How to make peace with the forest: development and war in Colombia

This launches a series of articles looking at the relationship between environmental and human rights, to unpack one of the world’s longest-running wars, the Peace Agreement and its seeming collapse. Español

Hannah Meszaros Martin
25 October 2016

Screenshot / Fair use.On September 26, the Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP was signed with a pen made from a bullet, while the Air Force “fumigated” the colours of the Colombian flag over a crowd all clad in white. These planes are all too similar – if not the same – to the ones that up until very recently sprayed down chemical herbicides over vast areas of the Colombian countryside.

Six days later, in a referendum designed by the Santos administration to be the final form of approval for the agreement, 51.2 per cent out of the Colombians who turned out to vote, a mere 38 per cent, issued a ‘NO’ to the agreement. The difference was 55,651 votes.

The divisions that have separated the ‘no’ from the ‘yes’ are much deeper than the current Uribe vs. Santos model that the media is now spinning. In fact politically, ex-president Alvaro Uribe and the current, Juan Manuel Santos, who was Uribe’s minister of war during his presidency, are not actually that different.

But the fractures in Colombian society are historically entrenched. Since its independence and the formation of the modern state, Colombia has had six civil wars largely caused by divisions along class lines and political ideology. In particular, around land ownership. What the referendum has made increasingly obvious is that these divisions  – at the same time geographical, ecological and social – cannot be repaired by a closed Peace Process between the government and a single armed group, a process by definition excluding the participation of wider civil society.

Bullets and toxins

Now, with the country gripped by mass protests, there is a great uncertainty over the fate of the Peace Accords – a 297-page document that has taken four years to draw up. But amidst the confusion, devastation, anger and – for certain individuals – joy, it is worth thinking about something that has not changed, despite the referendum result: the critical role of the environment in the Colombian conflict, in which bullets and toxins are the weapons.

This series of articles will look at the relation between environmental and human rights in order to unpack one of the world’s longest running wars, the Peace Agreement and its seeming collapse.

The Accords, and their proposed reforms, had the potential to open up the debate around the structural issues behind the war, in particular, agrarian reform and economic development. Originally a campesino organisation, the FARC-EP has had agrarian reform as their main pillar since their foundation in 1964: the first chapter of the Peace Accords focuses on this. Paradoxically however, while debating issues directly intertwined with economics, such as rural reform, the negotiations were not allowed to address the current Colombian ‘economic model’. Germán Vélez, director of Grupo Semillas – an agricultural and environmental rights organisation, explains, “Santos made clear from the beginning that anything was up for discussion, except the economic model. So, I believe we have to recognise our starting point as a place where the topic of structural problems in rural areas is not being discussed in depth.” “Santos made clear from the beginning that anything was up for discussion, except the economic model.”

A major criticism of the accords has been their inability to address the structural problems of the conflict. If Colombia is to ever achieve a real, meaningful peace, economic development and its role in fuelling much of the violence in the countryside needs to be recognised. A very clear, direct example of this has been the contracting of paramilitary groups by multinational companies to “provide security” for their extractive industries. These often involves the intimidation, kidnapping, torture, and in some cases, the assassination of union leaders and environmental rights advocates.

The gap between the economic vision of the government and that of Colombian social movements can be seen as a clash of different visions of the Colombian territory itself, where according to the national development plan, nature poses as an infinite resource that can be dug up, cut down, harvested, shipped off or burnt as fuel without caution or end in sight. Biodiversity in this long-standing model is seen solely as potential capital, yet another mode of investment opportunity. On the other side, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and campesino groups insist that this model of development does not include them, their world-vision or their beliefs. Therefore the fight for the environment is seen by these groups as an existential struggle. Which is why many different social movements, such as the Liberation of Mother Earth in northern Cauca, assert their collective and cultural rights through the preservation of biodiversity and traditional agricultural techniques.

Window of opportunity

For movements like these, the Peace Agreement presented a window of opportunity, held narrowly ajar, giving the public the chance to reshape regional policies, such as those concerning economic development.

But now that the agreement has been rejected, that opportunity, however slight, appears to be closing. In the ensuing political uncertainty it is likely that the debate about the environment will take a backseat as everyone turns to the issues of impunity and accountability. High-level, systemic impunity has been an on-going feature of Colombian politics for some time now. Many supporters of the ‘No’ vote were against the degree of legal immunity that would be granted to the officers and foot soldiers of the FARC, while many high level government officials and those involved in paramilitary groups have enjoyed real impunity for decades. But the referendum results don’t change the fact that the natural environment and those who depend on it for survival are the primary victims of this pervasive and systemic impunity in Colombia. The natural environment and those who depend on it for survival are the primary victims of this pervasive and systemic impunity in Colombia.

Throughout the war, the environment has been a victim of the activities of both the state and the various armed groups, perpetuating both legal and illegal economies. A very clear example of this dual illegal/legal destruction is the case of gold mining, where illegal gold mining has often paved the way for legal forms of extraction – contaminating local environments to such an extent that no other activity is possible, as can be witnessed in Chocó, a region on the Pacific northwest coast, now experiencing mass environmental devastation due to mercury poisoning from illegal gold mining.

Development as displacement


Illegal gold mine in northern Cauca, Photo: Juan Gabriel Salazar Gaviria. All rights reserved.The legal experts working in the environmental rights and advocacy organisation Tierra Digna see this pattern emerge in their work with communities facing displacement due to large-scale industrial projects. Take Cesar, a department in the north bordering Venezuela with the most coal mining in the country, whose community arrived there at the turn of the century and has lived and worked throughout the intrusion of cotton and palm industries. However when the coalmine moved into the area about 25 years ago, life started to become impossible.

No one bothered to calculate the toxins that would be released into the air and water over time, so after two decades of operation, the soil is infertile and the air and water toxic. The government is using the legal framework of human rights to force displace the community, claiming that it is in their best interest to move in order to protect their health, and claiming that the environment is no longer fit for human life.

Developmental activities have thus far been sustained by the forced displacement of over 6 million people. Developmental activities have thus far been sustained by the forced displacement of over 6 million people.

Mass displacement in rural areas has permitted the concentration of land in fewer and fewer hands. This model of concentration via land-grab underpins the whole economic model, allowing the creation of extensive zones for cattle ranching, monoculture, and mining.

Another devastating environmental impact of the war has been the aerial fumigation of coca, marijuana, and poppy crops with the herbicide glyphosate – classified as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organisation  – on about 1.75 million hectares of Colombian “wilderness” – in fact areas both lived and cultivated.

Other impacts of drug eradication include increased deforestation to create new areas of cultivation for illicit crops. Aerial fumigation has also led to yet more forced displacement, as crops die, land becomes infertile and families and communities can no longer survive. The land affected often has a specific pattern of post-abandonment occupancy, and in most cases it is ultimately taken over by large-landowning individuals, sometimes associated with paramilitary groups who then sell it on to extractive industries. It is ultimately taken over by large-landowning individuals, sometimes associated with paramilitary groups who then sell it on to extractive industries.

Worrying post-accords scenarios

Of course there were already concerns for a “post-accords” scenario, namely the potential rise of violence in areas previously controlled by the FARC.

In these zones the potential for other armed groups to move in and cause further environmental damage through drug trafficking and illegal mining are incredibly high, not to mention the danger this poses to communities in these areas.

And when legal industries such as mining or oil companies enter, under the legal frame, the environmental destruction will be significantly worse. This process has already begun with the expansion of the petroleum and hydrocarbon industries in the department of Caquetá after the FARC left certain areas. The president of Ecopetrol, one of the world’s largest petroleum companies stated explicitly that “Peace will allow us to take more oil from areas previously closed by conflict.”

Vélez echoes this concern in relation to the expansion of ZIDRES, or Zones of Interest for Economic and Social Rural Development, a plan that renders all ‘unoccupied’ or ‘uncultivated’ land as national property that can then be sold on to multinationals: “what the government is looking toward is how to bring investors to rural areas, so the land will end up in the hands of foreign investors and then our land is once again in the hands of few. There is going to be a new concentration of land.” “There is going to be a new concentration of land.”


Fumigated field in Putumayo. Photo: Author’s own.In the wake of the referendum, the question of the environment remains fundamental, even more so considering the new interests and actors that have grabbed a seat at the negotiating table alongside the leaders of the “NO” vote. This has shifted the peace process to what civil society is calling ‘a pact between elites’ seeking to impose certain revisions on the accords.

The proposals coming from the far right (aligned with Uribe) would be devastating to the involvement of social movements in environmental issues.

Uribe’s contribution

Uribe’s proposed “revisions” to the accords, for example, suggest taking away the right of the public to challenge development projects happening near their communities, known as the consulta popular. This right has already come under attack. In the days following the referendum, a consulta popular in Ibagué, a city located in the department of Tolima, was cancelled and activists continue to receive death threats. The Accords offered the potential for citizen participation. Now that any such progress has been thrown off course (temporarily or permanently we are still to see) the far right is doing everything it can to ensure that communities cannot stop destructive regional development plans.

The coming months will be crucial. As the government begins its negotiations with the other major guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (the ELN in its Spanish acronym), and the media shifts its focus, it will be very telling to look at the pattern of land grabs, forced displacement, and activists targeted. It will be very telling to look at the pattern of land grabs, forced displacement, and activists targeted.

So often in the past these attacks have increased during times of ‘political uncertainty’. Between the agreement in late August and the final signing of the peace accords in September 13 activists and social movement leaders were killed, with right-wing paramilitary groups as suspects. According to a report by Somos Defensores “the majority of the cases of aggressions against human rights defenders in the first half of 2016 are suspected to be perpetrated by paramilitary forces, followed by the state, and lastly the two guerrillas.” In particular, incidences of aggression from state security forces have doubled since 2015.

Peace and truth

‘Peace’ must be seen as synonymous with social and environmental justice. Before the referendum, a coalition of different social and environmental movements was calling for an environmental truth commission. Its purpose would be to examine the long-term devastation of water resources, biodiversity and ecosystems as a symptom of the war, and thus a key point to address in the road to peace.

Recognising the ways in which the violence of the war has impacted the natural environment means that we can also start to see many different sectors of society, including Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples and farmers as victims of development caught in the crossfire. Acknowledging such diverse groups as victims of a form of development perpetuated by war is the first step to remaking the economic model that was marked as off limits in the peace negotiations.

Calling for an ‘environmental truth commission’ at this juncture is politically urgent especially as development and its connection to irreversible environmental destruction and grave human rights violations is now drawing the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But this vision of peace – a peace made with the forest - is not the vision of the government.  The following articles will examine how social movements are challenging this perspective – from water, soil, and air – asserting that the environment has always been at the heart of the Colombian conflict, and that the future of ‘peace’ in the country depends very much on it remaining a core issue in the debate.

(Next up: Journalist Gina Spigarelli explores the struggles over water resources in the department of Antioquia... )

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