21 years ago, revolutionary guerrillas attacked paramilitaries in the town of Bojayá, Colombia, in an attempt to take control of the river region. In the midst of the fighting, a bomb landed on the altar of the church, where 300 citizens were taking refuge. 119 died, and 98 more were injured in one of the deadliest moments in Colombia’s armed conflict.
Today, Vigía del Fuerte, only meters away from Bojayá, is home to Planeta, one of the few flourishing legal companies in the Medio Atrato River region growing and selling heart of palm and açaí.
“It’s a tragic history, but there’s a beautiful story in the 20 years since,” says Luis Rios, Palladium Country Director in Colombia, “And it’s especially important because it’s in an area of the country that has suffered substantially.” Colombia is no stranger to violence, issues of security, and instability, and the country has experienced fighting on several fronts since the 1980s.
While there’s been a slight increase in violence and security issues over the past four years, according to Rios, they’re nothing compared to 25 years ago, when the country witnessed rampant illicitly funded fighting, civilian deaths, and violence.
Since the 2016 peace agreement, Rios notes an influx of resources from international cooperation programs looking to support and enable Colombia to flourish in the post-conflict world. The peace agreement attempts to address Colombia’s long lasting land access inequity, a key enabler of the broader armed conflict, through the Comprehensive Rural Reform. While its intentions were good, the agreement has not been fully successful in its implementation, and in some cases, he says, it has exacerbated social and ecological issues such as narcotraffic and deforestation.
Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, yet it’s threatened by deforestation. It has a unique potential to explore a sustainable bioeconomy for non-timber forest products (NTFPs) like medicinal plants, resins, fruits, and seeds and combat deforestation at the same time. Despite that, less than 2% of native forestland is used sustainably as a source of timber or NTFPs.
Since 2018, two of those programs providing support in Colombia to both smallholders and to the government are Partnerships for Forests (P4F) and Partnering for Accelerated Climate Transitions (UK PACT), both funded by the UK Government and managed by Palladium. P4F catalyses investments into sustainable land use, and under UK PACT, Palladium has supported various grantees to enhance the capacities of local and national stakeholders to use and scale sustainable biodiversity and improve forests and land use management.
The Colombian Pacific is primarily occupied by Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in collectively owned territories. These communities, which have traditionally been highly isolated, are now experiencing external cultural and economic pressures. The region has subsequently become one of the country’s most extensive deforestation and degradation hotspots. Most of this deforestation and degradation are driven by illegal logging, mining, and illicit crops.
With very few livelihood alternatives to turn to, increasing the value of the standing forest by supporting alternative, sustainable forest use has the potential to protect both the wellbeing of these communities and their surrounding forests.
The flooded forests along the Atrato River are rich in a palm tree that produces açaí and palm-hearts. Planeta, owned, managed and staffed by the local community, buys palm-hearts from local farmers and processes them to be sold to outlets in Bogotá and Medellín where the product’s environmentally friendly story helps to command premium prices.
The company has established nurseries for açaí tree seeds to support agroforestry in smallholder farms in exchange for zero-deforestation commitments. In return, açaí will be processed and sold by Planeta as a way for smallholders to diversify their businesses.
Palm-heart collection can be twice as profitable for the community than illegal timber activities and more sustainable. Since P4F’s support began, the project has achieved new offtake agreements with a large national chain, Crepes & Waffles, Alsec, and other small açaí businesses in the west of the country. The project supported operational and infrastructural improvements that allowed Planeta to achieve the Colombian Food and Drugs Institute certification, which in turn was instrumental in opening off-take possibilities like the ones mentioned.
Against the Odds
Planeta is just one story of many across Colombia, where against all odds, legal smallholder farmers are on the rise, and operations are growing, pushing out illegal deforestation and ,slowing the funding for guerrilla groups. But as Rios adds, it’s not always easy, often, it’s more challenging than simple. “We deliver positive impact, but doing so involves working in difficult contexts, and that means working in areas that are very complex but where you can deliver the most impact and drive change.”
“If you help a company in the middle of a tropical forest of Colombia to continue to harvest the standing forest while preserving cultural traditions sustainably, you’re driving impact – you’re protecting areas of the Pacific or the Amazonia and providing people with livelihoods and opportunities for a decent wage,” he notes.
“And that change is very important in areas of the country where illegality has been the most powerful actor in decades.” Rios explains that for many smallholder farmers growing illicit crops like coca, this is how they have lived for decades, even generations, and incentivizing and convincing them to shift to a legal crop requires close relationships and an understanding of the political and economic systems operating around them.
“We are in constant communication with our grantees regarding security awareness and policies, and understanding what’s going on in their territories,” Rios explains. “The critical security variable is remembering that life is the most important thing; we’ll never pressure a grantee or anyone in the value chain to deliver on a milestone that would potentially expose them to a risk that would threaten their life.”
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