The "Other Colombia," And The Blindness Of The Urban Elite
When the well-meaning environmental concerns of city folk clash with the lives of the poor and indigenous who inhabit South America's rain forests and mining territory.
BOGOTA - Uprisings have grown more frequent in the large swaths of Colombian territory inhabited by indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant communities. Discontent is spreading among this nation's various hunters, gatherers, herders, loggers, fishermen and seasonal farmers.
Some analysts have predicted that our own “Arab Spring” could rise up from these places, which have the highest values of water and biodiversity in the world. It would be an unprecedented environmental boiling point.
These are the areas that make up that “Other Colombia” that people in the urban centers do not understand. And now it has become a security concern. We do not have sound integration policies or a development plan adapted for a diversity of backgrounds. For the most part, these are communities that lose their adaptive viability in the face of cultural and economic changes that come with modernity.
The secular “buenos vivideros,” or good living, areas become pockets of poverty, conflict and displacement. Almost all lifestyles in transition in these distant and secluded regions constitute some sort of illegality. The use of forestry, which continues to take place, is less acceptable to the increasingly educated urban centers. The exploitation of wildlife is stigmatized, but without any alternatives. For example, continental fishing is a sector the state has abandoned.
GDP is not everything
When the government starts to heed the cry against criminal mining, which occurs without economic alternatives in some places, it begins to feed discontent. While this practice is destroying jungles and rivers, we would be entering a new conflict without having emerged from others. This issue has to do with the fact that Colombia does not have a proposal for sustainable development in the occupied border territories.
In fact, Colombia does not understand its own territory. With the rainy season of 2011, an official said with satisfaction that the “damn Niña” — as Colombia President Juan Santos called it — “had not altered the GDP.” But the “Other Colombia” does not benefit from this GDP in the same way. Our officials, with some exceptions, simply cannot conceive that these parts of the country have their own identity, and often very different benchmarks.
It will not be a peaceful Colombia if we city folk value only conservation and fail to recognize that people have lived in this vast space for a long time. The protection of natural resources coupled with local benefits could be part of the solution. And yet, the current development plan prescribes agriculture for the barren lands without offering an alternative for their inhabitants. As Professor Julio Carrizosa has said, “Our institutions are excessively simple-minded in the face of the territories’ complexity.”
We declare millions of hectares as communal lands, but we leave them in a profound, institutional abandon. The Humboldt Institute, which counts on a program for the use of biodiversity, can barely become a scientific witness to the decline of those lifestyles. A “Marshall Plan” is needed to revitalize the Colombia of the forests, floodplain rivers, swamps, rain forests, natural grasslands and extensive mountain areas. It would represent a national commitment to culture, environment and security.
The national government could create a commission of academics and locals to propose a vision. We need a recipe for integration that is sustainable and worthy of Colombia's minorities, who hold the vast majority of the territory.