Under President Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian government has vastly expanded protected areas, creating new national parks and providing land titles to indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in the Amazon, Chocó and other important forest regions, Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, said at a panel hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue with support from the Andes Amazon Fund.

President Santos has expanded national parks in Colombia from 13 million hectares when he took office in 2010 to 28.5 million currently and an expected 32 million by the end of his term, Murillo noted. In July, the government expanded the Puerto-Sábalo Los Monos and Monochoa indigenous reserves in the department of Caquetá near Chiribiquete, Colombia’s largest national park. This expansion connects protected areas to create one of the largest conservation corridors in the Amazon with 10 million hectares of protected land.

Many indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities live in some of Colombia’s most important environmental regions, and providing them land titling has been shown to reduce deforestation, said Fernando Calado, programmes director for Colombia at the International Organization for Migration. The country has over 80 different indigenous groups with individual languages, cultural traditions and territories, as well as 156 collective lands for Afro Colombians. Chiribiquete is home to the largest treasure trove of pre-Columbian art as well as isolated and uncontacted indigenous tribes, according to Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team.

The government has also made ambitious commitments within international agreements. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, Colombia pledged to achieve zero net deforestation in the Amazon by 2020.

However, many challenges remain. National parks and indigenous and Afro-Colombian lands continue to be threatened by illegal occupation, coca cultivation and illegal gold mining. In addition, many environmentally sensitive areas lack protected status and deforestation has increased due mainly to cattle ranching and agricultural expansion.

The peace deal with the FARC also brings environmental risks as well as benefits, as new areas of the country are settled by formerly displaced populations and as new industries such as cattle ranching and agriculture extend into parts of the country that were formerly closed off because they were controlled by the FARC. These are the findings of an Inter-American Dialogue report published earlier this year.

In 2016, Colombia faced the highest deforestation rate the country had seen in 20 years, mostly in areas formerly held by the FARC and other insurgent groups, particularly on the northwestern border of the Colombian Amazon, according to Meg Symington, senior director for the Amazon at the World Wildlife Fund.

As president Santos’ term comes to an end in mid-2018, many observers are asking whether his environmental policies will be sustained. Murillo said he believes there is a consensus in the country about the importance of environmental conservation. Additionally, lands that have been designated as natural parks are protected by the Constitution and this status cannot easily be reversed. But significant funds are needed to manage parks, said Murillo, so Colombia will need support from the international community to help make these conservation efforts sustainable.

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