With its forests under siege, and in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, the Government of Colombia put its best face to celebrate the renowned biodiversity of its territory. In a 2020 marked by fire by the coronavirus pandemic, the country was chosen this year as the "host" this Friday of World Environment Day, promoted by the UN. The president, Iván Duque, took advantage of this showcase –originally scheduled as a face-to-face event in Bogotá– to pause in the management of the emergency and debate virtually with world leaders and experts on challenges such as the fight against deforestation.
“We cannot pretend to be healthy in a world that is sick. The wounds caused to our mother Earth are wounds that also bleed in us ”, reflected Pope Francis in a commented letter that he sent to the president for the occasion. The pontiff's message echoes five years after his encyclical Laudato Yes. “We cannot remain silent in the face of the clamor when we see the very high costs of the destruction and exploitation of the ecosystem. It is not time to keep looking the other way, indifferent to the signs of a planet that is looted and violated, by the greed for profit and in the name – many times – of progress, "he said in the letter.
Colombians recite by heart some of their many environmental riches. It is a country with coasts on two oceans, which is home to about half of the planet's moors, with half of its territory covered by tropical jungles and forests and 30 percent of Amazonian territory, as Duque recalled. "Our species are an incalculable heritage," he said in a virtual ceremony attended by the UN Secretary General, António Guterres. Near the meridian of his four years in office, the president of Colombia indicated that he intends to go from 50 to 2,500 megabytes of installed renewable energy capacity, nominated the country to lead the transition of clean mobility in Latin America and recalled the goal of plant 180 million trees by August 2022, when he hands over power – 34 million were planted in 2019, according to government figures.
One of the announcements of the day was the contribution of 288,000 million pesos by the United Kingdom to support the conservation of the tropical forests of Colombia through the "Sustainable Forest Territories" program. According to the environment minister, Ricardo Lozano, it is the largest bilateral donation in environmental matters that the Duque administration has received.
But other signs are not so promising. The great paradox is that Colombia staged this celebration of its natural wealth precisely at a time when several environmentalists warn that, despite the mandatory confinement measures decreed by the Government during a national quarantine that lasted more than two months, deforestation is runaway. That is the main cause of climate change in the South American country, where natural forests cover almost 60 million hectares.
The previous government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) expected that the peace agreement with the extinct FARC guerrilla, sealed at the end of 2016 after almost four years of arduous negotiations, would soon translate into environmental dividends. However, after the agreements were signed, deforestation increased in several regions, reaching a maximum of about 220,000 hectares in 2017. At first, the Duque government used that record number as a reference in a move criticized by environmentalists. But with the support of Germany, the UK and Norway, he set somewhat more ambitious goals to reduce the phenomenon at the Madrid climate summit late last year. He pledged to keep it within limits of up to 100,000 hectares or less by 2025, and 155,000 hectares or less by 2022.
Colombia has already reduced the destruction of forests with respect to that peak of 2017, but all the alarms are raised by what has happened this year. "Deforestation in the Amazon does not stop," concluded a recent monitoring by the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), which registered more than 75,000 hectares destroyed only until April 15. "The roads that are opening the agricultural frontier are an early warning of what may come for the next few years," Rodrigo Botero, director of the FCDS, warned in a recent interview with this newspaper.
While waiting for official reports on deforestation, various sources indicate that the phenomenon is rampant and continues to affect important enclaves of biodiversity, including the Amazonian territories, the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP) pointed out last month. “Environmental authorities and control organizations have expressed their concern that those who are cutting down and felling the forests – armed actors, settlers and land grabbers, among others – are taking advantage of the health emergency. Meanwhile, the environmental authorities find their hands tied due to restrictions on mobility, ”he pointed out in his report on the dynamics of the armed confrontation and its environmental impact in the first four months of 2019.
The heavy heritage of the war aggravates the panorama. The FARC dissidents that withdrew from the peace process have distributed threatening pamphlets in which they reject environmental cooperation projects in various regions and have expelled personnel from the National Natural Parks (PNN) from protected areas in the Amazon. "We cannot claim victory," President Duque often repeats in his daily speeches on efforts to contain the coronavirus. A message that could also be replicated in reference to environmental challenges.