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Colombia, an Example to World, Balances Conservation and Development

October 9, 2017

by Justin Catanoso

  • Colombia, under the leadership of President Juan Santos, has more than doubled its nationally conserved area — from 50.2 million square miles in 2010 to 109.6 million square miles today — an extraordinary achievement for a developing country.
  • In an exclusive interview with Mongabay, Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s minister of the environment and sustainable development, tells how that goal was achieved, and what it will take to keep those conserved lands and waters protected for all time.
  • The country, first off, has a constitutional provision which assures that protected areas can’t be dismembered by future incoming administrations. The Santos administration has protected many areas that once were FARC rebel strongholds during the 50-year civil war.
  • Colombia will need significant international financial assistance if it is to continue conserving land, and also enforcing protections. But, says Murillo, that is only proper since the entire world benefits from Colombia’s efforts to conserve forests, which sequester carbon.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The minister was running late. “Colombian time,” his communications assistant from Bogota told me with a shrug. She had arranged for an exclusive Mongabay interview with Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s minister of the environment and sustainable development, a Q&A scheduled at the National Geographic Society headquarters just prior to the society honoring Colombian President Juan Santos for his prodigious efforts in protecting biodiversity since taking office in 2010.

Murillo came into the president’s orbit in 2014 while working for Santos’ presidential re-election as a campaign officer in the Pacific region, where he is a native of Chocó,one of the poorest departments in the country. Before becoming environmental minister in April 2016, Murillo served as director of the Pacific Initiative, a special presidential program designed to enhance the social and economic development of the largely impoverished region. He had twice been governor of Choco.

For more than a year, Murillo has focused on solidifying Santos’ Colombian and international environmental legacy, while the president simultaneously negotiated a controversial but successful peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), earning the president the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

While the now-ended 50-year civil war claimed eight million victims, it had the paradoxical effect of protecting a variety of Colombian ecosystems. That’s because FARC rebels largely hid deep in the jungles, making them too dangerous for logging and development of the nation’s vast reserves of fossil fuels and precious metals.

Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, praised Colombian Pres. Juan Santos as “one of the foremost champions of the natural world.” Photo by Enrique Ortiz, Andes Amazon Fund

With the peace process underway, deforestation is already on the rise and transnational extraction companies are pressing to monetize the country’s natural resources. The Santos administration, short on funds to protect the lands it has preserved, will hold office until August 2018.

Until then, Murillo — who arrived at last and sat down with me in the National Geographic cafeteria — has his work cut out for him. One pledged initiative? Forests for Peace: the planting of eignt million native trees with each one named for a civil war victim.

An Interview with Luis Murillo

Justin Catanoso for Mongabay: Let’s start right in. What do you see as the most significant environmental accomplishments of this administration over the past 18 months since you’ve been minister of the environment?

Luis Murillo: The most important thing we’ve done is raise awareness in the Colombian society about the challenges we have ahead in terms of climate change, in terms of protecting our forests and our biodiversity. Colombian society now connects the protection of those natural assets with a part of the strategy to adapt to climate-change challenges. That’s very important because now environmental news is out there everywhere, every day, and everyone talks about this in Colombia.

Mongabay: Really? So you see a general knowledge of the Colombian peoples’ appreciation for environmental protection as a top accomplishment?

Murillo: Yes, I do. I think there still are challenges. The national debate is not very well informed. There is a greater importance, of course, placed on every-day needs. But this is a good point for us to start. That’s very positive.

The second important thing that we’ve been able to accomplish has been protecting very important ecosystems in Colombia — not only environmentally but culturally. Every time you decide to create a new protected area, it has tremendous implications because in Colombia, there is a constitutional act that spells out how you can do this. Colombia is one of very few countries in the world provided with this authority. And constitutionally we are able to create these areas in perpetuity.

A jaguar on the prowl in Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Mongabay: So the next administration cannot come in and reverse the progress made in land and marine protection?

Murillo: No, they cannot. Not without changing the constitution.

Mongabay: So all the additional land that President Santos has preserved — from 50 million square miles in 2010, to 109 million square miles to date — stays preserved.

Murillo: Yes, that’s correct. And this is a very vigorous technical process because you have to lay out your plans and requests, and there is a review by the National Academy of Science, an independent agency. After that, the Ministry of the Environment can take action. The last one we created was Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, a very important marine ecosystem. And just today [Sept. 21] the National Academy of Science approved a new protected area of 300,000 hectares [1,158 square miles] of mangroves along our coast.

People didn’t believe that our goal was to get to [100 million square miles protected] in the president’s term. People said he would not be able to do it. In fact, we have surpassed that goal, and are not finished yet.

Aerial view of some of the rugged landscape found in Chiribiquete National Park, the largest national park in Colombia. President Santos has expanded it once already to 10,700 square miles. He has pledged to expand it again by another 6,560 square miles. Photo by Carlos Castaño Uribe icensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Mongabay: Per square mile, Colombia is the most biodiverse country on earth. Is that the motivation for such aggressive environmental protection?

Murillo: I have the firm belief that we need to protect certain areas for future generations. We have always had the purpose, but we didn’t have the systems and people in place within the Ministry of the Environment. We’ve now built alliances with the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, the Amazon Conservation Team and other organizations. But they didn’t have the necessary support and possibility of collaboration within the Ministry of the Environment. So this is why I created a special group with my principle advisor leading, and me taking our goals to the president — particularly for protected areas with a demarcation of paramos in setting aside new wetlands in the landscape category.

Mongabay: Paramos are like high-elevation water-producing factories, as President Santos has described them. They’re really rare and you have half of the paromos in the world, which provide water for something like 30 million Colombians. Protecting them is obviously critical. What’s that process like?

Murillo: I have a special team under my direct supervision and at a very high level. They are not experts on environmental issues but experts on getting results. So they came and we began implementing plans. We have meetings every week, or every other week, checking in — how are you doing with the goals? We created a system of communication and I report to the president on a regular basis. I bring the president to the new sites for signing ceremonies for him to see that we really are protecting these places — places that are important in his heart.

A scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber) in Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Mongabay: As you talk about expansion, Chiribiquette National Park is Colombia’s largest and most biodiverse reserve. President Santos has expanded it once already to 10,700 square miles He has pledged to expand it again by another 6,560 square miles. Is that something you can get done before the end of the year, or the end of your term?

Murillo: By the end of the year, that’s the goal. Chiribiquette was like the first big expansion that the president did in 2014. We’re still working on the exact area of the next expansion. We are sure that we will be able to have the expansion by the end of the year. But we’ve already started on protecting that entire ecosystem by working with the communities there. So we will get that goal. And keep in mind something that I put as a goal to the leaders of our national parks: “Give me more protected areas.” We are still pushing for more.

Chiribiquete National Park, Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de Chiribiquete, protects much more than wildlife. The preserve is also known for its ancient petroglyphs. Photo by Carlos Castaño Uribe icensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Mongabay: Beyond Chiribiquette, is this about protecting areas that have been controlled by the rebels, the FARC, for many, many years?

Murillo: Yeah, they had controlled these places. The peace process gave us some tremendous opportunities that we have to see materialize.

Mongabay: How do you get there?

Murillo: We have to have a very high profile and important presence in those areas to guarantee they will really — on the ground — be protected forever. The rebels know those areas very well. It’s not because they were there that we are protecting them. It’s because we need to have more protected areas and more representation of more ecosystems.

Mongabay: But real conflict is emerging since the peace process. You are a relatively poor country. Lots of poverty, particularly on the coast. So why are you so intent on preserving so much land when you have natural resources that would bring economic prosperity ­— oil and gas, precious metals. You have more coal than any other Latin American country. There is real tension right now between environmental protection and economic development.

Cattle ranching is a major cause of deforestation in Colombia. Still, the country under Pres. Santos has resisted opening up vast areas of forest to oil exploration and other extraction industries. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Murillo: We are not so poor. Colombia is a middle-income country now. We are graduating. I am convinced that protecting strategic ecosystems with different kinds of tools provide the country with tremendous opportunities not only for preserving our natural wealth, but also for using it in a sustainable way.

Mongabay: Please explain that.

Murillo: If Colombia is the country that is the most biodiverse country in the world by square [mile], which we are, Colombia needs to be a leader in a new economy. Specified areas for extraction. Renewable energy. Seed banks. Ecotourism.

I think Colombia has huge potential to be a global leader in showing how you can have sustainable development as a balance between the need we have for protecting our natural wealth and the need we have for social development and economic development. We have to do this with our communities because these ecosystems are in areas that collectively belong to indigenous or Afro-Colombian communities. And we have many things to learn from those communities.

Just look, in the area of Chiribiquette. We have huge potential for oil production. Huge!

Mongabay: And you’re going to take that off the table?

Murillo: Yeah. But let me put this in context. There is a debate that the global community needs to have, in terms of having more equality in conservation, and having more compensation for countries like Colombia that really [possess within] their territories ecosystems that are not only important for us, but are important for the world.

Mongabay: Please explain that further.

Murillo: We have support from many countries. Norway, the UK, Germany ($300 million thus far), even the U.S. But that compensation is not near close to [reimbursing us for] the resources that we could have [exploited], if [we had] decided not to protect these areas. However, we have a moral commitment, an ethical commitment to our society and to the world. And this is why we are doing this. And Colombian society agrees with that. Our policy for protected areas and climate change are some of the few issues where we have some national consensus.

A common woolly monkey at a rehabilitation center for trafficked animals in Colombia. Environmental minister Murillo contends that the Colombian people are fully behind the Santos administration’s continued conservation efforts. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Mongabay: Pope Francis was just in Colombia with a very similar message

Murillo: That’s right. The pope’s message on Laudato Si [the papal teaching document on environmental protection released in 2015 shortly before the Paris climate summit] was just incredible. He told Colombians it’s not only the reconciliation between people in the peace process but the reconciliation with nature. He told us we are destroying nature and we need to change that attitude. In our day-to-day actions, this needs to be a commitment of Christians and Catholics. The church needs to be out there protecting ecosystems in the Amazon and in our poorest regions, especially along our Pacific Coast. So that was a very powerful message.

Mongabay: No doubt. But over the past year, you’ve had real problems. Deforestation is up over 40 percent. Coca production for cocaine is up tremendously. You have people going into protected areas and elsewhere — squatters, opportunists, industrialists, illegal miners — and they are plundering. You’re planning to build nearly 5,000 miles of roads largely into forests.

What capacity does this government have, and future government have, to regulate and protect these areas you’ve preserved? It’s one thing to rope them off and call them protected. It’s another thing to actually protect them.

Murillo: Well, we have to take the first step, and that is to expand our protected areas. And so we are doing that. But what happened is, because of the peace process obviously, the regional dynamics are changing. That’s normal. That happens with all countries that go through this process.

Colombian President Juan Santos with indigenous leaders from Colombia at the award ceremony held at the National Geographic Society. Photo by Enrique Ortiz, Andes Amazon Fund.

Mongabay: So the rising deforestation is normal?

Murillo: Ok, let me put deforestation in context. In the beginning of the 2000 decade, Colombia had about 400,000 hectares [1,544 square miles] deforested annually. We didn’t have good measures then. It could’ve been more. When President Santos came into office, it was around 300,000 hectares [1,158 square miles] deforested per year. In 2015, we had about 144,000 hectares [556 square miles] deforested. So yes, the increase last year over the previous year is up 44 percent. But it’s on a much smaller number. Now we are in a range of 100,000 to 200,000 hectares [386 – 772 square miles]per year deforested, as opposed to 400,000 hectares [1,544 square miles].

Mongabay: What about the recent increase in coca production?

Murillo: I want to say there is a risk and we are getting very bad information from Washington. First, they say there isn’t any sign of climate change and we need to get out of the Paris Agreement. Very bad advice.

And second, bad advice, we have to fumigate areas of the Amazon basin with [toxic] chemicals, [areas] that are resource rich. We don’t agree. This is inconvenient to us. And Washington is getting very impatient with coca eradication.

But we believe we are moving in the right direction. By the end of this year, we will have all of our national parks in Colombia with less coca. In parks on the Pacific Coast, there is no coca. So I ask the U.S. government to be more patient with this. We are working with local communities to consolidate our coca eradication strategies and we believe they will work.

A blue-and-yellow macaw. The Santos administration is reluctant to cave in to U.S. pressure to spray toxic chemicals on biodiverse areas to control the coca crop harvested to produce cocaine. Colombia is known for its extraordinary tropical bird diversity. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Mongabay: How does the peace agreement work into this?

Murillo: We have programs in place to work on the conservation and protection of those areas as part of the incorporation of FARC combatants into society. They know those areas really well. But we need more financial support. At home and from the international community.

Mongabay: That’s not going to be easy.

Murillo: We already signed a long-term strategy for controlling deforestation and managing the forests. But we need [international] support for guaranteeing that once these areas have been demarcated and we have protected them, that we can have the capacity for law enforcement.

We also need for governors and mayors to take the necessary steps to stop deforestation in these protected areas. And for environmental authorities like our national parks, and for regional organizations, to be able to protect the environment. This is why we are promoting an initiative with a goal of $100 million that goes until 2038. To evaluate those goals every five to eight years in order to have the resources for the protection of these areas.

At the highest standards of the international community, we can guarantee that these areas will be protected. Because now we are at peace and we can better control those who want to take advantage of deforestation. We also need more financial support to expand some protected areas. We still need more representation of certain ecosystems in our national system of protected areas.

A cane field in Colombia. Agribusiness is a major source of deforestation in Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Mongabay: There are so many monetary demands from country’s like yours to enhance environmental protection and adapt to climate change. In the absence of this global support, does that mean your preservation, conservation and expansion ambitions are at risk?

Murillo: We will do it by ourselves, but it will be more difficult. We are taking this position from a moral and ethical perspective that we believe benefits the entire global community. So we need support from the global community. It would be very unfair if we are not supported.

But I don’t doubt that we will get that support. Because until now, before the peace process and during our expansion of protected areas, we have had the support of the international community.

Mongabay: Colombia recently implemented a fossil fuel tax. Given the existence of projects like the Corredor de Conservacian Chocó-Darién in Cocomasur — which as you know is an Afro-Colombian initiative — could this tax help local communities support forest protection?

Murillo: That tax can be used for that purpose. However, Cocomasur and the other 19 black communities and councils — we are using funds from Sustainable Colombia. We are providing around $5 million to guarantee that this project gets off the ground.

The project is this: with the support of USAID, the Colombian government the last two years has been working this project called bio-REDD — protection of biodiversity. About 700,000 hectares [2,703 square miles] of the natural forest on the Pacific Coast that belongs to these communities collectively will be protected. It will have the capacity to serve as a CO2 sink of more than 2 million tons per year. The [forests] are already certified and ready for the market.

This is the first project of this magnitude that we are implementing in Colombia so we are providing funding through Sustainable Colombia. However, there are companies in Colombia that are interested in these neutral carbon mechanisms. Rather than give their taxes to the Colombian IRS, they can buy these emission certificates. So some companies in Colombia area already very interested in buying those certificates from Cocomasur and other community councils for that project. We consider this a signature project for Colombia.

The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus), Colombia’s national bird. Photo by Pingyao CC BY-SA 2.5

Mongabay: How would the local communities use this money?

It’s their decision. They have an environmental management plan and they have commitments to maintain and protect the biodiversity. But they can use money for additional income as well for community needs — health care, education, scholarships, community needs to improve their quality of life. But they, not the government, will make the decisions on what to do with these tax funds.

Mongabay: I know our time is short, but I need to ask this again: In a country desperate to develop and lift more people out of poverty — President Santos is credited with having lifted more than 3.4 million out of poverty since taking office — how do you resist the ongoing pressure to exploit your vast natural resources that are everywhere? Few countries can. How do you resist the pressure from oil, gas and coal companies?

At this moment, a presidential motorcade with sirens and blue lights could be heard and seen from where we were sitting. President Santos was arriving for the National Geographic ceremony in his honor. Murillo is reminded by his communications assistant that he must greet the president when he arrives.

Murillo: Oh my god, he is already here. What was your question?

Mongabay: It’s an easy one. How do you resist the industrial complex and all the money that’s lying underground?

Murillo: Listen, in the negotiations for the Chiribiquette Park expansion, the oil companies were very open to allow this to happen, even knowing the resources that are there. They didn’t resist what we are doing. I think there are changes in the minds of our corporate leaders. They are more committed to what we call green gold. And I think they understand the need we have to protect these areas.

Mongabay: And you think there are still places for them to mine and extract that don’t create environmental ruin, which we are seeing now in many part of the Peruvian Amazon?

Murillo: Yes. We will [allow for] that with productive zoning of the country. We do have less sensitive places where they can work. I’m sorry, I have to go. You are sharp in your questions. Maybe we can talk later!

As instructed, I contacted Murillo’s communications assistant a few hours later and requested 20 more minutes. Her response: “Justin. Impossible.”

Originally published on Mongabay