Deforestation in post-conflict Colombia

Economists on Peace contributor, Juan Vargas, on the surprising environmental outcomes that followed the FARC peace agreement.

In 2017, the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies found that during the first year of the implementation of the peace agreement between the central government and FARC, 291,973 hectares were deforested. This is 23% more than in 2016. According to the Ministry of Environment, in 2018 this number could have reached 270,000 hectares.

In my last post for Vision of Humanity, I discussed one unintended consequence of peace in Colombia: the ceasefire declared by FARC at the end of 2014 during the peace negotiations led to a window of opportunity for other armed groups to try to exert control over territories previously controlled by FARC. In turn, these groups used, as their main strategy, targeted violence against local community leaders.

Can the coincidence between the so-called post-conflict stage in Colombia, and the surge in deforestation be another unintended consequence of the peace with FARC?

In the best case scenario this could be just a spurious correlation. Alternatively, the forces of progress that have pushed Colombia’s economic growth – and that as a byproduct have caused deforestation – may also have indirectly helped FARC fighters sick of hiding in the jungle. This explanation would not necessarily be bad news. Unfortunately, the evidence seems not to be on the optimistic side.

In the following lines, I will describe how the same historical event that exacerbated the killing of social leaders – the permanent ceasefire declared by FARC during the peace negotiations – has led to an unprecedented surge in deforestation, especially in areas previously controlled by FARC. This assessment is based on a recent paper,  I co-authored with my colleagues at Universidad del Rosario Mounu Prem and Santiago Saavedra.

The evidence we find is consistent with an interpretation whereby the violent presence of armed groups limited the incidence of land intensive economic activities, and the types of businesses responsible for reduction in forest coverage, once the ceasefire opened the gates of municipalities previously controlled by FARC.

How do we conclude this? For our analysis we merge the Global Forest Change database, which identifies global forest coverage over time in pixels of 30 metres by 30 metres, using high definition satellite images, with an armed conflict database that is periodically updated at Universidad del Rosario using information from the NGO Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular or The Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP).

The empirical strategy, summarised in Figure 1, is a difference-in-differences model that estimates the causal effect of the permanent ceasefire declared by FARC on December 20th, 2014, on deforestation in municipalities previously controlled by this armed group. Our estimates control for any municipality characteristic, observed or not, that does not change over time and for any aggregate shock that is common to all municipalities.

In Figure 1, the dashed vertical line shows the beginning of the ceasefire, that was pretty much binding until replaced by the definitive bilateral ceasefire in August 2016. The figure shows how the deforestation, that has trended upwards across the entire country since 2016, faced a differential increase in municipalities previously controlled by FARC, compared to the rest of the country.

The most important result in terms of public policy is probably that the differential increase in deforestation is attenuated in municipalities with better local institutions and more state capacity. I believe this is good news, given that in areas where local institutions can regulate the exploitation of natural resources, the observed increase in deforestation is lower.

This result underlines the importance of complementing the recent peace achievements with efforts directed towards the construction of state, with adequate government practices. This would help to avoid peace that is reached at the expense of forest wealth in Colombia.

Another result that is worth mentioning is that the reduction in forest coverage is mainly explained by patterns of massive deforestation, which is consistent with the entry of land intensive and likely unregulated economic activities; and not because of deforestation in small plots.

Final thoughts

I am the biggest fan of the recent peace agreement with FARC. I strongly believe that this is the most important political milestone in Colombia’s recent history. Paraphrasing the chief of the government’s peace negotiation team, Humberto de la Calle, I do not have any doubts that an imperfect agreement is preferred to a perfect war.

But this is not an obstacle to highlight the undesired side effects of peace, such as the massive deforestation surge as well as the killing of local community leaders. What I have called in my last two posts “unintended consequences of peace” are actually symptoms of the lack of an institutional accompaniment of the peace negotiation, firstly, and the implementation of the peace agreement, secondly. If the governments of presidents Santos and Duque had accompanied these processes by bringing the state institutions to regions traditionally affected by the armed conflict – including not only security but also justice, and economic and social development – very likely these two posts, and the others that may be to come, would have never been written. For Duque’s government it is not too late.

The opinions expressed throughout this article are the opinions of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vision of Humanity or the Institute for Economics & Peace.

Juan Vargas

Professor of Economics

Juan Vargas is Professor of Economics at Universidad del Rosario in Colombia. He holds a PhD in Economics from Royal Holloway, University of London (2007) and has held visiting positions at Harvard University, UCLA, the Institute of Development Studies and the IADB. His main interests are in the areas of political economy and development, focusing particularly on the causes and consequences of violent armed conflict, the economics of crime and the interplay between political and economic institutions.

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