By María Mónica Monsalve & Sergio Silva Numa, EL ESPECTADOR, November 2, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Yesterday in the COP26 meeting taking place in Glasgow (Scotland), President Duque announced an ambitious goal: to achieve protection for 30% of the nation’s territory by 2022. However, there are a few concerns about the process. Can this be done?

In the first two days of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26), President Duque made several promises that were received with applause, but which left some unanswered questions. He made another one, about which he had already given some hints: he assured that by 2022 the government would be declaring that 30% of Colombia’s territory would be under some kind of protection. With that decision he put forward a goal that had already been agreed upon by a number of countries: that by 2030, 30% of the planet will be protected.

But, as has happened with other announcements, there was an unanswered question. How could the government increase that quantity of protected areas in just one year? Is it possible to double the quantity of protected area that this country has today in just twelve months, with a concept of protection that, in total, would add as much as 31.4 million hectares, equaling 15 percent of the entire national territory?

To gain another 15%, according to the Ministry of Environment, they would create two new maritime protected areas in the North Pacific drainage basin, in Lomas and Las Colinas, and another one in the Caribbean, in the Beata mountain chain. Besides that, they would widen the Acandí, Playón, and Playóna animal sanctuaries, the plant and animal sanctuary in Malpelo, and in the Complete Management District in Yurupari Malpelo. They are adding more hectares with a concept known as “effective conservation measures”, which is applied to geographic areas that have demonstrated that they are well managed and are achieving positive results for long run biodiversity.

They plan to add other hectares through protective procedures that will be put in place in the National Natural Parks (PNN in Spanish), and which, says Carolina Jarro, the agency’s Deputy Director of Administration and Management of Protected Areas, are being speeded up in order to get them going before the end of the current administration.

There are two groups in that portfolio: The first consists of five protected areas that will be expanded. Those are the following: Estoraques Unique Natural Area, PNN Chingaza, PNN Tatama, Acandí Animal Sanctuary, Playón and Playona, and PNN Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

The other groups relate to six new areas that the country will have: the Cumariba Transitional Jungles, the Serranía de Manacacha, the Patio Ecosystems, Tochecito, Serranía de San Lucas, and the Arauca floodplains.

But a fundamental doubt has to do with the exact number of hectares that would be protected.Nobody seems to know exactly. Gonzalo Andrade, Coordinator of the Permanent Committee on Protected Areas at the Colombian Academy of Science, the entity where studies of the necessity to declare that an area is in need of protection must go, doesn’t know for sure either.

Even though Andrade makes clear that he has taken part in the processes and has had a permanent dialog with the national government, as of now they have not provided technical support for the expansions of the new protected areas. The only thing he has received is support for the expansion of Estoraques, in Norte de Santander. “But this adds up to 16 million hectares for the marine area, and 15 million for the continental,” he calculates. Together, those numbers equal 31 million hectares; that means, another 15% of the national territory.

But in spite of the fact that these numbers could add up to the 30% that Duque promised yesterday in the COP26, ultimately, there is another big question: Can he accomplish that before he leaves office?

Jarro, of PNN, on the one hand, explains that declaring or expanding an area is a process that has no established time frame. You have to identify the territory physically, explain it to citizens and communities, and finally, if it’s an area of a national scale, present it to the National Academy of Sciences, which Andrade is a part of, so that they can make a decision.

Processes like that of the Serranía San Lucas, for example, have been going on for more than five years. “Other processes in the portfolio have already prepared the physical and biological information or are at the stage of cross-sectorial discussion,” Jarro adds. The expansion of Acandí will take four years, and came out of a prior consultation with the three community processes in the area.

Nevertheless, many are concerned that this is just a paper target, taking advantage of the floodlights of the COP26. Manuel Becerra, former Minister of Environment and Director of the National Environmental Forum, celebrates the declaration of new areas, but insists that it’s an announcement that has to be examined closely. “The protection of marine areas could just be saluting the flag if it’s not accompanied by measures that guarantee that protection,” he says.

With regard to taking care of the oceans, it requires vigilant eyes to prevent, for example, fishing boats from entering illegally, as has happened to a Colombian jewel that is already protected, Malpelo. “There are huge limitations in protecting the sea,” he says. “But it’s better to make the declaration than not to make it, not forgetting that you have to add efforts to put a stop to the environmental calamity that fishing is creating.”

Juan Pablo Ruiz Soto, a member of the Citizens Network for Natural Reserves in Civil Society, adds one more point, “These measures have to be accompanied by a budget allocation for the environmental sector, something that did not happen in the last tax reform legislation. The increase was minimal. It’s not about delimiting areas, without creating mechanisms that permit real protection in those places.”

In fact, right now, the situation of the Colombian PNN is not the best. The last report from The Parks: How Are We Doing found a number of weaknesses. Of the 59 PNN, 35 contain some ecosystems that are threatened, only 35 have updated management plans, and there is deforestation in 32 of them.

So, why continue to expand them when the ones we have are not protected? Sandra Velardy, a professor at the University of the Andes, and Director of The Parks: How Are We Doing, is concerned that the announcement will fall short in 2022, since the declarations and the expansions require technical effort, participation, design, financial resources, and time. Besides that, she reminds us that there needs to be an expansion that seeks to preserve the 81 ecosystems that exist in Colombia, and make them more visible.

“One of the ecosystems that has the least representation in the protected areas is the floodplains, in spite of the fact that they play a fundamental role in CO2 fixation. Only 7.6% of the surface of the floodplains in the country are in any conservation category,” Vilardy commented.   

Her call is that among these targets, the government should not forget the key focus of COP26: climate change. “We must be strengthening our efforts to monitor the health of the ecosystems and their response to the effects of climate change, and furthermore, the fundamental role of regulation of the water cycle and CO2 fixation.”

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