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Environmental governance in post-conflict scenarios: insights from the Colombian Amazon

In the last weeks, recent reporting in major and regional Colombian news outlets has brought to the attention of the public the high rates of deforestation witnessed in the country’s Amazonian region as well as its consequences. Both of which have gained visibility since the beginning of the FARC’s demobilization.

 

In light of the renewed visibility of the issue Afai Consulting is sharing the piece below originally written in March. This piece is not only of interest for those interested in the Colombian context, but more generally to those interested in the complex dynamics the extractive sectors experience in post-conflict settings. 

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With the FARC’s demobilization process underway, regions of Colombia where until now the FARC had significant presence are now sitting at an environmental governance crossroads. For years these regions have experienced unique forms of environmental management, monitoring and enforcement due to a combination of limited State presence and FARC governance/influence, and are now facing a possible weakening of environmental governance in the short-term. An illustration of this phenomenon comes from the departments of Caquetá, Guaviare, Meta and Putumayo, which have been singled out this February by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development for being home to renewed deforestation hotspots within their territories, all of them within the country’s Amazon region.

 

These deforestation hotspots are located in areas where the FARC has had a strong presence up until its recent demobilization. A presence that deterred the implementation of extensive extractive operations (mining, oil, forestry or agricultural) due to the associated operational safety and regulatory implications; while at the same time allowing (and sometimes financing) the development of other extractive industries such as coca crops or illegal artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

 

In addition to discouraging the implementation of certain operations in the regions under their influence, the FARC have also had more direct impacts on environmental management by enacting and enforcing restrictions of their own, such as: the obligation to leave 20% of farms as preserved ecosystems or not cutting down more than 5 ha of forest in some regions, while regulating fishing seasons and hunting in others. These rules were sometimes enforced through harsh penalties or punishment.

 

Side by side comparison of forested areas next to Ciudad Yarí, San Vicente del Caguán, an area of historical presence of the FARC in the Caquetá department before and after FARC demobilization. Clear cuts and burns of forested areas are visible on the picture to the right. Note that the light green areas that have been burned are not forest but cattle pastures. Satellite imagery available from EO Browser.

 

In these lightly populated areas where informal land ownership and deforestation drivers are based on socio-economic conditions and have deep cultural roots, early information* indicates an upsurge in deforestation related to agricultural and forestry activities since the start of the FARC’s demobilization process, as illustrated in the side-by-side pictures above. This emerging trend is happening in addition to the ongoing expansion of oil exploration in the Amazon, also a result of diminished FARC presence. An expansion regularly met by popular protests, which has also created the need for additional environmental monitoring from agencies that are already stretched thin monitoring an area the size of Kenya and inhabited by less than 1.5 million people.

While the FARC has left the countryside a number of actors have started to muscle into the vacuum thus created, before the State can fully re-instate itself, including dissident elements from the FARC, the ELN, and other criminal groups. Early indications* point not only to these entrants not following in the footsteps of the FARC in terms of (environmental) governance, but also to the possibility that the renewed deforestation activities are due in part to a rush to clear land prior to the State’s planned land redistribution and formalization drive, in an attempt to gain ownership of the land.

 

Colombian authorities have now started to react to the heightened deforestation rates taking place in the Amazon region through initiatives directly targeting deforestation in parts of the region, including: Naturamazonas and the Burbuja contra la Deforestación en el Caquetá. And the recent tragedy in Mocoa, Putumayo, where more than 250 lost their lives to a landslide facilitated by deforested slopes is likely to strengthen the engagement of authorities. However, it is far too early to assess the impact these initiatives will have on environmental impacts at large (including deforestation) and in strengthening the agencies in charge of monitoring the region enough for them to fill in their mandate in areas with limited State presence.

 

These current developments raise fundamental questions that have yet to be answered, or explored by practitioners and academics alike. Such as the roles of armed groups in the management of the environment (negatively or positively, directly or indirectly), or the effects of conflict and non-state governance on the social capital that underpins common resources management strategies.

 

While it has recently gained visibility in Colombia this set of issues is far from being solely localized to the country and answers would have far reaching implications and applications that could allow resource rich regions where armed conflict or unrest has stifled large scale operations to better prepare for post-conflict transition and close the door to abuses during said transition, via the use land redistribution and formalization initiatives to legalize illegal land ownership by example.

Outside of Colombia, regions such as the Congo Basin, Myanmar or Afghanistan, among others would also benefit from this understanding.

 

 

Interested in discussing this insight or its local, national, regional and global implications in more detail? Contact us to set up a discussion.

 

 

[*] Sources are available in the original post, accessible via the following link: https://afaiconsulting.com/environmental-governance-in-post-conflict/.

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