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National Geographic Honors Colombian President for Conservation Efforts

By Carrie Snurr

On September 21 the National Geographic Society recognized Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos for his long-term work to increase conservation efforts in the Republic of Colombia.

Santos expressed the need to work with indigenous peoples in Colombia. He talked about how his government has worked with members of indigenous tribes in order to improve and expand conservation efforts and to recover from environmental damage caused by its war with rebels and drug trafficking.

“We say [the environment] is our house; it’s a common house,” Santos said. “Because of our importance and because we are one of the most vulnerable countries in the world in terms of the effect of climate change, we reestablished the ministry of the environment.”

He said that the environment became a casualty of Colombia’s long-running war with drug traffickers and rebel groups such as FARC and ELN. The country has struggled with illegal farms growing coca, the main ingredient in cocaine while clearing away swaths of trees to make room for the growing operations.

Gary Knell Conservation Colombia National Geographic
National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary E. Knell provides opening remarks at a special ceremony honoring President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia for his unwavering commitment to conservation held at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. on September 21, 2017. (Photo: Sora DeVore/National Geographic)

In 2016 Santos was the sole recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in ending the fighting between FARC rebels and the Colombian government. The Colombian government passed an agreement with the Farc rebel group ending the decades-long fighting after a referendum failed.

“We are honoring one of the foremost champions of our natural world,” Gary Knell, president and CEO of National Geographic, said. “He has done amazing work to protect Colombia’s ecosystem.”

Colombia ranks as number four in the world in biodiversity. It has over 300 types of marine and continental ecosystems with approximately 56,000 registered species. Santos called the country a paradise for bird-watchers.

“President Santos is a shining example of everything National Geographic stands for and supports,” Knell said. “He is a bold leader with transformative ideas and a fearless trailblazer who champions policies that will help achieve a planet in balance - and help change the world.”

The country has about 28.4 million hectares, or about 6,500 square miles, protected by the government. Thirteen percent of Colombia’s marine territory has the protected designation.

Juan Manuel Santos Colombia President National Geographic Environment Conservation
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia (left) is greeted by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala (right) at National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. on September 21, 2017. (Photo: Sora DeVore/National Geographic)

“At a moment when the environment is increasingly becoming more of an issue worldwide, we created the ministry [of the environment],” Santos said. “We strengthened the system and we decided to set two course of action, one to expand our protected areas and second, to strengthen and expand the communities that better protect our environment.”

He has more than doubled the size of the Chiribiquete National Park which is home to natural wonders such as some of the most biologically diverse lowlands forest areas in the Northern Amazon and birds that can’t be found in any other region.

Santos commended efforts at the institutional level, the private sector and the NGO’s concerned with the environment for working toward protecting Colombia’s environment.

“We consider the park probably the area of the world where the biodiversity is more concentrated,” He said. “The richest in the whole world in terms of biodiversity. I hope to increase even more, by 1.7 million hectares at Chiribiquete Park before I leave office in August of next year.”

Juan Manuel Santos Colombia Gary Knell National Geographic Conservation
National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary E. Knell (left) stands with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia (right) at a special ceremony honoring President Santos for his unwavering commitment to conservation held at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. on September 21, 2017. (Photo: Sora DeVore/National Geographic)

Santos took office in 2010 and has since more than doubled the size of protected areas in the country. His ultimate goal is to have more than 30 million hectares, roughly the size of the United Kingdom, of protected land before he leaves office.

Knell added that Santos has done more work than many American leaders toward the conservation of the environment. He added Santos has made strides toward halting activities that threaten the natural world, such as illegal logging and mining.

The government is also working with farmers in areas formerly controlled by rebels to exchange coca plants, for other legal crops that the farmers can grow for themselves or sell for a profit.

“For more than 50 years, the environment was one of Colombia’s war victims.” Santos said. “The war was having a very bad effect on the environment. I call it an eco-cide. The drug trafficking fed the war and the war fed the drug trafficking, and was responsible for a good part of our deforestation.”

He said that Colombia has also struggled with huge amounts of oil spilled into its rivers. Since 2000, over 66 million gallons of oil have been spilled in the country, according to Reuters. Santos added that the amount of oil spilled in Colombia was about 14 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.

President Juan Manuel Santos Colombia National Geographic Biodiversity Conservation
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia delivers acceptance remarks at special ceremony recognizing President Santos for his unwavering commitment to conservation held at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. on September 21, 2017. (Photo: Sora DeVore/National Geographic)

Colombia has seven protected wetlands. Santos hopes to add five more protected wetlands before August. He stressed the importance of also protecting indigenous communities, who he called the “best guardians,” of the environment.

“The indigenous people are the best caretakers, the best guardians,” He said. “Twenty percent of our forests are in ethnic territories. We are not only diverse in flora and fauna but we’re also proudly diverse in our culture.”

Santos shared a story of visiting indigenous communities before being sworn in as president. He said the indigenous people told him that Mother Earth was mad and that more needed to be done to protect the environment.

Thirty-two of the country’s protected areas overlap with ethnic Colombian or indigenous territories. Santos said he has made working with indigenous people a priority in his conservation effort. He has given indigenous tribes protected areas to protect. The government has worked with indigenous peoples and former rebels, training them to act as park rangers in protected parks.

“Making peace with nature is just as important as making peace with each other,” Santos said. “This is Colombia; this is what we’re trying to protect. We have great allies in this adventure. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”


Carrie Snurr is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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