Elections in Colombia: a small ray of hope for forests?

This week, Colombians will elect their new president. Despite its ecological and socio-cultural importance, the highly biodiverse Amazon region was of little interest to politicians for a long time. This year’s elections show a small ray of hope for forests. ‘For the first time, deforestation has been debated widely in a political campaign,’ says Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, IUCN NL’s Colombian partner.

Header photo © FCDS

In 2021, approximately 98,000 hectares of rainforest were destroyed in the Colombian Amazon, which covers 35% of the country. Although it is not the most populated region, the economic interests are enormous. Deforestation entails much more than logging alone: mining, livestock, agriculture and infrastructure all threaten the Amazon’s biodiversity and the lives of indigenous and local communities.

Absence of the rule of law in the Amazon

The growing global demand for commodities triggers deforestation. Still, the national government has been largely absent in the Colombian Amazon. ‘In the election period, we have taken several political candidates to the rainforest. Surprisingly, it was the first time for all of them to visit this region. It seems like the political distance now slowly seems to decrease,’ shares Botero.

Years of governmental absence and the presence of powerful companies and armed groups have taken their toll. On nature, but also on the Indigenous Peoples. Botero: ‘Colombia has a well-developed system that allows illegal activities to occupy rapidly growing large areas of the Amazon. Vulnerable communities often do the ‘dirty’ work for the companies or armed groups, but benefit the least from it. Often they have no other options.’  

Transboundary systems of power

‘Economic reactivation after the pandemic is being used as the main excuse for commercial groups to continue the same way,’ says Botero. ‘These big companies have a lot of political power.’ A recently approved law that makes illegal appropriation of land an environmental offense was opposed by a group of large companies. ‘If this law gets canceled, land is free for grabbing again.’

Groups involved in the production and trafficking of drugs, are often also involved in other illegal activities, such as mining. They often operate transboundary and do not only have power in Colombia, but also in countries like Ecuador and Peru. Botero: ‘These illicit products are mainly exported to Europe and the United States, where the demand is high. As long as the global approach towards drugs does not change, I do not see how Colombia can solve this problem on its own.’

A new path for Colombia and its forests?

The first round of elections led to two very different candidates: Gustavo Petro from the left-wing Colombia Humana on one side, and the independent business man Rodolfo Hernández as his opponent. ‘They have extremely different perspectives, but they are also different from the current president. People feel like it is time for real change,’ is Botero’s perspective.  

Both presidential candidates promise positive change, but Gustavo Petro takes a much stronger and more developed stance on deforestation and other environmental issues, including on protecting the Amazon. He, among other things, proposes community-based units protecting their land through long-term commitments with the state.

Although Rodolfo Hernández also wants to focus on improving the relationship with local communities to come to mutual agreements, which Botero perceives as promising, a clear strategy on solving the deforestation problem is lacking.

‘Associations and foundations have a crucial role to safeguard the Colombian Amazon.’

Rodrigo Botero, director of FCDS

A range of opportunities to stop deforestation

Despite the many challenges, the new Colombian government has a range of opportunities to develop an economy that does not exploit the natural resource richness of the Amazon. In the eyes of Botero, the Amazonian people have a crucial role in safeguarding the rainforest. ‘Many of them are eager to work for the protection of the forest.’ Their involvement should be at different levels: ‘Improving local governance can contribute significantly to solving deforestation problems.

The increasing international debates on climate change and – although less prominent yet – biodiversity loss, also creates opportunities to protect the rainforest. Although this seems to be a long-term commitment, international initiatives should not subvert local and national knowledge: ‘there is extensive knowledge in this country, both at governmental and non-governmental institutions, which must be used.’

Even though the new government has an important role in decreasing deforestation, the solution lies not only with them: a complex problem requires a holistic solution and civil society involvement. ‘Associations and foundations have a crucial role to safeguard the Colombian Amazon,’ concludes Botero.

Working together to protect the Amazon

IUCN NL partners with FCDS to protect the Colombian Amazon and its Indigenous Peoples. We work together towards a sustainable production of palm oil to contribute to the goal of the Forests for a Just Future programme: a more sustainable and inclusive management of tropical rainforests around the globe.

In our Amazon Rights in Focus programme, FCDS and IUCN NL aim to end forest crime and to improve the territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in the Colombian Amazon. These people are the forest’s best guardians.

Learn more? Contact our experts:

Liliana Jauregui
Liliana Jauregui
Senior Expert Environmental Justice
Mariel Cabero
Expert Environmental Justice