Colombia is one of most biologically rich countries in the world, with over 300 hundred types of ecosystems and thousands of native flora and fauna species. Its portion of the Amazon jungle alone accounts for approximately 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity and 15 percent of its oxygen.

Globally, the nation ranks first in number of different types of birds, and second in plants, butterflies, and amphibians.

In mid-July, just several weeks short of his first year in office, the Minister for the Environment announced an ambitious plan to safeguard the country’s plant and animal kingdoms. Six regions covering 1.6 million hectares of land in eight departments have been slated to become national parks.

Protecting natural Colombia

Currently, Colombia has 59 nature conservations that comprise 12 percent of domestic territory.

A major factor in selecting the reserves was the effect of mining, a key stimulus of the Colombian economy. The resolution signed by Minister Gabriel Vallejo cited “the risk of serious and irreversible damage” posed by the extraction of natural resources “without prior environmental assessments.” As a result, the lands are shielded from 234 applications to drill and quarry, although the fate of 203 active mining licenses is still undecided.

The half-dozen zones include mountain ranges and rainforests in the Serranía de San Lucas of Bolívar and Antioquia, which host large monkey and wildcat populations, as well as grasslands and wetlands in the Alto Manacacias of the Meta department. The list also extends to savannas in Arauca, transitional forests in Vichada, dry forests in Cauca, and tropical humid forests in the departments of César and La Guajira.

In addition to the lands named by the Minister of the Environment, the Director of National Parks revealed that other vulnerable ecosystems could soon become public nature reserves, despite the fact that they are not located in mining areas. The pending sites are the Cinaruco River in Arauca and the mangroves of Tumaco, whose turtle nesting spots were recently polluted with oil following attacks on infrastructure by leftist rebels.

The process of converting the newly protected zones into national parks is expected to take at least 18 months. In the coming months, authorities will carry out a series of social programs with local communities that will no longer be able to develop the regions.

Moreover, boundary delimitations will be reviewed based on their possible collision with indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations.

Parks in peace

To fully defend Colombia’s biodiversity, security forces will also need to crack down further on criminal activity in the designated areas. Endangered species and natural wonders often coexist with violence stemming from unsavory actors like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), narco-traffickers, and neo-paramilitary groups, which fight over control of territory, illicit crops, and illegal mining.

Indeed, the nation’s most popular parks have historically been caught in the crossfire of the armed conflict. A decade ago, the FARC still grew coca in large swaths of the Macarena National Park, home to the world-famous “river of five colors,” Caño Cristales. In turn, the Government would routinely spray the nature reserve with machine gun fire and glyphosate, a practice discontinued this year after the World Health Organization deemed the herbicide to be carcinogenic.

Moreover, Tayrona National Park on the Caribbean Coast, now a top destination for backpackers and beachgoers, was in recent memory a battleground between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. As late as 2003, gunmen kidnapped foreign tourists during a hike through the “Lost City,” an ancient ruin in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Three of Tayrona’s directors were murdered when they refused to convert the area into a transit point for cocaine shipments.

By conserving Colombia’s ecological communities, the Minister of the Environment has also revealed that he is qualified for the position. When President Santos appointed Gabriel Vallejo last year, environmentalists and leftist politicians lamented his background in business and customer service.

Several months into his tenure, the Minister was subject to fierce criticism when the Government green-lighted the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Yet securing nature reserves has coincided with several other “green” announcements from the Minister. In late July, Vallejo declared that Colombia aims to reduce its emission of greenhouse gases by at least 20% over the next 15 years. Several days later, the Government declared war on the nation’s illegal mining industry, which is responsible for soil erosion, deforestation, and water pollution.

Ultimately, Colombia seeks to establish conservation sites that protect 17% of each of its most representative ecosystems. This task will be easier should the ongoing dialogue with the FARC in Havana come to a successful end. For the first time in Colombian history, new national parks would open in a post-conflict scenario, and the population could finally witness its country’s biological phenomenon in peace.