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Environment

Colombia Just Protected More Than 30,000 Square Miles of the Amazon Rainforest

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, April 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indigenous communities that depend on Colombia's Amazon rainforest for their survival will have more say over their ancestral lands, as Colombia adds 8 million hectares to its protected areas in an effort to stem forest loss.

The new measures announced by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday aim to create a buffer zone for the country's southern Amazon region.

Farmers are pushing deeper into forests, cutting down more trees to clear land for cattle-grazing and agriculture.

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Santos said the protected areas will be marked off in the next two weeks, meaning that "once and for all, we (will) know where we can farm, produce - and from what boundary we will protect all the forests and the entire Amazon".

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This brings the total area of protected forests in Colombia to nearly 40 million hectares, Santos said in a speech in the Amazon town of Leticia, flanked by indigenous tribes and Norway's prime minister and environment minister.

Norway, a key financial backer of Colombia's forest conservation efforts, said the new buffer zone was important to meet Colombia's goals of zero net deforestation by 2020, and halting the loss of all natural forest by 2030.

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"It is unprecedented - it has not happened anywhere else, any other place at least that I know," Ola Elvestuen, Norway's new minister of climate and environment, said on this week's visit.

Reducing deforestation is crucial in the fight against climate change, Elvestuen added.

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When forests are degraded or destroyed, the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere, with deforestation accounting for 10 to 15 percent of carbon emissions worldwide.

Under a decree signed by President Santos, Colombia's Amazon tribes will be able to decide through their own community councils how to spend government development funds in three provinces.

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"Indigenous people have traditionally shown themselves to be the best keepers of rainforests," Elvestuen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Norway said it would extend an agreement with Colombia by five years to 2025 under which Colombia gets payouts for meeting verified targets to reduce emissions by slowing deforestation.

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Colombia will receive up to $50 million a year through 2025 under the deal, which could run until 2030, the minister said.

The payments are usually distributed to farmers, as well as community and indigenous groups and local environment authorities working on forest protection.

Colombia is home to rainforest roughly the size of Germany and England but is struggling to protect it. Deforestation rates in its Amazon region increased by 44 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Elvestuen said they could rise again in 2017 and 2018.

Swathes of forests are being felled in areas vacated by rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as part of a 2016 peace deal signed with the government.

As the government tries to regain control of former FARC strongholds, farmers, illegal loggers and organised crime groups involved in drug trafficking and illegal mining are tapping into new places, including in the Amazon, Elvestuen said.

Colombia's top court earlier this month told the government to come up with plans within four months to combat rising deforestation in the Amazon.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)