Luis Rios is Palladium's Country Director in Colombia. He shares his insights on the changing landscape of the country and why it's critical to dispel the misconceptions. The articles within this report reflect our experiences and work in Colombia over the past five years.
Colombia, to many people around the world, is violence. It’s coca; it’s illegal activity; it’s guerrillas and paramilitaries. It’s known as a country that was near collapse in the 1980’s and 90’s and remains the home of Narcos, drug trafficking, and dangerous, impoverished cities.
The country is famously plagued by misconceptions both internationally and within its own borders. But in reality, these misconceptions and beliefs fail to describe the true situation in the country as Colombia has progressed by leaps and bounds in the past 25 years. Medellin was once one of the most dangerous cities globally, but in 2013, it was rated the most innovative city in the world and has seen one of the most remarkable urban turnarounds in modern history.
Colombia has shifted from a near failed state to an emerging power, representing hope and possibility. With the peace deal in 2016 came an opportunity for the rural areas of the country to contribute to sustainable economic growth and expansion. Those rural communities make up a significant portion of the population, but they face real challenges, which are complicated by the fact that they were witness to much of the country’s violence and now have very few opportunities for legal work.
I’ve worked in development for more than 20 years, and even I had reservations – based on misconceptions and outdated beliefs – about working in the Colombian Pacific. But what I saw in the forests of Colombia were communities of people doing their best to make a living while protecting their natural environment and resisting the violence and illegal activities around them. What I witnessed was overwhelmingly positive and human and gave me hope for the future of Colombia.
Because unlike what many people in the urban and rural areas believe, the forests have incredible value. Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries and is home to some of the largest contiguous areas of rainforest in the world. Investing in those communities and the forests themselves can, and will be, good for the entire country – economically, socially, and environmentally. These forest areas can provide legal income alternatives to communities. Non-timber forest products and their derivatives, carbon projects, habitat banks and biodiversity credits, nature tourism, and legal timber are all options that can be scaled and replicated.
To me, that opportunity and hope is the real Colombia.
Bigger than the misconceptions and stereotypes, is the beauty of Colombian communities and biodiversity, and the many people and companies finding ways to support, maintain, and restore nature and support people. The country’s rich biodiversity is under threat from deforestation, illegal mining, and other activities, but it’s ripe in opportunity to address those threats and more. There is significant potential for investing in infrastructure, education, and other services that can help to create jobs and economic opportunities for local communities.
The work has already begun.
Whether it’s the small businesses based in rural communities reaching international markets with their products, or the partnerships with indigenous people and former guerrillas and paramilitaries to restore the land, there is a thriving, sustainable economy in the ‘real’ Colombia that in the 5 years since my first visit to the Pacific forests, continues to give me hope. 50% of Colombia is still forest; however, we have lost 25% of our forests in the last 5 decades. It’s in our hands to stop this trend.
We need to scale and replicate legal activities, which means we need the private and public sector, as well as civil society and international cooperation to focus and align efforts on what is already working. That’s the real way forward.