Climate change, biodiversity and the peace process in Colombia

The Luc Hoffmann Institute is transitioning to become a new entity, a Geneva-based foundation, with a new brand and name, Unearthodox. You are warmly invited to continue the journey with us and visit our new website here:

By Claudia Munera Roldan and Carolina Figueroa of the Luc Hoffmann Institute Conservation Futures project.

In 2012 the latest efforts towards a peace process in Colombia began to put an end to a 52 year- conflict with the FARC. After lengthy negotiations, the Colombian Congress finally approved the peace agreement in December 2016.

The uncertainty the process presents both for Colombian society and conservation of the country’s rich biodiversity became apparent in 2014 when the Luc Hoffmann Institute first started engaging with WWF Colombia on the Conservation Futures project.

Conservation Futures aims to help protected area planners and managers navigate pressures such as climate change, the spread of invasive species and habitat loss, which all come with a level of unpredictability. The peace process adds another layer of complexity and uncertainty to the management of biodiversity and this makes Colombia a challenging but fascinating place to work.

With the origins of the conflict emerging from disagreements over land tenure, a big challenge is to find land for the 6 million people displaced by the conflict, creating concerns about the pressure to change the land tenure map. Although protected areas in Colombia are legally protected, there is uncertainty about whether the post-treaty period will follow a sustainable development path or reflect ‘business as usual’ with continuing pressure from deforestation, mining, and so on.

Over the past 50 years Colombians have had to live with uncertainty surrounding the conflict and attempts for peace. While we can’t be sure about the consequences of the treaty, it is fair to say that a major social transformation is underway. It is against this backdrop that climate change, and responses to it will unfold in Colombia. The current social and political transformation foreshadows an ecological transformation that will be driven by climate change in the longer term.

Which brings us to the major challenge facing the Conservation Futures project: How do you make decisions now, for impacts 20-50 years into a future that you can’t possibly predict?

This question was the subject of a ‘Futures Dialogue’ held in Bogota last October. In collaboration with our WWF Colombia colleagues, we hosted a workshop with Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia, to understand the implications of ecological transformation that climate change may bring, and possible impacts on the social and ecological values of Colombia’s protected area network.

As we gather more information and improve climate projections, models become more complex and uncertain, particularly in understanding how climate drivers interact with each other and impact biodiversity conservation. Adapting to climate change involves learning how to live with, and make decisions in a context of uncertainty.

Climate uncertainty may be a whole new ball game, but we are not starting from scratch. There is a lot to be learned from past experience. In the short term, the stressors will remain much the same: floods, droughts, invasive species, illicit crops, agriculture, mining and development. Protected area managers deal with these on a daily basis. We know more or less what types of adaptation and management strategies can be used to cope with these stressors. It is often a case of finding agreement on social values, and getting the right rules in place to enable action. But there is a group of adaptation challenges that we don’t yet know how to deal with – social, political or institutional barriers – that may prevent the implementation of adaptation measures, such as weak environmental policy frameworks or inconsistent cross-sectoral policies. Learning how to deal with these challenges is a critical part of the adaptation challenge.

Although good progress has been made regarding climate adaptation by the Colombian government through policy statements (the National Development Plan and the National Adaptation Plan), it is still difficult to identify good examples of planning, policy and management working together at different levels and between sectors. Strategies for addressing climate risks need to be paired with efforts to tackle the barriers to adaptation. Climate adaptation in an uncertain future requires creating and strengthening governance processes, including decision making, planning and management.

With the implementation of the peace process we may expect changes. There is much work to do, much thinking needed and many questions arise: What will happen to the millions of displaced Colombians? What can we expect for the establishment of new protected areas and the ecosystem services they provide under a climate change/peace process scenario? How do we maintain the current social and ecological values of protected areas as the climate changes?

Colombian society will need to acquire the information and skills to address emerging challenges. But perhaps the incidental upside of years of uncertainty the country has faced, is that it is well equipped to adapt to change. The peace process is a big deal for Colombia and we hope it will help rather than hinder the ability of the country’s protected areas to continue providing critical ecosystem services and conserving our rich biodiversity in the long term.

Ultimately, the capacity to make decisions for a long term, uncertain future requires a learning approach, taking risks, following up progress and being adaptive as more is learned about the implications of climate change and the efficacy of adaptation measures. So, in addition to asking what will happen to protected areas in the post-treaty period, we should also be asking what can we learn from the past 50 years about strategies that help us to live with change and uncertainty.

Main image: © Pablo Corral / WWF

The Luc Hoffmann Institute is transitioning to become a new entity, a Geneva-based foundation, with a new brand and name, Unearthodox. You are warmly invited to continue the journey with us and are now being redirected to