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The Escazú Agreement as a Framework for Peacebuilding in Colombia



Colombian police escorting peasants that eradicate coca crops in the Taraza region (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED


To some, the 2016 Peace Accord between Colombia’s national government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) holds an immense transformative potential for peacebuilding in the country. Nevertheless, the ongoing assassination of community leaders, exclusion of ethnic groups from environmental decision-making processes, and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources suggests it has not been effectively implemented. As a rather unlikely source of guidance, the Escazú Agreement offers a second chance to alleviate the social and environmental pitfalls that the Peace Accord is failing to address. Its implementation is paramount to supporting a lasting and sustainable peace. The main obstacle in its way? It has been awaiting final revision from the Constitutional Court for nearly one and a half years. 


An Armed Conflict that Truncates Sustainable Development


The Colombian armed conflict is the longest-running domestic confrontation in the Western Hemisphere  and “one of the bloodiest in the modern history of Latin America” (GMH, 2016). It is rooted in the aggressive rivalry between traditional liberal and conservative political parties during the 1940s and 50s in Colombia, which led to the assassination of the Liberal Party leader and presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, in 1948. This triggered a decade-long civil war between Liberals and Conservatives known as ‘La Violencia’ (The Violence), during which an estimated 200,000 people were killed and two million were forcibly displaced


The climate of violence and political instability during this decade, paired with poverty and unequal access to land among peasants and rural workers, stirred the formation of two guerrilla organisations with communist ideals in the 1960s: the FARC-EP (hereafter FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Later in 1997, a right-wing paramilitary group known as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) emerged with the aim of combating leftist guerrilla groups, benefiting from the support and protection of the Colombian state. 


Since the mid-60s, the FARC, ELN and AUC engaged in direct conflict with one another, the National Army, and the police force. All parties perpetrated attacks on the civilian population as part of their war strategy, resulting in approximately 220,000 deaths, 25,007 forced disappearances, and 1,754 victims of sexual violence between 1958 and 2012 (GMH, 2016). In addition, by 2019 approximately 8 million Colombians, mostly from rural communities, had been internally displaced.


An estimated 60% of the conflict is concentrated in Colombia’s peripheric and marginal rural areas, which are rich in biodiversity and natural resources (Suarez et al., 2018). This has enabled the armed groups to develop different mechanisms for subsistence by taking control of large swathes of territory (Figure 1). The paramilitaries –who advanced the interests of local political and economic elites, including large land and business owners (Suarez et al., 2018)– financed themselves by promoting large agricultural and mining projects (GMH, 2016). Most notably, paramilitary groups have been associated with the expansion of the palm oil industry in Colombia, as they are said to have violently displaced landowners and communities who occupied rural areas to enable the illegal expropriation of land that was then secured by the palm oil sector (Maher, 2015, cited in Suarez et al., 2018).


In addition, a significant source of financing for both the paramilitaries and the FARC was provided by the drug business (Sánchez et al., 2005). During the 90s, illegal crops began to proliferate in areas controlled by the FARC following the eradication of coca plantations in Peru and Bolivia and the dismantling of the Medellín and Cali cartels (Sánchez et al., 2005), enabling the FARC and AUC to take a leading role in cocaine production and trafficking. For their part, ELN has been financed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, and has used kidnapping, extortion of individuals and companies in the oil and mining sectors, robbery, and illegal “taxation” on drug trade. Consequently, ELN has been classified as a terrorist organisation by both the European Union and the United States. 





Figure 1. Approximate presence of Armed Groups in Colombia as of 2012. Source: WOLA (2014).


 

Whilst the social and political havoc created by the civil war is deplorable, the armed conflict has also caused severe environmental degradation. The proliferation of illicit coca crops has been signalled as one of the main drivers of deforestation in Colombia, alongside cattle-ranching, illegal mining, wood logging, and infrastructure development. The land is cleared not only to plant the coca crops but also to build the necessary infrastructure for drug manufacturing and mobilisation such as laboratories and clandestine roads (IUCN, 2022). Importantly, by 2020 47% of coca crops were located in protected areas from the System of National Natural Parks. 


Aside from the loss of native vegetation, the intensive chemical inputs demanded by coca crops have resulted in severe soil and water pollution. For example, an estimated 3.5 tons of chemical residues from coca production are discharged into soils and water sources every year. In response, the state has attempted to eradicate the crops via aerial fumigation with glyphosate, which in turn has been linked to ecosystemic destruction and health consequences for the local populations



Illegal mining –which represents a key source of income for Colombian armed groups, particularly ELN– has also brought about significant social and environmental impacts. Between 2001 and 2018, an estimated 284,000 hectares were deforested due to illegal mining in Colombia. By 2014, 17 of the country’s 32 departments showed signs of alluvial gold extraction, even within protected areas and Indigenous reserves. Illegal gold mining has caused pollution of the soil and watersheds with mercury and cyanide, threatening the local communities’ food and water security. Moreover, illegal mining in Colombia has been identified as one of the main drives of forced displacement and has been linked to forced labour and sex trafficking.



First Attempt to Resolve the Conflict: The 2016 Peace Accord


On 24th November 2016, the National Government of Colombia signed the “Final Accord to End the Armed Conflict and Build a Stable and Lasting Peace” (Peace Accord) with the FARC, to ensure conflict de-escalation and promote peace building.

 

The Peace Accord addresses the aforementioned socio-environmental repercussions of the conflict by focusing on five key aspects: 


  1. Comprehensive Rural Reform (CRR), aimed at promoting equitable and sustainable development in the Colombian countryside and ensuring the well-being of rural communities through poverty eradication, reestablishment of rights, and democratisation of land access and use. It includes a provision to control the expansion of the agricultural frontier to protect areas of special environmental interest such as forests, wetlands, and watersheds. 

  2. Expansion of political participation, promoting the inclusion of women, civil society organisations, and ethnic groups, with due guarantee of safety to those engaging in political opposition (including leaders of social and environmental organisations and human rights defenders). 

  3. End of the conflict (called “Bilateral and Definitive Ceasefire and Cessation of Hostilities and Laying down of Arms” in the Peace Accord) through a mechanism to strip FARC of all its weaponry and support the reincorporation of demobilised FARC members into civilian life. 

  4. “Solution to the Illicit Drugs Problem” through a National Comprehensive Programme for Illicit Crop Substitution and Alternative Development that takes a community-based, participatory approach to promote voluntary crop substitution. This is complemented by an increased regulatory oversight of the production and commercialisation of chemical supplies and precursors, and mechanisms to disband money laundering. 

  5. Establishment of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparations and Non-repetition (SIVJRNR for its Spanish acronym) with the aim of identifying and sanctioning human rights violations during the conflict, searching for missing persons, and implementing comprehensive reparation measures to the victims.  


It is important to note that after the systematic exclusion of the Afro-descendant and Indigenous groups from the peace negotiations, the Ethnic Commission for Peace and Defense of Territorial Rights achieved the last-minute inclusion of the so-called “Ethnic Chapter” in the Final Accord. This chapter outlines principles and safeguards necessary to implement the Peace Accord with an ethnic approach that considers the disproportionate impact of the conflict on ethnic groups, as well as their worldviews, traditions and grievances. Importantly, it also includes safety provisions to ensure their physical and cultural integrity.


Nevertheless, nearly eight years since the signing of the Peace Accord, evidence suggests that many of Colombia’s socio-environmental challenges persist in the ‘post-conflict’ scenario. Despite the CRR’s provisions to halt the expansion of the agricultural frontier, by 2021 40% of rainforest was converted  into farm lands. As the FARC withdrew from forested areas, logging, gold mining, and cattle grazing quickly filled the vacuum.


Despite having reached its lowest deforestation levels in 2022, in the first trimester of 2024 deforestation in the Colombian Amazon jumped back to 40% higher than the previous year. Colombia’s Environment Minister, Susana Muhamad, attributed the rise to the loosening of forest clearing bans exercised by a group of armed dissidents known as Estado Mayor Central (EMC). In addition, she signalled the increased forest fires brought about by El Niño as a contributing factor.  Illegal mining trends are also on the rise in the post-conflict period. In 2020, nearly 70% of Colombia’s gold was mined illegally. By 2022, the figure had reached 85%, of which 66% took place in forest reserves and natural parks. 


The Accord’s commitment towards the protection of ethnic groups has also fallen through. Indigenous Peoples and members of the Afro-Colombian community continue to be threatened, attacked, and forcibly displaced. In 2021, 67% of the victims of mass displacement and violence by the armed groups were ethnic peoples. According to data from Colombia’s Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz) between 2016 and February 2024, 1,502 social leaders –including human and environmental right defenders– were assassinated in Colombia, many of whom belonged to ethnic groups. Consequently, in 2019 and 2022, Colombia was considered by Global Witness the deadliest country for human and environmental rights activists. 



The Escazú Agreement: Colombia’s Second Chance For Sustainable Peace


After four years of negotiations, on 4th March 2018 in Escazú, Costa Rica, a Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean –known as the Escazú Agreement– was adopted. The agreement, drafted by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), recognises the universal right to a healthy environment as paramount to sustainable development and environmental democracy in the region, meaning every civil society member needs to have timely access to information and participation regarding environmental matters. It is the first accord of its kind, and has been referred to as ‘an environmental milestone’ in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as ‘a landmark multilateral instrument’. 


To date, 25 nations have signed the treaty, but only 15 have ratified it. Colombia signed the treaty on 11th  December 2019 and, after nearly three years of debate and reluctance from the private sector, it was ratified by the House of Representatives on 10th October 2022. Later, on 5th November 2022, the Congress passed Law number 2273 which approves the Escazú Agreement. 


However, for the agreement to finally come into effect, Law 2273 requires a final revision by the Constitutional Court to determine whether its provisions are in alignment with the national Constitution. The implementation of the agreement is delayed as its approval by the Constitutional Court has been pending for nearly one and a half years due to missing documentation. On April 26th 2024, a public audience was held in the Constitutional Court where ministers, legal experts, congressmen/women, and party representatives exposed their arguments in favour and against the Escazú Agreement. The Constitutional Court is now set to reach a definition in the coming weeks. 


The Escazú Agreement's implementation is necessary and urgent as it consists of critical policies that facilitate peace and conflict de-escalation processes in Colombia due to the following reasons: 


Firstly, peace will not be achieved in Colombia unless all forms of violence against social and environmental leaders and advocates cease to exist. The Escazú Agreement includes the world’s first legally binding provision on human rights defenders in environmental matters. Namely, Article 9 states that “each Party shall guarantee a safe and enabling environment for persons, groups and organisations that promote and defend human rights in environmental matters, so that they are able to act free from threat, restriction and insecurity”. It goes on to establish that attacks, threats or intimidations to human right defenders in environmental matters must be timely and effectively prevented, investigated and punished.


Secondly, aside from the direct victims of the armed conflict, there are also indirect victims: those whose fundamental rights have been violated as a result of the conflict, such as the right to a healthy environment or to access safe drinking water and food. Although the SIVJRNR’s legal mechanisms offer an opportunity to sanction and repair environmental harm caused by the armed conflict, current case law is still limited. The Escazú Agreement, with its provision to establish redress and financial mechanisms to restore, compensate, and assist victims of environmental damage (Article 8), could serve as a legal framework to guide national justice mechanisms towards environmental justice. 


Thirdly, the Escazú Agreement also provides an opportunity for rebuilding trust between the Colombian state and the civil societies, which has been severely compromised due to the state’s inability to implement the Peace Accord and engage the public. For instance, the Peace Accord ensures the participation of Indigenous, black, Afro-descendent, Raizal and Palenquero communities in one of the instruments to operationalise the CRR –the Development Programmes with a Territorial-Based Approach (PDETs). However, evidence of implementation suggests a low ownership of PDETs by communities and a lack of ethnic participation throughout the PDET cycle. In this regard, Escazú’s provisions regarding public participation in the environmental decision-making process could serve as a catalyst for stakeholder engagement under the PDETs as well as other initiatives. 


In conclusion, the Escazú Agreement addresses some of the main frailties of the Peace Accord, including residual violence and insecurity, lack of substantial community participation, and justice for the victims. While Escazú is not the silver bullet for the aftermath of the Colombian armed conflict, it provides a legal framework to ensure environmental and human rights concerns are integrated into the peacebuilding decision-making process. It complements and frames existing laws and programmes, strengthens democracy, and ensures the protection of vulnerable groups. Every month that goes by without the agreement being implemented is a month lost for progress towards sustainable peace in Colombia.


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