Opinion: How climate finance links forest conservation, peacebuilding, and sustainable food

A field trip to Reserva Natural El Hatico, familia Molina Durán, near Palmira, Colombia, to take carbon measurements in an area of tropical forest, as part of a CIAT-hosted workshop on REDD+. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT / CC BY-SA

The scene remains vivid in my head. People packed the hall outside the plenary where heads of state gathered for the 2009 COP15 Copenhagen climate summit. Like my fellow climate change negotiators, my eyes were glued to TV screens that live-streamed the proceedings next door.

At the plenary, then-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Vélez said something that immediately sparked my interest. He noted the value of engaging 90,000 families in the country’s rural areas as forest rangers in order to curb illegal coca leaf production — a major cause of deforestation and therefore carbon dioxide emissions.

“Before they destroyed the jungle to plant narcotics, now they take care of the jungle … they are committed to keeping the areas free of illicit drugs,” Uribe said.

Uribe’s remarks essentially pointed to a strong connection between reining in coca leaf production, conflict reduction, and REDD+, the United Nations initiative that incentivizes the reduction of carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.

It was a compelling idea. The narcotics trade in Colombia had been tied to a decades-long armed conflict in the country and, at the same time — and often in the same areas — there was deforestation.

But at that moment, there was absolutely no scientific evidence for the link.

It was interesting to me, though, as a climate change negotiator for Peru. My country had also struggled with interconnected issues of conflict, drug trafficking, and deforestation. It also interested me as a member of the team that was planning the implementation of REDD+ in Peru. But discussions on REDD+ normally only take place within the environmental sector, not the sectors typically involved in peace processes.

I thought, if we can show evidence for linking REDD+ and peacebuilding, it could mean we get the political support — beyond just the environmental sector — to implement REDD+ in the many countries experiencing or emerging from conflict.

That doesn’t just mean Peru and Colombia, but further afield in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact, many of the countries participating in REDD+ were experiencing, or emerging, from armed conflict.

Searching for the link became the basis of my research for six years. And we found the evidence: There are indeed connections between the causes of conflict and deforestation, as well as between peacebuilding and REDD+.

For instance, in Colombia, conflict and deforestation are generally linked to access to and control over land. Land titling, then, provides a good strategy for linking peacebuilding approaches and REDD+. In particular, evidence suggests that promoting collective land titling can help preserve both peace and forests, and enhance the quality of life in certain areas. Evidence also indicates that the strategies for reducing the causes of the conflict, including but not limited to land titling programs, could facilitate forest conservation and thus, reduction of forest-related greenhouse gas emissions

Although the means to achieve peacebuilding and forest conservation for climate change mitigation to me are clear, making it happen in an effective and efficient fashion has not been easy — in part because of the different perspectives by interested parties.

For example, some government agencies and donors see collective land titling as a way to uphold the rights of local communities and stop deforestation for climate change mitigation. Others consider land rights and the rule of law to enforce them as ways to facilitate peace and improve agricultural production. This shows there is potential to align programs and resources that at first look divergent.

Thus, promoting approaches to building peace and to reducing carbon emissions from deforestation may achieve another important global and national objective: producing food without having to cut down more trees.

Over time, the discourse on the connection between peace and climate change mitigation mentioned by the Colombian government at COP15 had evolved, especially after the landmark accord signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, last year.

Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, despite taking a very different approach to addressing the conflict — particularly his willingness to negotiate with the FARC to bring the conflict to an end — is now also linking the country’s peace policy with its climate change policy.

International organizations are listening to the political discourse and putting the scientific evidence behind such a concept into practice too, such as in Colombia’s Orinoquia region.

This tropical savanna in the Orinoco River watershed extends into the Amazon rainforest. Despite the peace agreement, armed conflict, though latent, remains there, with organized crime gangs, reportedly made up of ex-paramilitary group members, in the area. Deforestation is likewise prevalent.

As part of its efforts to achieve zero forest loss, the Colombian government is working to stop deforestation in the Colombian Amazon with the support of the governments of Norway, the United Kingdom and Germany. And they believe that the Orinoquia region has the potential to contribute to reducing countrywide carbon emissions, as well as to become a breadbasket for the country and beyond.

The World Bank is also looking at Orinoquia as a region that can help mitigate climate change and address the causes of armed conflict in Colombia. It is specifically examining how the BioCarbon Fund’s Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes can help the Colombian government reduce emissions from agriculture, forestry, and other land uses there. It is also exploring whether such financing can incentivize sustainable food production and long-lasting peace.

The Orinoquia region can provide evidence on how carbon finance can foster sustainable food production and actually limit the areas for farming to those already deforested. CIAT is now studying sustainable land systems that contribute toward reducing emissions from deforestation and peacebuilding in the region.

Eight years since COP15, my eyes continue to be glued to the developments at the U.N.’s annual climate summits.

You wouldn’t have heard these issues at COP23 in Bonn this year. But other international events are already taking a serious look at them, including the last REDD+ Exchange in Oslo, Norway.

My hope for the coming years is to see more world leaders looking at carbon finance and peacebuilding as mutual beneficial approaches. We have the science to back it.

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About the author

  • Augusto Castro-Nuñez

    Augusto Castro-Nuñez is a researcher on sustainable food systems at CIAT and works to identify ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry and land uses, while promoting sustainable low-carbon food production. He was part of the Peruvian climate change negotiating team from 2009 to 2011 and designed the country’s REDD+ readiness strategy and related projects. He holds a PhD in Geography from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

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