Colombia grants ‘historic’ protections to rainforest, indigenous groups

Colombia announced that the country intends to add 8 million hectares to its protected areas.

Article by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

In a move described as “unprecedented,” Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos announced Tuesday that the country intends to add 8 million hectares (80,000 square kilometers or 31,000 square miles) to its protected areas.

That same day, Santos also signed a decree granting indigenous communities the ability and autonomy to govern their own territories.

According to a speech by Santos, these new protections will increase Colombia’s protected area coverage by 30 million to 38 million hectares – or by 27 percent. He said this expansion will protect forest against the encroachment of agriculture and will include strategic areas for biodiversity conservation.

The announcement comes as agricultural activity has rushed to fill the vacuum left by demobilization of the FARC rebel group, the presence of which held off development in much of the Colombian Amazon for decades. It aims to effectively freeze agricultural expansion into rainforest areas.

As reported by Thomson Reuters, Santos said “once and for all, we (will) know where we can farm, produce – and from what boundary we will protect all the forests and the entire Amazon.”

He said the government will be spending the next two weeks defining the bounds of the new protected areas, and that residents of local indigenous communities will be granted land titles giving them the autonomy to manage them.

Santos delivered his speech in the Colombian Amazon city of Leticia, flanked by members of indigenous communities, as well as Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg. Norway has committed $250 million towards Colombia’s initiative, which will be delivered as $50 million annual payouts through 2025, according to a joint statement on the event posted by the Norwegian government.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway and President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia shake hands in front of local indigenous leaders during Tuesday’s speech in Leticia. Photo by Juan David Tena – SIG.

Climate factors big into Norway’s contribution, and its disbursements require verified CO2 emissions reductions through 2025. Reducing deforestation is a major part of international efforts to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius and thereby stave off its worst effects.

Colombia’s decision is being heralded by conservationists and government leaders who see it as a big step forward for the protection of climate, forests and human rights.

“It is unprecedented – it has not happened anywhere else, any other place at least that I know,” said Ola Elvestuen, Norway’s minister of climate and environment, as reported by Thomson Reuters.

“This is the most important thing that has happened to the indigenous Amazonians in 30 years,” said Martin von Hildebrand, founder of the NGO Gaia Amazonas in a statement issued by the Gaia Foundation.

The degree signed by Santos on Tuesday will strengthen the autonomy of indigenous communities in three departments of the Colombian Amazon – Guainía, Vaupés and Amazonas – and allow them to manage state resources without having to go through the government.

“This is an historic moment for us, said Dario Silva Cubeo, of the Indigenous Association of La Pedrera Amazonas (AIPEA), of the Lower Caquetá River, Amazonas. “This decree is a legal instrument that relates to our autonomy and decentralization. This regulatory decree is also important for the defense of our territory and biodiversity.”

Research indicates that land held by local communities and indigenous peoples tends to experience significantly less deforestation than areas managed by governments or private entities. In Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia alone, researchers estimate up to 59 megatons of carbon emissions – equivalent to the emissions from 9 to 12 million passenger vehicles – may be avoided by granting indigenous communities land rights.

In his speech, Santos acknowledged this, saying indigenous communities are “most interested in conserving their forests, in conserving their rivers, in not contaminating, they are our best allies; that is why it is very important to see their autonomy, which today we give them, with the preservation of our environment.”

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