What’s in store for Colombia’s forests? New modeling tries to predict.

What’s in store for Colombia’s forests? New modeling tries to predict.

Colombia has nearly 60 million hectares (147.5 million acres) of natural forest covering over half its territory, much of it in the Amazon basin. As a “megadiverse” country, possessing around 10% of the world’s biodiversity, the stakes are high for the deforestation policies it’s employing to combat climate change.

Between 2000 and 2020, the country lost nearly 5 million hectares (12.3 million acres) of forest to cattle ranching and agricultural activity, according to Global Forest Watch, a satellite mapping initiative. Some of those years, those factors contributed to around half of all forest loss in the country.

President Gustavo Petro came into office last year promising to slow deforestation rates and grant more land to Indigenous communities. He has a handful of climate change laws and national action plans at his disposal but implementation has been tricky, so it’s still unclear what’s going to play out with Colombia’s forests in years to come.

In an attempt to chart some future outcomes, the Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-Use, and Energy (FABLE) consortium looked at three different directions the country could take with its current policies. One was more passive, while the others were more hands-on and creative. All of them relied on evolving agriculture, forestry and bioenergy trends, represented by a model known as GLOBIOM-Colombia.

In all of the outcomes it became clear that Colombia will need a more consistent and innovative approach to deforestation to meet many of its conservation goals, the report said. It will also need to come up with some complimentary strategies that consider the social and economic implications of changing agricultural industries.

“The agricultural frontier is a cornerstone of Colombia’s peace agreements, and it should be consistent with its national climate and deforestation strategies,” FABLE’s report said. “The definition and consistency of targets, supported by effective local community participation will be crucial for meeting climate and restoration goals, as well as for continued peacekeeping.”

Cattle graze on deforested land in Colombia. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)
Cattle graze on deforested land in Colombia. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)

Colombia has implemented a number of deforestation and restoration policies in the last decade. National Resolution 261, approved in 2018, established an agricultural frontier to limit the creeping advancement of crop cultivation and cattle ranching. But a lot of the policies have varying levels of detail and don’t always align on their priorities. Many “area-based targets” don’t specify exactly which cleared land is eligible for reforestation or what strategies should be used to carry it out.

The result is a set of action plans and laws that all look promising in their own ways but, when applied together, might lack enough consistency to slow deforestation.

“There’s a huge question globally around monitoring forest restoration,” said co-author Eleanor Warren Thomas, a researcher at Bangor University in the U.K. “How do we know if those targets have been met, and where and how? That’s a huge open question at the moment.”

Future pathways

One pathway analyzed by FABLE imagines what Colombia’s forests will look like if the country maintains the status quo, allowing pastures and croplands to replace forests except inside protected areas. In that pathway, no forest restoration takes place at all.

If that were to happen, another 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of forest would become agricultural land by 2040, with 463 million tons of CO2 being emitted into the air, the model predicts. Cropland would also increase by over 90%.

The most affected areas in this outcome would likely be the Magdalena-Cauca micro-basin — the northwest forest corridor sandwiched between the Magdalena and Cauca rivers — with 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) lost. The Orinoco micro-basin farther east would also see hundreds of thousands of hectares of deforestation, the FABLE report said.

In another, more optimistic pathway, the consortium supposes that Colombia manages to successfully close the agricultural frontier, preventing agricultural activity and cattle ranching from expanding onto any forests inside or outside protected areas established after 2020. It also ensures forests are restored on all pasture lands that were established on deforested land since 2010. In that pathway, the country would halve its total agricultural land by 2040, cutting back emissions by between 313 million and 524 million tons of CO2 where natural forest regrowth takes place.

One downside for some policymakers might be that reduced agricultural production could result in higher imports. Cattle meat production would drop by 10,000 tons and milk by 87,000 tons. But at the same time, in total, that’s only a maximum 1% drop in production, the report said.

Deforestation in Colombia. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)
Deforestation in Colombia. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)

The final pathway considers what might happen if the country “goes the extra mile” by not only closing the agricultural frontier to prevent deforestation but also allowing for additional natural forest regeneration inside the agricultural frontier in areas with endangered forest ecosystems. The result would be a total forest area of around 2.76 million hectares by 2040 and a similar reduction of between 313 million and 524 million tons of CO2.

“It’s possible to reach 1.36 million hectares [3.3 million acres] of restored forest in the most ambitious scenario without compromising aspects of agricultural production, in particular cattle ranching,” said co-author John Chavarro, a researcher at Javeriana University in Colombia.

When viewed together, the outcomes suggest that Colombia needs to prioritize targeting high-risk ecosystems both inside and outside of the agricultural frontier. The more ambitious “going the extra mile” pathway shows that that kind of approach would result in the most reforestation and carbon sequestration and thus do the most to help the country meet its long-term climate change goals. Right now, Colombia’s national action plan makes mention of that kind of strategy. But other climate change and deforestation policies leave it out.

More practically, FABLE suggests that policymakers develop strategies for engaging and supporting communities, as that will be key to ensuring reforestation efforts are carried out successfully. Assistance with land titling, community roundtables and job creation initiatives will create community buy-in, the report said.

“It’s important that Colombia’s reforestation efforts are complemented by the development of incentives,” Chavarro said.

This article by Maxwell Radwin was first published by Mongabay.com on 28 June 2023. Lead Image: A frog in the Colombian rainforest. Photo courtesy of Rhett A. Butler.

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