Colombia is a megadiverse country, with Pacific and Atlantic coasts, distinct ranges of glaciated mountain peaks, cloud forests, paramos and two separate tropical forests. With only 0.7% of the Earth’s land surface, Colombia contains more than 10% of the known terrestrial biodiversity of the planet, making it the most biodiverse country in the world by area, and second only to Brazil in overall biodiversity.

There are also at least 87 distinct indigenous groups speaking 80 different native languages. The majority of these tribes live in diverse ecosystems, especially the forests of the Amazon and Choco, as well as the cloud forests and paramos of the Andes and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Many of these tribes are descendants of great lost pre-Columbian civilizations that left fascinating archaeological histories and a range of beliefs, languages and traditions that still exist. There is a rich Afro-Colombian heritage as well, concentrated along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

Colombia is also a country that has suffered through decades of internal conflict, and the mass displacement of its people (in terms of internally displaced people, or IDP’s, Colombia ranks number one in the world, ahead of Syria).

In November 2016 the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia, or FARC) brought an end to more than 50 years of war by signing a peace agreement in Havana, Cuba, to much international fanfare. Then president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, was awarded the Nobel peace prize the following year, and the “peace accords” brought about the demobilization and abandonment of most FARC-controlled territory (a substantial faction of FARC dissidents remain mobilized as of writing, mostly concentrated in the Amazon and Orinoquia near the border with Venezuela, or in Venezuela, and in the Southern departments of Cauca and Narino along the Pacific coast).

Pre-Peace “Conservation”

For several reasons, most connected to the realities of more than 50 years of civil war, large forested areas of Colombia have remained inaccessible, and relatively intact. Aside from localized, but nonetheless severely destructive, illicit activities that funded and perpetuated further conflict (most notably coca plantations and illegal gold mining), Colombia still maintains some of South America’s most isolated and pristine tropical rainforests. Most of these forests were previously within FARC-controlled territory.

Colombian Military Base in previous FARC stronghold of the Amazon

Lack of infrastructure, development and industry activity, and foreign fear of investment in rural Colombia, all contributed in different ways to much of Colombia’s tropical forests being left standing.  In a sort-of dark paradox, by preventing rural development, the more than half-century-long civil war between the FARC, Colombian government and different mercenary paramilitary groups that left nearly 300,000 people dead and more than seven million people displaced, was indirectly responsible for preserving some of South America’s most unique and important ecosystems. Parts of the Amazon and Choco rainforests, cloud forests connecting the Andes mountains with the Amazon, high Andean moorlands known as “paramos,” and the forests of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta near the Carribean coast, were all likely conserved to some degree due to the ongoing conflict.

The FARC controlled or had extensive influence over more than 30% of Colombian territory, principally in sparsely populated rural regions, mountain valleys, cloud forests, and wide ranges of dense tropical forest. As a guerilla group that ended up funding itself mostly through the illicit cocaine and gold trades, with some supplementary income from kidnapping, wildlife trafficking and illegal logging, the FARC depended upon an ability to hide the movement of their soldiers, and their illicit economic activities. Therefore, they instituted rules against deforestation with local peasants and indigenous groups, in territories where they held major influence. These rules served to directly protect themselves and their economic interests, and to promote their legitimacy both locally and nationally. While the war was, and in many ways continues to be, a humanitarian crisis, for the rich forests where the FARC held influence, their presence and regulations may have delayed extensive deforestation and unsustainable land-use, and the long term consequences that result.

“Post-Conflict” Realities

Changes are happening rapidly since the signing of the peace accords, however, and Colombia (especially the Colombian Amazon), has become a “hotspot” of deforestation. While certain frontiers of the country have suffered from large scale deforestation, degradation and human displacement for decades (often at gunpoint in areas most touched by the conflict), recent years of increased foreign investment and the fighting and speculation of land that became “available” after the signing of the peace agreement with the FARC, has created new frontiers of exploitation and deforestation in mostly fragile and diverse ecosystems.

With the FARC demobilized, their abandoned territories have become extremely vulnerable to a range of opportunistic forces looking to fill the vacuum. A nasty combination of new and old illegal actors, which includes remaining guerilla groups (namely the National Liberation Army [ELN] and FARC dissidents), neo-paramilitary organizations and criminal gangs known as “Bacrims,” violently compete for control of vast territories and highly profitable illicit industries. These illegal groups fight against or work along with the interests of speculating multinational mining, oil, oil palm, agriculture, timber and construction corporations. All of these groups are vying for control of new land to title, exploit, or both.

“Uncertainty” – Vannessa Circe – Oil on Canvas – 2017

Often there are blurred lines between all of these groups, and the role that the government plays in either preventing or facilitating the intentions of these actors. This volatile mix is on top of poorly thought-out governmental “land restitution” agendas for displaced victims of the civil war, the complex reintegration of former combatants into society, which includes giving them land, and an already destructive system of land titling in Colombia that encourages land grabbing and deforestation, and the migration to new frontiers of often desperate citizens in search of land. The expectation of all interested parties is that with “peace,” there will be a proliferation of infrastructure and roads, both “official” government-funded and nominally “illegal” projects, that will facilitate the extraction of natural resources, like gold, timber and oil. This so-called “development” threatens to cause mass-scale environmental destruction.

During a conversation in April 2019, biologist and renowned Amazon deforestation expert Dr. Dolors Armenteras of the National University of Colombia had this to say about Colombia’s present precarious situation:

“There have been environmental conflicts in Colombia for a long time, but since the signing of the peace accords, there has been a clear expansion of the frontiers of deforestation in the Amazon. More roads, both legal and illegal, are being built, with more being promised, and anthropogenic forest fires, which are indicators of further mass land-clearing, are being detected throughout the region. Laws for land titling and wealthy landowners also encourage poor smallholder farmers to clear land to eventually consolidate into large ranches. The new ‘National Development Plan’ introduced in March 2019 proposes little to stop these trends. We need action, alternative development, intelligent policies and real-time monitoring to protect these irreplaceable ecosystems.”

Seriously considered “sustainable development plans” must be structured and implemented locally in a coordinated way to avoid the worst case scenarios, but current trends suggest a bleak future for these ecosystems and the people that live in harmony within them. The state has been largely absent to this point, neglecting much of their promised safeguarding of “protected areas,” indigenous territories and leaders, and those that want to participate in legal crop substitution programs (replacing coca with legal agricultural cultivars). This state neglect has left power vacuums in many formerly controlled FARC territories, some of which are in even more conflict now in “post-conflict” Colombia than during the heights of the civil war. This reality has led to new waves of threats, displacement and assassinations of social and environmental leaders, especially indigenous leaders who fight for their territories, as well as new and expanding frontiers of deforestation.

Resources and Further Reading

Baptiste, B., Pinedo-Vasquez, M., et al.. “Greening peace in Colombia.” Nature Ecology & Evolution. March 2017.

Convention on Biological Diversity. “Colombia: Country Profile.”

Davalos, L.M., Sanchez, K.M., Armenteras, D. “Deforestation and Coca Cultivation Rooted in Twentieth-Century Development Projects.” Bioscience. November 2016.

“Illegal armed groups’ activity in Colombia (maps).” Colombia Reports. 2019.

Morales, Lorenzo. “PEACE AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION IN COLOMBIA: Proposals for Sustainable Rural Development.” The Dialogue. January 2017.

Sabater. S., Gonzalez-Trujillo, J.D., Elosegi, A., Donato Rondon, J.C., “Colombian ecosystems at the crossroad after the new peace deal.” Biodiversity and Conservation. August 2017.

United Nations. “Sustainable Development Goals.”

UNHCR: Colombia.