In 2021, just a few hours from St Andrews at the COP26, then-President of Colombia Iván Duque signed the Declaration on Forest and Land Use, confirming his country’s commitment to halt forest loss and land degradation by 2030. However, the year before, 67 out of the 227 environmental activists killed globally were in Colombia. The country has been plagued by guerilla warfare and paramilitary operations for years now, and the perpetual non-peace is much more connected to the climate crisis than we realize.
In 2016, the government, led by then-President Juan Manuel Santos, negotiated a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which won Santos the Nobel Peace Prize and was expected to mark the end of the guerrilla regime. Thousands of FARC rebels agreed to turn in their weapons and reintegrate into Colombian society in exchange for land reform, rural development, and concessions. However, the release of (rural) territories traditionally under the control of FARC led to the rise of splinter groups, right-wind paramilitary groups, and criminal organizations. The government’s tunnel vision on the demobilization of FARC allowed for the rise for groups like the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGG), also known as the Gulf Clan.
Surprisingly, the peace accord has actually aggravated environmental issues. A recent publication by Revis, Lee, and Rodrigues on the links between climate change and Colombia’s long struggle for peace revealed that “before their demobilization in 2016, the FARC had established some rules against environmental damage in many territories, including limiting deforestation. These rules were less about environmental concerns than they were a tactical choice to avoid aerial detection by the government… After the ceasefire, however, deforestation surged in territories formerly controlled by FARC.”
Considering that 10% of the Amazon Rainforest, an ecosystem that is essential for stabilizing the planet’s climate, lies within Colombian borders, the effects of unregulated environmental degradation in the region would be felt worldwide. According to Revis, Lee, and Rodrigues, the groups that have replaced FARC prioritize profit over ideology, which has led to an increase in land clearance and illegal gold mining. Forest loss has increased exponentially since the 2016 peace accord.
The unregulated guerrilla control has created another intertwined issue: being an environmental activist in Colombia is a very dangerous career choice. Carlos Andres Santiago, an anti-fracking activist interviewed by Al Jazeera, warned that, “Their message is basically that whoever opposes fracking will get a bullet, because they are the law here.” Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) has recently released data that confirms an increase in violence and threats of violence towards environmental activists in the years since the peace accord. In May 2022, the Gulf Clan paramilitary group named the environmental activists they intended to kill if they didn’t back down.
Former President Iván Duque’s administration did not do nearly enough to address the issues of paramilitary violence and environmental degradation. However, the swearing in of President Gustavo Petro in August 2022 offers a new opportunity for progress in the perpetual struggle for peace and climate justice. Petro is not only Colombia’s first left-wing president, but he is himself an ex-member of the M-19 rebel group. He has announced his plan for “Total Peace” in Colombia, beginning with reducing Colombia’s dependence on oil extraction, negotiating with the remaining armed guerilla groups, and providing alternative forms of employment. According to Revis, Lee, and Rodrigues, armed groups began to show interest in the plan’s initiatives as early as October.
The change in leadership allows for a reconsideration of the paths we take toward peace. About a decade ago, when the government was desperate to address the issues of FARC control, one under-reported campaign showed a high success rate.
In the early 2010s, Carlos Rodriguez and Juan Pablo García, two employees of the global ad agency MullenLowe, received a request from Colombia’s defense minister. After decades of war, violence had not been and still was not working to deter the rebels. The proposed alternative? Peaceful propaganda.
Rodriguez and García designed a marketing campaign following interviews with former rebels (read: market research) that, instead of targeting FARC ideology, targeted the rebels’ humanity. The campaign ultimately included decorating jungle trees as Christmas trees, sending luminescent Christmas ornaments down rivers on which rebels travelled, planting members’ childhood photographs in areas where fighting often occurred, and installing huge beacons of light so rebels could find their way home, out of the jungle. Ultimately, the campaign aided immensely in the peace process that culminated in the secession of FARC troops — and their reintegration into Colombian society.
Operation: Rivers of Light, the plan was called, can serve to inspire solutions for violence. Thus far, President Petro’s approach to the guerrilla violence, informed by his background as a left-wing rebel, has shown his willingness to find creative solutions to Colombia’s perpetual non-peace.
With mass media only reporting the bloodshed of Colombia’s guerrilla violence, remembering the success of peaceful solutions like that of Rodriguez and García is imperative — not just to stand a chance in the fight against violence, but also in the fight for our planet’s future.