Colombia’s immense contribution to the planet’s biodiversity is being undercut at an alarming rate by policies that deny funding for environmental protection and promote destructive development. Compared to many nations, Colombia is well behind the power curve for safeguarding its natural resources. Constitutional reforms and market-based instruments show potential to reverse this trend, but are currently insufficient to effectively defend the country’s ecosystems.

Colombia’s location and variety of ecosystems place it among the world’s top five countries for biodiversity.1 Despite a lack of scientific research and incomplete inventories of flora and fauna, we know that Colombia ranks first in species of birds and amphibians, second in vascular plants, and third in mammals worldwide.2

Much of this outstanding biodiversity is at risk, however, as the Colombian National Parks3 Unit (CNPU) faces grave financial problems. Between 1995 and 2002, environmental spending in Colombia declined 81%.4 Today, without international aid from countries such as Holland , the CNPU’s budget would be approximately US$7 million. Even with more than half of the total budget coming from outside sources, the CNPU employs just 364 full-time government employees, or in other words, one for every 40,000 hectares (108,000 acres) of national park. The result, characteristic of most governmental agencies in Colombia, is a weak institution and an inability to enforce rule of law–especially in the country’s desolate and neglected rural areas, where 85% live below the poverty line of $3 per day. Consequently, armed groups and illicit crops are present in 78% and 68% of Colombia ’s National Parks, respectively.5 It should be noted that while many parks show some presence of illicit crops, this represents just 0.4% of the surface area of the entire park system.

With 40% of the national budget going toward financing international debt and another 40% toward an ongoing armed conflict–or “terrorism problem” as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe calls it–not much money is left over to save the birds. As the world celebrated Earth Day in April, the conservation of nature in Colombia did not appear among the government’s priorities. On the contrary, at the declaration of the country’s 50 th national park in March, Uribe pushed two blatantly anti-environmental measures: punching a hole through the Darien Gap and aerial fumigation in national parks.

Straddling the Panama-Colombia border, the Darien jungle area forms the only break in the Pan-American Highway, spanning from Argentina to Alaska . Connecting Mesoamerica to the South American continent, the Chocó Darien region is what international environmental experts call a biodiversity hotspot6 because of threats to flora and fauna there.7 In Colombia, a 52,000 hectare swath of this area was set aside in 1973 as Los Katíos National Park . In 1994, Los Katíos was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO due to its globally outstanding natural values. The Pan-American Highway will bisect the park, however, if Uribe is able to convince Panamanian counterpart President Martín Torrijos that the project will not become an international thoroughfare for arms and drugs. Considering that habitat loss is the leading threat to global biodiversity–and that building roads is among the quickest ways to perpetuate habitat loss–the highway would be a disaster for the future of this natural protected area.8

So what can be done to make sure that Colombia does not continue to be worse off than before the first Earth Day in 1970?

First, Colombia must foster an informed citizenry at the grassroots level by helping champion environmental education and research. As in many of the Andean countries, a dearth of funding for education and scientific research has contributed to a more slowly developing social norm regarding environmental protection than found in most developed countries. The nation’s first national park, although among the first in South America, was not established until 1960, nearly 100 years later than the first parks in places such as Australia and the United States.

Colombia’s 1991 Constitution provides some hope that the government will develop a more robust environmental policy. Giving environmental concerns an extraordinary emphasis, the latest charter defines protection of natural resources as abasic purpose of the state, on a par with national defense (Constitutional Art. 8) and creates a collective right to a healthy environment (Constitutional Art. 79).9 Yet, regrettably, this commitment has yet to be reflected in budget allocations.

Second, at the national level Colombia ’s government clearly needs to make a more serious financial commitment to supporting agencies to protect the environment. So far, the government has not shown a willingness to provide enough central budget funds to agencies such as the National Parks Unit. The ecosystem services provided by protected natural areas, including watershed regulation, erosion control, and recreation opportunities, all contribute to the economy and help form the basis of human survival. New forms of compensating for these services and assuring their sustainability must be developed.

Insisting that the government recognize and invest in conservation is one way. Other experts have noted that market-based economic instruments could be another effective way to meet the funding shortfall. One of the biggest problems with market-based instruments, however, is that they require new national legislative initiatives, which often take years.

While critics warn that market-based mechanisms, such as environmental services, could lead to the privatization and deterioration of resources, proponents claim they offer a more efficient and realistic form of protection. “The word enforcement does not exist in Spanish,” says Eduardo Uribe to his ecological economics class at the Universidad de los Andes . He argues that the region’s poor track record in environmental protection makes market-based mechanisms more appropriate than traditional command-and-control measures to regulate environmental policies in Colombia .


Steps to improving environmental protection in Colombia :

  • Raising environmental awareness is the first step in reversing environmental degradation.
  • Providing economic alternatives to the production of illicit crops is an imperative, especially in the country’s neglected rural areas.
  • Support from abroad in the form of aid and training for manual eradication programs can be instrumental in strengthening Colombia’s environmental protection.
  • The United States must redefine its role in Colombia’s drug and civil wars–reducing the demand for drugs at home and providing treatment for addicts. Current practices, including fumigation, have had severely negative impacts on the environment and biodiversity.
  • Areas of opportunity for participation by the United States, other countries, and Colombian sectors include supporting Colombia’s National Parks Unit (CNPU) and expanding infrastructure for ecotourism in national parks.

Currently the links between natural resources and urban consumers are weak at best. For example, payments made by water users never make their way back to the original service providers. In Bogotá, 80% of the city’s water comes from Chingaza National Park .10 With an approximate value of US$20 million annually, the ecosystem services provided by the park’s paramo–a wet, tropical, alpine grassland11–are crucial for the city’s growing population, yet money collected does not directly reach the park. While Aquaducto, Bogota ’s privately owned water company, works closely with park officials collaborating on management activities such as fire control and road maintenance, a more effective scenario would be to develop a fixed formula for channeling a portion of these funds straight to protected area endowments.

Third, the United States needs to realize that a shift in Colombia policy is long overdue. Prolonging our overwhelmingly military approach has horrific consequences for the environment and human rights. U.S. military presence in Colombia, meanwhile, has not significantly affected the availability, price, or purity of illegal drugs in the United States.

According to Anna Cederstav, a staff scientist with Earthjustice and Program Director of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), “The U.S.-Colombia drug eradication program poses an unacceptable environmental risk to one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. The widespread spraying and drift of a potent herbicide that kills most plants is devastating thousands of acres of important habitat in Colombia . The potential impacts to native flora and wildlife are unknown because the herbicide hasn’t been studied in these tropical ecosystems. Furthermore, most coca and poppy farmers just replant or clear new plots in the forest. Because the State Department only reports on current crop acreage, there is no way to assess how the eradication program is accelerating the loss of Amazonian forests. A smart eradication strategy would protect the environment and promote alternative livelihoods for struggling campesinos.”12

With so little headway and so much collateral damage, it is time for the united States and other developed countries to support more sustainable policies in Colombia .

In the short term, international cooperation will continue to be key for the state’s environmental entities. Unfortunately, Plan Colombia, the country’s largest bilateral foreign assistance package, which has contributed over US$4 billion since 1999, provides no aid to institutions such as Colombia’s National Parks Unit. In fact, more funds are spent annually on helicopter maintenance than on all social and economic development programs combined.

Most of this funding goes toward large-scale drug-crop fumigation initiatives that involve private U.S. contractors spraying glysophate and cosmoflux 411 out of crop-dusters onto coca plantations. The aerial spraying of this chemical product, brought to us by the same people who brought us Agent Orange (Monsanto), has triggered thousands of complaints about indiscriminate spraying of illegal and legal crops, causing gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments and skin inflammations.13 Additionally, despite recent claims by the Organization of American States (OAS) that fumigation does not pose a significant threat to the environment, serious ecologists are not convinced.

"From a global biodiversity perspective, defoliating and poisoning vast areas of Colombian forests is like dynamiting the Taj Mahal, a global jewel of humanity’s cultural heritage," says World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) David Olsen. "The loss of habitat, foods, shelter, moisture, and soil nutrients will affect all species."14

Sadly, growth in aerial fumigation continues to outpace efforts to provide alternate ways of making a living in Colombia’s neglected rural zones. Where few viable alternatives exist, desperately poor peasants–the ones most affected by fumigation–inevitably continue to uproot themselves and plant the crops elsewhere. Despite eradicating around 350,000 acres per year, the strategy has resulted in a net reduction of under 20,000 acres since Plan Colombia began in 1999. That is to say that one acre of reduction was achieved for every 67 acres sprayed.15 Meanwhile, Colombia ranks second in internally displaced persons worldwide.16


436,929 people visited Colombia’s national parks in 2004. This represents a 1% increase over 2003, and the highest visitation since 1998. Revenue from ecotourism generated around US$1 million or roughly 15% of CNPU’s national budget. Discouragingly, 88% of visitation occurred in only three parks (Corales de Rosario, Tayrona, and Los Nevados). Likewise, in 2004, however, the number of parks receiving zero visitors reached an all time high at 22, or 44%. Many of these parks are situated within the Plan Patriota region.

Nor has there been any impact on drug users. Supply and demand would dictate that if the herbicide fumigation were making the product scarcer, we would be seeing increased prices on U.S. streets. However, the price of cocaine has held steady for nearly 20 years.17

The outlook for biodiversity conservation in Colombia , however, is not entirely bleak. As Steve Hilty and William Brown note in their 1986 Guide to the Birds of Colombia, despite the many obstacles, “Colombia has a network of 34 [now 51] national parks as fine as any country in Latin America, encompassing portions from nearly all of the major bio-geographical provinces in the country.”18 The fact that 51 national parks, representing 10% of the territory, have been established within the past 45 years is no small accomplishment. But it is a shame that with all this biodiversity, Colombia and its principal aid-provider–the United States–choose to do so little to preserve it.



  1. Instituto Alejandro von Humboldt “El Medio Ambiente y los Cultivos Ilicitos,” <>.
  2. Ibid.
  3. National Parks and other natural protected areas are the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation efforts.
  4. Allen Blackman et al. “Assessment of Colombia’s National Environmental System (SINA),” Resources for the Future (Washington, Revised: June 29, 2004).
  5. Juan Carlos Riascos, “Conservation and Conflict,” 5th World Parks Congress, Durban, South Africa, September 12, 2003.
  6. A “hot spot” is a natural region supporting more than 1,500 endemic plant species, where original habitat has been reduced to less than 25% of its original size. The Chocó Darién hotspot, spanning from Panama to Ecuador along the Pacific coast, contains “super wet” tropical cloud forests, among the wettest on earth, as well as over 200 endemic amphibians.
  7. To the northwest, the Chocó Darién connects with the Mesoamerican hot spot, which spans from Panama to Mexico and is known as the planet’s richest region for mammals. Finally, to the south, this hot spot connects to the Tropical Andes. Spanning from Venezuela to Argentina, this hotspot is the most biodiverse terrestrial region on earth.
  8. The biggest threats to biodiversity are: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, over-harvesting, disease, climate change, and the synergistic effects of more than one of these acting together.
  9. Allen Blackman et al. “Assessment of Colombia’s National Environmental System (SINA),” Resources for the Future (Washington, Revised: June 29, 2004).
  10. For a few hours in December of 1994, left-wing guerrillas known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) effectively took control of La Calera, the small municipality 5 minutes east of Bogota where Chingaza National Park is situated. Imagine what they could have done had they taken the city’s water supply.
  11. The paramo is arguably the diggity dank of the neo-tropics. Extending from tree line (3,100 M) to the upper limits of vegetation (4,600 M), this ecosystem is cold, often shrouded in thick fog, and full of highly endemic plants, including “frailejones,” (Espeletia spp.) grasslands, and “siete cueros” (Polylepis spp.) woodlands. The paramo is important for regulating inflows–acting as a sponge both in times of drought and during heavy downfalls–and is threatened by cattle ranching and the expansion of the agricultural frontier. Finally, it is the birthplace of the legendary Misque goddess Bachue, the mother of all humanity. See picture above.
  12. See “Plan Colombia,”
  13. See "U.S. Aid to Colombia Since 1997: Summary Tables" at
  14. See Plan Colombia : Fumigation Threatens Amazon, Warn Indigenous Leaders, Scientists, online at
  15. See “The State Department’s NEW Coca Growing Data,” and "Coca-growing in South America since 1988"
  16. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee their homes as a result of armed conflict, violence, human rights violations, or natural or human-made disasters, but have not crossed an internationally recognized state border. Since 1985, Colombia has had over 3 million IDPs, roughly 7% of the population, and trails only Sudan as the nation with the highest population of IDPs.
  17. See "Coca-growing in South America since 1988"
  18. Steven J. Hilty and William Brown, A Guide to the Birds of Colombia (Princeton: 1986).