Radiography of the Environmental Governance in Colombia.
Colombia is one of the five most biodiverse countries globally, with 59 natural parks that represent 15.17% of the national territory. In addition to this ecological wealth, there is the cultural value contributed by the indigenous communities who inhabit 54% of these areas. However, the natural parks and other ecological areas of Colombia are alarmingly affected by the absence of the State, the presence of illicit crops, the exploitation of hydrocarbons, the armed conflict and deforestation. Challenged by this overlapping of actors and forces, some questions arise related to indigenous peoples’ agency: What role are indigenous communities playing in the decision-making for the protection and conservation of these sacred territories? What kind of governance is required to protect the biodiversity and the communities present in these natural areas?
Before answering these questions, it is necessary to explore the existing public institutional infrastructure in charge of managing the natural parks and other protected areas in Colombia.
Radiography of the National System of Protected Areas.
In 1993, the National Environmental System (SINA in Spanish) was created in Colombia, to determine a set of guidelines, norms, activities, resources, programs, and institutions that allow the implementation of general environmental principles in the national territory.
The SINA gives rise to the National System of Protected Areas (SINAP in Spanish), a system focused on articulating actors, actions and strategies for the conservation of protected areas under the umbrella of National Natural Parks. The SINAP functions as the coordinator of the different national and regional environmental authorities to guarantee coordination in the conservation of the country’s ecological and biodiverse areas, including protected areas of public, private or community governance, and national, regional or local management scope.
The protected areas that are part of SINAP are divided into different categories; some of these are:
National Park: ecological areas whose ecosystems have not been substantially altered by human exploitation or occupation; where plant, species of animals, geomorphological complexes and historical or cultural manifestations have scientific, educational, aesthetic and recreational value. For its conservation, it is subjected to an adequate management regime. Example: The Serranía de Chiribiquete, in the Amazon.
Unique Natural Area: an area that, due to its specific conditions of biodiversity, is a rare natural environment. Example: The Estoraques, in the department of Norte de Santander.
Flora Sanctuary: an area dedicated to preserving plant species or eco-systems in order to conserve genetic resources of the national flora. Example The Sanctuary Medicinal Plants Orito Ingi Andi, located in the southwest of Colombia, between Nariño and Putumayo departments.
Fauna Sanctuary: an area dedicated to preserving species or communities of wild animals in order to conserve the national fauna’s genetic resources. Example: Malpelo Island, in Buenaventura.
Parkway: A road with unique panoramic beauty or natural or cultural value, preserved for educational and recreational purposes. Example: Parkway Isla de Salamanca, in the department of Magdalena.
Integrated Management Districts: It is a geographical space that due to environmental or socioeconomic factors is delimited, within the criteria of sustainable development, for the use and management of renewable natural resources and economic activities. Example: The Sumapaz moorland.
Regional Nature Reserve: area in which primitive conditions of flora and fauna exist. This area is intended for the conservation, research and study of its natural resources. Example: Cerro el Volador, in Medellín Antioquia, is a Metropolitan Nature Reserve.
At the national level, SINAP is led by the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and its administration and management correspond to National Natural Parks. At the regional level, the Regional Autonomous Corporations (CAR) ensure that the policies and instructions of SINAP are incorporated and respected by the land use in the municipalities, districts and departments.
Regarding the role of the ethnic communities living in these areas, the SINAP’s planning and regulatory mechanisms establish prior consultations to guarantee the participation of these communities in decision-making; however, their role is secondary compared to that of the above mentioned legal entities of the Colombian State.
The ethnic groups of indigenous, black and peasant communities are not taken into account as relevant actors of the SINAP, despite the impact that these protected areas have on their communities (as reflected by the CONPES 380, a document that establishes the guidelines to advance in the consolidation of SINAP). In addition to this, a content analysis of Decree 2372 of 2010 by which the SINAP is established, shows indigenous peoples are only mentioned once, while the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development is mentioned 15 times.
This lack of representation of ethnic communities in the leadership of SINAP is even more extreme when contrasted with the territorial realities of natural parks and other protected areas, which form the central axis of the Colombian armed conflict.
Multiple Pressures on Protected Areas.
According to the UN’s Comprehensive Illicit Crops Monitoring System (Simci), 5% of coca crops in Colombia are in natural parks, and 27% are less than 20 km away. Likewise, in 2017, it was estimated that of the 220,000 hectares of deforestation, 12,417 were lost in the Sierra de La Macarena, Tinigua, Paramillo, Cordillera de Los Picachos, La Paya and Nukak.
In the case of illegal mining, it was estimated that in 2019, 48% of illegal gold was extracted in Forest Reserves and 4% in other protected areas such as natural parks.
The confluence of pressures in the territory is not a coincidence. The Natural Parks and other protected areas have been territories abandoned by the State, with minimal funding for conservation and protection. This weak state presence becomes a catalyst for illegal armed actors to take over the territory and exert pressure on biodiversity and the indigenous communities that inhabit these protected areas.
Given the absence of the State and the vulnerability of these territories to be targets of violence and environmental destruction, the indigenous peoples who live there have taken the lead to defend their territories. This leadership has cost them forced displacement, assassinations, disappearances, and destruction of their Mother Earth.
According to the National Center for Historical Memory Report, from 2018 to 2020, 250 indigenous leaders have been assassinated for the protection of the land, their property, and natural resources.
Their knowledge of the territory, their victimization by the armed conflict and the leadership that they have exercised for centuries for the protection of biodiversity, make indigenous peoples, together with the Afro-Colombian and peasant communities, leading actors in the decision-making, management and conservation of the protected areas of Colombia.
Therefore, it is urgent to implement inclusive environmental governance with an ethnic focus, articulating public policies for protection and conservation with the planning instruments of the ethnic peoples present in the territories, such as the Safeguard Plans, Life Plans and the Management Plan of the protected area.
There are many challenges and risks for implementing policies for the conservation and protection of protected areas, such as violence, the multiplicity of economic interests, and armed actors that exercise territorial control. Furthermore, the SINAP struggles to manage conservation strategies and policies with scarce resources amid a development model that prioritizes investment, economic growth and extractive economies.
In the search for solutions to these challenges, indigenous peoples must go from being consultants to being recognized as public authorities, who have ancestral knowledge that provides insights and resolutions for their communities’ survival and the conservation of biodiversity in these areas, which more than being integrated landscapes are the backbone of the relationship between human beings and nature.
Contact Log book
We share with you some of the organizations that work in Colombia for sustainable and participatory environmental governance. With their actions, they not only strengthen SINAP’s management but also allow the construction of a sense of belonging around the country’s protected areas.
- Fundacion Herencia Ambiental Caribe. This NGO focuses on project management and strategy consulting to promote peace and human development through sustainable use and protection of the environment. It works on three components: community participation, archeology, and protected areas. With the support of the Sura Foundation, Caribbean Environmental Heritage published the book Chiribiquete: The Maloca of the Jaguar”, whose research contributed to UNESCO declaring the territory as Mixed Heritage of Humanity. Those who buy the book, in its large format or pocket version, contribute to a fund dedicated exclusively to the care and protection of this Park.
- The Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute This non-profit civil corporation was created in 1993 to be the research arm on biodiversity of the National Environmental System (SINA). Its mission is scientific research on biodiversity, including hydrobiological and genetic resources, to make sustainable decisions about it.
- Times of Life and Death: Memories and Struggles of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia”. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) together with the National Center for Historical Memory produced the National Report on the Historical Memory of the Indigenous Peoples of Colombia “Times of Life and Death: Memories and Struggles of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia.” An educational and outreach tool to learn about the memories and facts of the violence against Indigenous Peoples in the historical process of building the Colombian nation in its regional diversity.
*All illustrations by Reborde