Yes, efforts to reduce deforestation and build peace can take the same road

What can the countries who are currently fighting to slow down deforestation and the degradation of their forests possibly have in common? A lot! In addition to sharing negative impacts for the loss of the forest cover, the indiscriminate felling of trees, forest fires, etc., a large share of these countries are united by another drama: their population has been, or is, affected by armed conflicts and all that that represents: violence, forced displacements, illicit activities, homicides, plundering of lands, recruitment.

At this time, at least 25 countries who are promoting policies at the national level to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by the loss and degradation of the forests, (sponsored by the REDD+ mechanism), are, in turn, experiencing – or are just emerging from – armed conflicts. One of them is Colombia.

This information was the key for Augusto Castro, scientist at the University of Copenhagen, and researcher with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), to take the leadership of a research project on the possible interactions between the efforts to conserve forest carbon and the efforts to construct peace in the territory of Colombia.

His work, recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, referenced information from municipalities of Caribe, Antioquia, Santander, Orinoco, Andes, Eje Cafetero, and Pacífico; and identified possible associations between the carbon of the forests and three variables related to the armed conflict: armed actions, victims of the conflict, and area under coca cultivation.

The research highlights possible roles played by the areas with high forest cover in the military strategies of the armed groups: places for combat, hiding places, and sources of natural resources to finance the war.

According to the research, the impact of the armed conflicts on the forest cover varies according to the use that the strategies of the armed groups give the forest. It is part of the context, and they take advantage of it according to their convenience. In some zones, the armed groups extract natural resources to finance themselves, with a high rate of deforestation, while in others, they hide, reducing the rate of deforestation.

“It is not possible to predict if an armed conflict, or the end of the same, will result in an increase or a reduction of the rate of deforestation of a country. The answer depends on the use that the armed groups made of the forest. The question then becomes: if you add armed conflict to the role that the areas with high forest cover play in the strategies of the armed groups, what is the result?” Augusto Castro


Beyond the environmental aspects

Now, given that deforestation has an adverse effect on climate change, since the forests and the wood they produce sequester and store carbon, thus contributing considerably to mitigating climate change (FAO, 2006), it is worthwhile to better demonstrate the additional benefits of the mitigation of climate change on the forest sector, since these benefits have the potential to attract financing and increase political and social support.

Along these lines, opportunities for joint benefits can emerge outside the environmental sector; such is the case of the interactions between the priority areas for REDD+ and the priority areas for the construction of peace. These possible interactions had not been studied before.

“We are not talking about merely reducing emission, but rather, in order to reduce emissions, we need a favorable social and political context; enabling conditions are required: social organization, and an institutional structure that makes interaction with the inhabitants possible. If there is no social cohesion, the actions implemented to reduce emissions are not going to be adopted,” he says.

Parallel paths

The programs for construction of peace are designed to approach the structural causes of the conflicts and improve the capacity of the local agents to manage and overcome them. These activities range from coaching the political processes, provision of means of subsistence, especially rural, to political reforms for the formalization of land titles and distribution of land, programs of substitution of illegal crops, etc. In some cases, these initiatives incorporate strategies of forest conservation. Along those lines, REDD+ considers policy reforms, the provision of sustainable livelihoods, and security of land tenure.

According to the research, given the compatibility of the efforts related to the construction of peace with REDD+, it is reasonable to hope for beneficial interactions in places where these activities overlap, and actions could be promoted so that the activities that are proposed from the various institutions may converge toward a common objective.

“In particular, considering that the efforts to construct peace have created favorable conditions for the implementation of programs for storing forest carbon in areas affected by the armed conflict, these programs can, in turn, contribute to the post-conflict,” says the researcher.

It should be pointed out that in the “Final accord for the ending of the conflict and the construction of a stable and lasting peace”, signed between the National Government and the armed group, FARC-EP, one of the thematic axes is related to ‘Comprehensive Rural Reform: toward a new Colombian countryside’ and its execution prioritizes the territories most affected by the conflict.

Yes, but no

The research lets us see that it is possible to promote synergies where the priority zones of construction of peace coincide with the priority zones for REDD+. Nevertheless, two criteria are usually used to define REDD+ priorities: high degree of forest cover and high rate of deforestation; in the Colombian case, the armed conflict zones coincide with a great deal of forest, but they are not necessarily the ones that have the highest rates of deforestation.

“REDD+ should incorporate more flexibility into the methodological requirements for developing countries. Not only should the zones that have historically been most affected by deforestation be prioritized, since opportunities are being lost and one of them is to achieve the integration of public policies. REDD+ now tends to place emphasis on the reduction of emissions and that limits the possibility of integrating other necessities of development and, with that, have a greater impact, which is what is required,” stated Castro, an agricultural engineer with a doctorate in geography.

What will turn out to be the ace up the sleeve? The co-benefits, which, in Augusto Castro’s research, are betting on the construction of peace. “If we give something to Colombia that contributes to constructing peace and along the way helps mitigate climate change, we are doing what we need to do.” And REDD already heard him.

Geographic overlaps between forest carbon and variables of armed conflict

Carbon maps and armed actions (a), victims (b), and coca (c).

  • The municipalities with high values of carbon, surrounded by municipalities with high values for conflict variables: dark green color (high-high)
  • Municipalities with low carbon values, surrounded by municipalities with low values for conflict variables: light green color (low-low)
  • Municipalities with low carbon values, surrounded by municipalities with high values of conflict variables: blue color (low-high)
  • Municipalities with high carbon values, surrounded with municipalities with low values of conflict variables: red color (high-low)
  • Locations with non-significant statistics: pale gray color.