Colombia: Climate Change and Civil War, two existential problems with mutual solutions

Colombia has a lot riding on the future of global climate change action, and also on there being a successful outcome from peace talks with FARC; the two are absolutely linked, and possibly even dependent on each other.

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The final month of 2015 has seen two landmark agreements that will have a profound impact on Colombia. First, negotiating teams at the COP21 climate summit in Paris reached a deal to act decisively on climate change. Then, just a couple of days later, the Colombian government and the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia rebels (FARC) announced they were one step closer to a definitive and historic peace deal, having agreed on the thorny issue of victims and transitional justice.

The first deal has tremendous implications for Colombia: it is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, given its susceptibility to extreme rainfall events and prolonged droughts, rising sea levels in its coastal regions, and water scarcity due to the melting of its tropical glaciers. Yet it is the second deal, of course, that could change the course of Colombia’s history for ever – with the agreement on transitional justice, the government and FARC are now within striking distance of bringing to an end a bitter and destructive civil war that has been raging for more than half a century, costing more than 250,000 lives and directly affecting more than 7 million people, mostly through forced displacements.

However, while these two developments might appear separate and coincidental at first, it could be argued that, in fact, they are very much related. Certainly, that is the view – and perhaps aim – of President Juan Manuel Santos, who has invested a huge amount of personal effort and political capital into the peace process that began in 2012. During the COP21 summit in Paris, he announced the establishment of an initiative called Colombia Sostenible (Sustainable Colombia) which, with the help of donors and sponsors led by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) will aim to maximise the environmental, social and economic benefits of a newfound period of peace, and link the social and environmental recovery of the regions most affected by the 50-year conflict.

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Juan Manuel Santos delivering a speech at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, in December 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters via teleSUR.

Santos also affirmed his belief that a peace deal would help convert FARC rebels from enemies of the state to allies in the fight against climate change, and said that the end of the conflict would be “crucial” for the environment in that it would put an end to the destruction of rural conflict zones through attacks on oil pipes (which have led to over 4 million barrels of crude being spilled into Colombian rivers and habitats over the years), as well as through the proliferation of illegal mining activities. Furthermore, this would encourage sustainable cultivation of crops instead of the planting of coca to fund armed FARC and right-wing paramilitary groups, which has led to the deforestation of millions of hectares of Colombian countryside. On this count, it would also allow rural farming communities to carry out their more traditional ways of life that have been shown to be more sustainable and environmentally-friendly.

The President also sought to highlight the fact that Colombia’s environment needs all the help it can get, as while it has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world it is also incredibly fragile and vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. These rural and forest areas with unique wildlife and habitats also happen to be among the areas that have seen the most intense fighting and control by armed groups over the course of the conflict.

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A Colombian soldier (pictured in 1992) looks at deforested land formerly used for poppy plantations. Under President Santos’ plans demobilised soldiers would help with the restoration of Colombia’s devastated rural environment, helping to rebuild communities and combat climate change at the same time. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Ending Colombia’s conflict won’t just be important for mitigating against the worst effects of climate change in itself, however. It could also be argued that mitigating these negative impacts is essential to preventing the kinds of issues – vulnerability to natural disasters in (mainly) rural and poorer parts of the country, food and water insecurity, and loss of traditional livelihoods that sustain communities – that led to the outbreak of war in the first place. Climate scientists and sociologists are quick to point out that conflicts over basic resources and social tensions are among the most worrying and serious consequences of climate change. This is not just a prediction of what will happen later on this century: already there are those who believe that climate change is inextricably linked to conflicts and the resulting refugee and migrant crises, including the events that have devastated Syria and other parts of the Middle East in recent years.

FARC’s armed struggle was born out of the historic deprivation of rural and peasant communities across Colombia, and the failure – in their eyes – of the Colombian State to address these historical inequalities. While of course there is increasing optimism that the government and FARC can come to a peaceful and negotiated conclusion to this devastating conflict, and that the rebels will see peace and democratic participation as the best channels to continue their fight, it can safely be said that after such a long period of civil war nobody in Colombia will be blind to the danger of such divisions and violence ever returning to the country.

As such Santos, his successor(s) to the presidency and all stakeholders in the future of the country should be wise to the fact that the best way to build sustainable and long-lasting peace is to tie peace and sustainability – both social and environmental – together. For decades Colombia has seen its social fabric and rural environment ripped to pieces by war, and if climate change is not kept in check it will allow this to continue for decades more to come. War and Climate Change both represent existential crises for Colombia, but the solutions for both may well be linked on a number of levels. Hopefully, the Colombia Sostenible initiative, global action on climate change after the Paris Agreement, and a successful conclusion to the peace process, will all combine to ensure that peace in Colombia really is sustainable.

See Also: Colombia-FARC: from freedom fighters to tree huggers?

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