the world, after Syria).

“In one way or another, all Colombians have been victims of this violence,” said Patricia Bejarano, the land use planning manager of Conservation International (CI) Colombia. “Many of the direct victims who survived have witnessed the kidnapping, disappearance or murder of children, parents and other relatives. Rural people who didn’t join FARC were uprooted from their homes and forced to relocate — usually to urban areas — in order to escape the violence, their farms converted to coca production. As a result, they become disconnected from their cultural heritage as well, being unable to practice traditions that have historically tied them and their ancestors to their land, such as spiritual rituals and relying directly on nature for survival.”

This conflict has also taken a toll on the country’s unique ecosystems, which host 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Between 1990 and 2013, 58 percent of Colombia’s forest loss — covering an area the size of Belgium — occurred in areas where fighting was taking place. As cocaine production and gold mining expanded to fund both sides of the conflict, dangerous chemicals leached into the soils of the remaining forest, which soon became too dangerous for its former residents to inhabit due to the conflict.

“When natural resources overlap the territories of different populations who wish to use them, peace becomes an issue,” said Bejarano.

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Recovery through nature

The Colombian government has calculated that the end of this conflict will save the country US$ 2.2 billion per year in avoidable environmental damage. After the peace deal is confirmed, the government aims to invest an estimated US$ 3.3 billion in public funding over the next five years in at least 125 municipalities prioritized for post-conflict investments. “These municipalities include many areas where CI has long-term engagement and partnerships with communities, offering a unique opportunity to advance sustainable development and conservation efforts in these post-conflict municipalities,” said Sebastian Troëng, senior vice president for CI’s Americas division.

Conservation International Colombia aims to contribute to the peace process by improving the relationship between people and nature — increasing access to nature, protecting precious natural resources and encouraging a unified Colombian pride in the spectacular biodiversity the country has to offer.

CI Colombia has already had success using the restoration of nature to heal psychological wounds, strengthening bonds between people as well as their investment in the land around them. Not long ago in the Chingaza-Sumapaz-Guerrero corridor on the edge of Bogotá, a creek had deteriorated into a de facto garbage dump and a hangout for delinquents. Visitors stayed away for fear of robbery or rape.

In 2009, CI began reaching out to local gang members to involve them in stream restoration efforts, as well as other conservation efforts that put their talents to better use. Danilo Ochoa, an artist and rapper who now paints nature-inspired murals over graffiti, was one of them.

Not only has this project made a clear difference for the creek — which now hosts one of the most visited nature trails in Bogotá — but it has also changed people’s lives. Armed with new jobs and a new outlook on the world, many former gang members now serve as nature guides to the area. And it’s a virtuous circle; the healthier ecosystems are, the more people can rely on them to meet their daily needs, reducing the likelihood of further conflict.

Research has shown that access to nature can help to rehabilitate prisoners — and given that many FARC guerillas have spent years living in the Colombian jungle, considering the environment as a tool to help guide their transition back into mainstream society could be useful.

As the surprising outcome of the public vote indicates, the path to peace and actual reconciliation will be drawn-out and complicated. However, for most Colombians, the country is at a crossroads they’ve never seen before.

“As a 38-year-old Colombian, this is the first time in my life that I’ve seen true hope for peace in my country,” Bejarano said.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.  

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