Panel discussion: Water and forests conservation for peace building
5 min.

On March 19, in the framework of World Water Day, a virtual forum on "Water and forest conservation in peace building" took place via Facebook Live, from the Office of Environmental Management at the Bogotá branch of the National University of Colombia. 

Hernán Cortés, head of the Office of Environmental, began by welcoming the participants with a brief summary of the origin of World Water Day. He highlighted the critical role of freshwater and its management in sustainable development.

The discussion brought together experts and leaders in the field from various sectors, such as academia, government and the community base, in order to find concrete actions for the protection of water and forests. The panel included:

  • Juanita Ariza, Representative of the Accidental Water and Biodiversity Commission in the Congress of the Republic of Colombia; 
  • Erasmo Rodríguez, general coordinator TRAJECTS LATAM, researcher at the Institute of Environmental Studies and professor at the National University of Colombia; and
  • Guillermo Villalba, environmental leader at Agroparque Los Soches.



The discussion revolved around three questions:

 1. How to understand the forest-peace-water relationship?

Juanita Ariza commented that in the past, the extractivist development model made nature a victim of the armed conflict in Colombia. The use and abuse of the natural heritage created a path of social-environmental conflict. The Colombian National Water Network provided a base to reach out to local communities who suffer the direct impacts of this conflict. At the same time, tracing this conflict route makes it possible to identify another complimentary route of action to propose solutions, which must be comprehensive. 

Erasmo Rodríguez stressed the importance of guaranteeing the availability, management and treatment of water for all Colombian citizens. After the signing of the Peace Accords, deforestation increased from 1200 km2 in 2015 to 1800 km2 in 2016. This can be explained by the legal vacuum in which certain areas were left. He also mentioned that there is a “historical and social debt with the rural Colombian citizen”, since in urban areas there is +90% of drinking water supply and sewerage services, while in rural areas, the supply is only 35% and sewerage is around 15%. He also mentioned that there is a big urban-rural gap when it comes to water quality, availability and use. When they run out of water, populations are forced to move. 

Guillermo Villalba mentioned that the vital connection to the resource of life has been lost. “People no longer know where the water they consume comes from”. The disappearance of natural aqueducts and moorlands has raised significantly, and communities have been forgotten and excluded from decision-making. Land occupation and displacement means that the historical connection to water is lost.


2. What are the biggest challenges for Colombia regarding this issue?

Juanita Ariza explained that historically, the lack of action by the state forced social and environmental leaders to mobilise. Now, it is important to articulate all actors to find solutions, which is one of the objectives of the National Water Network in Colombia. She also mentioned that a change of economic model is needed.

Guillermo Villalba highlighted the establishment of dialogue with the government. There is a short period to change the planning path, to break the mould. He pointed out that the current political will is interesting, and it is necessary to take advantage of it. Like Juanita, he mentioned that it is important to harness this convergence. He concluded by calling for urgency: "We depend on water; it's now or never".

Erasmo Rodriguez spoke about the National Development Plan, which includes a mandate for land-use planning centred around water. He mentioned that “the materialisation of this is now important”. The debt to rural areas (quality water and basic sanitation) needs money from the state. He expressed that it is important to be vigilant that corruption does not block this investment. Regarding deforestation in the Eastern Cordillera, he mentioned that it is important to identify key sites, as well as to protect the connectivity between Andean and Amazonian ecosystems.


3. What cooperation mechanisms and concrete actions at the individual and collective level should be taken for better water management and a sustainable future?

Erasmo Rodriguez suggested that changing habits can have an impact on water conservation. Reuse, change of diet, buying local. At a collective level, “more monitoring, research, and science is needed”. To evaluate the impact of public policies, it is necessary to measure and monitor the impacted areas. This requires investment. Monitoring and knowledge can guide public policy and decision making. He stressed the importance of designing strategies together with local communities, as they also have significant knowledge.

Guillermo Villalba stressed the need for more education to understand how ecosystems work, because if people do not know about them, they cannot take action to protect them. He also mentioned the importance of protecting self-managed and farmer communities, who are often the ones who preserve forests and moorlands. The model of mass consumption must be changed. Finally, he mentioned that "We are water beings" and that the connection between people and water must be reestablished.

Juanita Ariza mentioned that there is a false dichotomy between the economic and the environmental spheres. The economy cannot destroy what it depends on to survive.  “Peace includes the guarantee of all rights, not just environmental rights”. It is necessary to increase knowledge on the subject in order to deepen transformation processes. He stressed the importance of the concept of planetary limits, pointing out that unlimited growth is no longer possible. He mentioned the recently created Accidental Commission on Water and Biodiversity in the Colombian government's House of Representatives and Senate of the Republic, and invited listeners to participate and present proposals.


You can watch the discussion HERE

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