London, United Kingdom | AFP | Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos on Friday hailed his country’s peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group as a chance to preserve his country’s biodiversity after decades of violence.
“We need to reconcile also with the environment, which was a big victim of the armed conflict,” Santos said after receiving an international environmental award from the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London.
“The number of barrels of oil that we’ve spilled in our rivers, in our seas, was the equivalent of 14 times the Exxon Valdez. And that was a huge environmental disaster,” he said, referring to the 1989 oil spill in Alaska.
The peace accord signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November 2016 ended the 53-year conflict.
In addition to the human cost of the violence, which left 260,000 people dead and more than 60,000 missing, it also had serious consequences for the environment.
The country has suffered illegal mining and attacks on oil pipelines as well as the felling of forests for drug trafficking.
Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his efforts to end his country’s conflict, but he said his work was not finished.
“We think that Colombia’s future is very much dependent on how we protect our biodiversity,” he said.
Santos was joined in London by his environment minister, Luis Gilberto Murillo, who said the implementation of the peace deal had enabled researchers to reach areas of the rainforest previously off limits.
“The peace creates the right conditions for better protecting the environment, particularly in areas where we had our conflict before,” he told AFP.
But he cautioned that pockets of violence, notably due to drug trafficking, continue to hamper the government’s environmental ambitions.
Although the peace accord has brought greater access to the rainforest, Kew Science researcher Mauricio Diazgranados warned that it had also led to rapid development.
“In less than two years, nearly 1.5 million hectares of natural ecosystems have been degraded (equivalent to almost two per cent of the total area) and the deforestation rate is rampant,” Diazgranados wrote in a study published online.
“Despite the celebrated government efforts to increase the national protected areas, the question now is how biodiversity can survive development,” he said.
Colombia is one of the world’s richest countries in terms of biodiversity, with 91 ecosystems, 25,163 varieties of plants and 1,937 species of birds, according to Kew.