Source: Agencia Prensa Rural, 2014 Agencia Prensa Rural

(Un)protected forest lands in Colombia

Colombia has a continental surface of 114 million hectares, and 45% of the area corresponds to what has been called "Forest Reserve Zones." Forest Reserve Zones is an environmental conservation figure created in 1959 to promote the development of the forestry economy and water, soil, and wildlife conservation in selected areas of the country. However, these areas have been occupied by peasant settlers who have transformed the ecosystems as a result of the dynamics of the internal armed conflict and the low capacity of the state to manage the forests. For instance, some municipalities within these zones have urbanized centres, schools, churches, and roads. Hence, they no longer hold their initial forest attributes. Still, on paper, these territories continue to be considered protected areas. Moreover, although, by law these lands can only be owned by the state, entire families have occupied them for generations and have considered themselves the legitimate owners of their territories.

This situation has led the Colombian state to seek ways  to "formalize" land tenure for rural inhabitants. However, issuing land titles to peasant families located in Forest Reserve Zones is a challenging task. Given that these protected lands can exclusively be state property, the alternative  considered so far has been  to eliminate the environmental protection category of the sites so that they  could be awarded to the occupants. This measure has been rejected and deemed regressive by environmental authorities. But  the implementation of  point 1 of the Peace Agreement (Integral Rural Reform: Towards a new Colombian Countryside) signed between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government in 2016 opened new perspectives for land access and formalization. Regarding Forest Reserve Zones, the State launched a new strategy called "Natural Conservation Contracts."

Natural Conservation Contracts

The "Natural Conservation Contracts" strategy was initially created in 2018 as part of the country's peacebuilding agenda under the premise that land tenure problems are at the heart of the country's internal armed conflict. This strategy is expected to meet two public policy goals: the formalization of rural property and deforestation control. Informal land tenure conditions in Colombia have been a critical focus of multiple public policies and international development initiatives. The country has promoted property titling initiatives assuming that securing property rights improves the quality of life for the rural poor. Hence, Natural Conservation Contracts represent a relevant example of an initiative to strengthen land rights in Colombia. However, this is a particular case of a formalization initiative, given that, through this route, the state does not hand over private property to peasant communities but grants the "right to use" non-allocable lands to those who join the strategy.

Wood felled and stacked on the roadside on my way from Montería to Tierralta. I took this photo within a forest reserve zone, but the landscape is not dense trees but cut timber. (Photo: Natalia Correa Sánchez).

In addition, this new alternative supposes that by guaranteeing "use  rights"  (rather than full ownership) through a legal device (contract), peasants will have easier access to credit and other types of public goods and services that are usually reserved for those with property rights recognized by the state. Under the contract terms, peasants who join the strategy do not become owners of the land but assume the responsibility to use the land and natural resources sustainably. This obligation includes, for example, "refraining from activities that (...) threaten the conservation of the environment" (numeral 7, clause 9 of the contract). In return, the state is responsible for paying money (payment for environmental services) to peasants as an incentive and remuneration for conservation work. The latter can be summarized as not doing certain things (cutting down the forest, burning to clear the land) and doing some other things (protecting water sources and planting trees).

In February 2021, in the Corregimiento of Batata in Tierralta (Córdoba), the first 111 Natural Conservation Contracts were signed, making this the most developed experience so far under the strategy. Nevertheless, the government is presenting the strategy in other parts, such as in the Amazon Forest Reserve Zone. Meanwhile, some of the peasants in the municipality of Batata have stated that they feel disappointed by the contracts and the overall strategy. Some indicated that they signed the document without knowing that it would not make them owners of the land but merely authorized users. Others pointed out that they had not received the payments for environmental services and did not know that by signing the contract, they were committing to use the land in a particular and sustainable way.

What should we expect according to evidence?

Concerning deforestation, research has recognized, at least partially, the potential of property titling programs to contain deforestation by eliminating incentives to clear the forest and enabling payment for conservation programs, such as payments for environmental services. As mentioned above, in Colombia, Natural Conservation Contracts include payments for environmental services as an incentive for those who sign the “use rights” contract. This allegedly ensures that people can receive an economic livelihood from the reforestation of affected areas and conserving those still retaining their ecosystem characteristics. 

On the other hand, several studies have explored how conservation initiatives (such as REDD+ and payments for environmental services) transform access to land ownership and recipients’ use and control of natural resources. It has been shown that conservation initiatives can bring benefits to communities, such as opportunities for social mobility and greater land tenure security. However, they also imply significant trade-offs between landowners’ rights and the duty to conserve forests. For example, adopting environmental market-based measures in the form of planting trees for carbon sequestration in Frontera Corozal (Chiapas, Mexico) restricted the peasants' ability to grow corn using the milpa technique, a traditional Mesoamerican intercropping system for maize, squash and beans. Planting trees and cultivating maize were considered not compatible because the soil conditions for the two crops are very different.

What is happening in Tierralta (Córdoba)?

In December 2022, I visited the village of Batata in Tierralta, Córdoba, to observe firsthand how the strategy works. I also participated in some meetings of peasant organizations in the area where this issue was discussed. During my visit, I found general dissatisfaction among the peasants who decided to participate in the strategy. In particular, I was struck by the claim made by one peasant, who vehemently demanded: How am I going to allow the state to lease me something that is mine? As I explained earlier, many sections of the Forest Reserve Zones have been transformed by human colonization so that the primary characteristics of the forest cannot be conserved anymore but, at most, reforested. Furthermore, in the case of Tierralta, many of the families that occupy these zones have been building their culture and tradition in these territories for hundreds of years. Thus, they find it absurd that the state does not seek alternatives to balance two conflicting interests: the peasants' right to the land and the conservation and restoration of environmentally important areas. 

In other matters, during these encounters I confirmed two of the premises suggested in the literature. On the one hand, I found that the peasants complained that the rice harvest had decreased dramatically since the beginning of the strategy. Many peasants were engaged in tree planting, as they had committed themselves to it through the contract while neglecting local agricultural production. Consequently, the price of rice increased in the area, which compromised access to a basic food basket for the families living there. On the other hand, I met with peasants, who represented a minority of those attending these spaces, who expressed their satisfaction with the strategy. One of the participants explained to me that, from his experience, he did not lose anything by signing the contract, but he did gain something. Indeed, even though the state did not recognize him as the legitimate owner of his land, he was receiving a bimonthly payment that he had not received before. In his opinion, people should participate in the strategy because economic recognition improves their current conditions.

In summary, although the strategy temporarily improved some of the peasants' economic situation, the truth is that the vast majority of participants have found that conservation restricts their possibilities to produce and feed themselves.

The local and the global of conservation initiatives

What relevance does the Tierralta, Córdoba experience have for other parts of the world? The literature on the social effects of environmental conservation initiatives on host communities has shown that local conservation dynamics also respond to global climate change response agendas. Thus, it is possible to identify repeated and justified patterns as part of climate change mitigation efforts. Indeed, in Tierralta I observed how, as in other parts of the world, natural conservation initiatives can affect various dimensions of the wellbeing of communities that receive these projects, for example, their disposition and access to land and the use of associated natural resources. In this way, the experience of Tierralta, Colombia, illustrates a situation already noted elsewhere and anticipates what happens when land tenure formalization initiatives intersect with natural conservation discourses. This experience shows the tensions that arise when peasants who have occupied and worked the land for many years are confronted with new and unknown rules about what they can do with resources that, until now, they have considered their property. This case also suggests that states should take the importance of recognizing land rights seriously, especially when communities living in forest areas have resisted war and displacement contexts, such as in Colombia, to prevent creating new conflicts in favour of natural conservation.

Natalia Correa Sánchez (@nataliacosan) was born in Bogotá, Colombia. She pursued her undergraduate studies in law at Universidad de Los Andes and obtained her law degree in 2013. She did her master's studies at the same university, where she got her degree in public policy (2017) and sociology (July 2023). As a Fulbright grantee, she began her doctoral studies in the development studies program at Cornell University in August 2023. During her Ph.D., she will advance her research agenda around conservation initiatives' social effects and technologies' role in redefining agrarian subjects' relationships and identities.




Natalia Correa Sánchez

Cornell University