Lately, it seems that in Colombia the only thing people talk about is peace. This is not surprising given that in just a few weeks, the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are expected to sign an agreement to put an end to more than 50 years of internal war. There is a widespread feeling of anticipation, caution, and substantial fear. There might be an agreement, but conflict is far from ending. The political schism that the peace negotiations have raised is just a reflection of the extreme polarization that thrives in the rest of the country. Thus, the reconciliation of Colombian society is one of the biggest challenges this peace-building process will have to endure. Luckily, as in other post-conflict situations, the country has a valuable asset that can contribute to this reconciliation process: its unique environment, its lavish biodiversity, and the need the country has to restore it and manage it properly.
Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. This opulent biodiversity has been one of the principal victims of the internal conflict. Guerilla groups have used natural parks and rich biodiversity zones as camp and battle sites. And, even if their presence has paradoxically helped protect these areas from human settlements and development projects, it has also caused environmental degradation. Armed groups have directly attacked the environment by blowing up oil pipelines and logging areas of abundant forest to plant illicit crops. Therefore, the reparation of this environmental damage is another challenge that the country must face after the peace agreements are signed. The good news is that environmental reparation can be a useful tool for the reconciliation process, and there are various cases around the globe that show how this can be so.
In the aftermath of war in countries like Afghanistan, Mozambique, and Nepal, environmental restoration and conservation activities have proven to be useful platforms for rebuilding trust between ex-combatants and communities. Moreover, engaging ex-combatants in the management of natural resources and the restoration of the environment has also helped reinforce their status as civil citizens, facilitating social and political reintegration. The logic behind these examples and the lessons learned from them are important guidelines that show how reconciliation processes and transitional justice can be linked to the necessary environmental protection and restoration measures that must come when conflict ends.
Let’s start with Afghanistan. In 2003, when the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) entered the country to perform a Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, the tree-covered mountains had vanished; what remained were thousands of hectares of dried land and scarce, if any, resources. UNEP estimated that over the past 20 years the forest and woodland in some provinces had been reduced by 50 to 70 percent. The fact that 80 percent of the population depended on natural resources for their livelihoods made this especially worrisome.
Therefore, to address this situation the government, with international funding, created the Afghan Conservation Corps (ACC) Project. Through this project, ex-combatants and vulnerable populations that depended on forest resources were hired to reforest the Pistachio Woodlands and the Eastern Conifer forests. According to UNEP, “ACC work[ed] through local community development councils and traditional leaders, using a participatory approach to identify potential problems and opportunities to facilitate the projects’ long-term sustainability”. The project has not only been successful in reforesting provinces and giving people sustainable livelihoods, but it has also promoted dialogue, participation, and trust building between communities and ex-combatants.
Mozambique followed a similar approach. However, it was focused on restoring protected areas that had been affected by conflict, rather than reestablishing livelihoods that depended on natural resources, as happened in Afghanistan. The Gorongosa National Park was vastly affected by the civil war that took place in the country between 1977 and 1992. During the war, the park’s headquarters were captured by one of the rebel groups, and after the conflict was settled and armed forces had withdrawn, thousands of internally displaced persons settled within its boundaries. The pressure this had over natural resources and their uncontrolled extraction left the park in a critical condition.
Therefore, in 1994, two years after the civil war ended, ex-combatants from different armed groups were designated as game guards or park rangers to reoccupy the park and control resource extraction. Their knowledge about the park and the special abilities they had developed during the civil war, such as tracking animals and poachers, were relevant in its recovery. The community that surrounded the area was involved in the project, and, in return for information on illicit activity within the park, the “game guards” granted them permission to take advantage of some of the resources from it. This contributed to dialogue and trust-building not just between combatants of different armed groups, but also between them and the communities. The project was highly successful in recovering the park, but, beyond that, it also helped the peace-building process by giving ex-combatants and communities a sense of common purpose.
Nepal has a slightly different story. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement(CPA) was signed in 2006, demobilized Maoist combatants were confined in 28 cantonments while they waited for their reintegration process to be carried out. Although this process was supposed to last one year, it was prolonged for six years. The presence of thousands of ex-combatants in areas that were not prepared for it put tremendous pressure on the natural resources and the neighboring communities. Therefore, in some of camps, ex-combatants were trained to test the water and to respond when water conditions appeared to be below standards. These services were extended to the surrounding communities, easing tensions and promoting inclusive decision-making for the management of natural local resources.
As these examples show, environmental management and restoration can be a useful tool for promoting and enforcing dialogue and trust in post-conflict situations. The degradation caused by armed conflicts and the numerous challenges that the peace-building process might place on natural resources make this a valuable opportunity. However, post-conflict can also represent a serious threat to the environment. If ecosystems are not restored and natural resources are not properly managed, the tensions over resources might make conflict relapse. Hence, demobilization and reintegration efforts should be aimed at this direction, not just because they represent a suitable platform for reconciliation, but also because they might help guarantee a successful sustainable peace-building process. Moreover, the restorative justice that enlightens the peace process demands environmental measures. Colombia’s biodiversity is another victim of the armed conflict and transitional justice should recognize this fact.
* Helena Durán Crane is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).