The Planetary Security Initiative (PSI) interviewed Carolina who advises the Colombian military on security-related environmental topics. In this interview, she suggests that a holistic, cross-department approach is the only way for Colombia to address environmental security issues.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and the different ministries you’ve worked for?
I have worked for the public sector for almost my entire career, including in the Ministry of National Defence. Currently, I’m working in the National Planning Department within the Directorate of Justice, Defence and Government. I’m in charge of all security-related environmental topics, formally I’m the advisor on the roles and missions that the security forces should take for the protection of the environment. This is not defined as the main mission area for the Ministry of National Defence, rather as a key area they intend to work on in cooperation with other bodies and are partially responsible for.
The Defence and Security Policy (2018-2022) has classified water, biodiversity and the environment as the main and prevailing national interest, recognizing them as strategic assets of the nation. Has this helped to give the environment a more prominent role in the armed forces’ priorities?
The focus areas remain the same, however, two events have led to a new focus on environmental matters for the Ministry of National Defence: Firstly, they developed their own environmental policy for the sector, recognising what steps the defence sector needs to take in collaboration with other arms of the government. Secondly, given recent disagreements with Nicaragua over natural resources, resulting in an International Court of Justice (ICJ), it has become increasingly clear that other countries may enter into competition with Colombia over natural resources.
“Natural resources must be protected not only from extraction activities within the territory but also from extraction attempts from other countries. While the defence sector recognises the need to protect biodiversity, water and natural resources, it still struggles to distribute responsibilities.”
It seems as if the defence sector in Colombia is very involved in natural resource and environmental issues, in many other countries this is not the case. What has been the driver for the Colombian defence sector to get involved?
It’s very much related to internal conflict, most illegal groups are financed by extracting resources. First, it was narcotics and the cultivation of Coca, now they have moved into illegal mining, deforestation and species trafficking. Therefore, the defence sector must focus on this income source of the illegal groups it is fighting against. Often these groups operate in remote, difficult to access areas which are rich in natural resources. In 2012, the ICJ also ruled that Colombia would lose territorial waters to Nicaragua. This resulted in further focusing military attention on the importance of the protection of natural resources. The debate has also changed as the effects of climate change have become more apparent.
How do you think that issues surrounding the environment and natural resources have affected conflict in the past, and how do you think that climate change might change these dynamics in the future?
I believe this is a very complex topic with a lot of variables. Colombia is rich in resources and is depleting them, and there are often problems with conflict in resource-rich countries that struggle to diversify. Given that climate change will change temperatures and weather patterns a hypothesis that should be approached in the future is if it is possible that these changes affect areas in which illegally cultivated crops (for example Coca) are planted. This may drive conflict in new areas that were not cultivated as well as old areas that were reliant on the crops for income, particularly migration-related conflict. Climate change then may change the dynamics of the existing conflict significantly, and the military needs to be aware of this.
How does your work help to prevent conflict over natural resources and what is the Ministry of Defence doing to prepare for climate change-related conflict?
Illegally cultivated crops are the third-largest source of deforestation in the country. The so-called “war on drugs” has yet to meet very much success in Colombia and it is an incredibly difficult fight. A recent announcement from the US Embassy in Bogota has highlighted the protection of the natural environment as a priority in supporting those people who are reliant on income from illegal crops. This is because many people rely on the natural ecosystem for their livelihoods, a well-protected environment can offer more opportunities for legal livelihood methods. Colombia is very dependent on the global debate on illegal drugs. As long as the focus internationally is on the reduction of the output of illegal crops, then it will remain difficult for the Colombian government to pursue alternatives to the criminalisation of growers and the subsequent conflict that arises.
The destruction of illegal crops has been very successful over the last few years, but the production of Coca remains high due to innovative cultivation methods by the illegal groups. Our efforts to protect the environment have included reforestation including the goal of growing 180 million trees and the restoration of more than 300,000 hectares of degraded land. This has also included efforts to prevent illegal mining by the armed forces (For example Operation Artemisa). However, deforestation is still on the rise. It is not possible for the armed forces to do this alone, to cut trees down is much easier than to grow them. Therefore, our efforts to prevent conflict, deforestation and illegal cultivation of crops are only successful when done in collaboration with other actors.
Can deforestation be stopped in this case if planting coca is the best way to make money and subsistence in many areas of the country?
For sure, people will try to survive. Our procedure to face deforestation, at least within the spectrum of possibilities of the Defence and Security sector, needs to be assessed with a more holistic approach, criminalisation needs to be reviewed at least as other than the first alternative, often these people are just victims of the circumstances. When the armed forces move against these communities it creates unnecessary animosity which leads to conflict in many cases. Often these are protected indigenous and minority communities, eradication often destroys many of their assets. Destitute people are then more likely to make agreements with illegal groups to survive, hence perpetuating the conflict. Putting boots on the ground to prevent these communities from cutting down trees often creates additional conflict. The armed forces cannot be the only arm of the government on the ground in these situations. For example, infrastructure like roads could help reduce the costs of bringing legal crops to market, making it possible for these communities to grow legal crops.
In a lot of work the PSI does, we see livelihood support being used as a way to quell climate and natural resource conflicts, do you think there is a role for this sort of programme in solving the conflict in Colombia?
This has been a double-edged sword already with the peace deal with FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a prominent rebel group) in 2016. For example, the voluntary eradication programme which allowed illegal crop growers to receive government support to switch to legal crops resulted in planting illegal crops by people who had never grown them before only to receive government support. This actually spiked illegal crop growth nationwide. There is also a problem with people getting livelihood support and growing legal crops but also growing illegal crops due to the high price commanded. These considerations also do not take the coercion exercised by criminal groups in order to make people grow these crops, as they are needed for income, into account. Therefore, it is not a full solution on its own, however, we wish to pursue these policies nonetheless as they do provide livelihood security, but this must be integrated into wider measures that increase infrastructure, healthcare provision and security as a whole.
What do you think are long term solutions to Colombia’s conflict, especially given the spectre of climate change and the peace agreement of 2016?
With regards to the peace agreement, it depends if you’re an optimist or a pessimist. It seems that we are currently in a violent transition period. There seems to be more conflict between illegal groups as well. The peace agreement has given some interesting guidelines, which if were implemented completely would probably create stability in many areas of the country. Especially land redistribution. But the country is very polarised with regards to the peace agreement, and it is difficult to implement any type of solution to the conflict. The pessimistic view is that these illegal groups will keep fortifying, and violence will increase as violence is imported from the cartels in Mexico. With climate change, though this needs to be academically tested, it is possible that the prices of illegal crops will spike, making production more attractive and it is also possible that more areas become available for the growth, both of which have the potential to increase violence.
What is the source of the conflict, in your opinion?
Though is not entirely possible to pinpoint a sole source for the conflict, given its long term complexity, for me one of the main ones is land distribution, as this is the highest source of inequality. Any type of project that tries to change this is subjected to violence. It is important to minimise conflict from any land distribution process. Climate change will change a lot, but the system makes sure that those who profit the most are those who have always profited the most. This could also spike violence again.
Do you think that the defence sector is effective in reducing conflict from natural resources?
This is a double-edged sword again, often our actions are described as “green militarisation”, and conflict with poor communities does not help the situation. However, there have been some successes with clearing areas of illegal groups and helping certain communities to thrive. You can see good and bad actions from the military. There needs to be a virtuous cycle, then you can see positive change. If you compare what we see in Chiribiquete National Park with what is happening in Nariño department, they are very similar responses from the military as they have similar operations, but the way the community has engaged has been very different. In Nariño these efforts have created a lot of conflict, but in Chiribiquete there has been far less conflict and a more positive community response. This has been due to follow up and participation from other agencies in order to gain the community’s trust. If the community is distrustful, any effort is doomed to fail.
How has been your experience in working with the security sector on environmental issues? Do you have any advice for working with the security sector on these issues?
I think the security sector is hesitant of trying to pursue these types of projects, but if they perceive there is a willingness of more entities to work with them on these approaches, and there is a more holistic approach, they will be more willing to work on climate and environmental issues. If you approach the security sector, try to approach them with more alternatives than putting boots on the ground.
Any last words?
I hope that the next elected government continues on with these policies that help to protect the environment and also implements policies that prepare Colombia better for climate change, as well as reducing Colombia’s emissions. Regardless of the elections, we need to acknowledge the responsibility we have as a State to formulate and implement long term public policies that enable us to really prepare the country for the challenges that climate change will either create or accelerate.
For those who wish to learn more about the link between conflict and deforestation in Colombia, the International Crisis Group have produced a short documentary on the subject.