Biodiversity key to economic development in Colombia

Published by  Communications

On 17th Dec 2020

Field activities in the Choco cacao expedition
Image credit: Field activities in the Choco cacao expedition, Jaime Erazo

The natural resources of one the world’s most biodiverse countries are the key to its economic future, according to new research led by the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on Earth in terms of plants, animals and habitats. This natural ‘capital’ offers opportunities for wealth creation and accelerated sustainable development, based on rising levels of employment and improved living standards.

However, a changing demographic, economic growth, climate change and biodiversity loss, for example through deforestation caused by mining, logging and agriculture, are the main drivers of environmental change in Colombia, a country that has previously suffered decades of violent conflict.

To address this, two reports published today by the international GROW Colombia project propose an ‘evolutionary’ transition to an economic development strategy based on sustainability principles and low carbon characteristics. The aim of this approach is to minimise as far as is feasible the amounts of raw materials and energy used to produce and consume all the items that support livelihoods and lifestyles.

For Colombia, one of the core features of this type of system is the prioritisation of biodiversity, both its conservation and management, through the creation of a bio-economy - using renewable biological resources to power and supply society and industry.

Green investments – such as projects, policies and courses of action – can provide an economic multiplier effect, which will help create new business and employment opportunities. The Colombian Government aims to generate 10 per cent of its national income (GDP) from the bio-economy by 2030.

GROW Colombia is a four-year bioscience research and capacity building project to preserve, restore and manage biodiversity through responsible innovation in Colombia. The reports, from GROW Colombia’s socio-economic team, examine the environmental challenges and opportunities that countries like Colombia face in the 21st-century and the possible policy responses to those.

Their recommendations are relevant to many current issues, such as post-COVID income diversity and economic recovery, sustainable agriculture and ecotourism, and the UK's contributions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Dr Silvia Ferrini, of UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences and one of the lead authors of the reports, said: “Biodiversity must continue to be seen as a strategic natural capital asset, a store of wealth, which can power a more sustainable development process.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has served to remind us of the importance of biodiversity conservation and management, to maintain this store of natural capital and resources. Biodiverse forests, for example, act as virus reservoirs which if left intact contain the virus pool and keep it distant from human population and settlements, reducing future risk and significant damage costs.”

The reports focus on three areas for potential policy switch to foster the bio-economy in Colombia:

  • ecotourism opportunities, both from the market demand (national and international) side and the supply side;

  • expanded production of cacao for high quality chocolate;

  • cattle ranching activities and the impacts on biodiversity, with a particular emphasis on deforestation and switching to regimes which combine forestry with grazing pastures.

The researchers acknowledge that green investment opportunities may be given less weight by policymakers, for example because they generate a diverse range of costs and benefits, some of which lack monetary values.

However, they argue that while not all aspects of nature can be assigned monetary values, as many as possible should be meaningfully valued in this way to avoid zero value status in the political economy.

Prof Kerry Turner, another of the lead authors, said: “National and international public and private funds must be made available to support biodiversity protection and to enable the transition towards a bio-economy. While spending will necessarily be focused on short-term needs in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, medium to longer term green investment requirements should not be ‘crowded out’ altogether.

“We argue that the challenges posed by climate change, biodiversity loss and the virus release risk can to some extent be countered by implementation of a bio-economy development strategy. This strategy would also make a positive contribution to poverty alleviation and food security, improving the sustainability of livelihoods and social wellbeing.”

Prof Federica Di Palma, of UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, is Principal Investigator for GROW Colombia. She said: “This GCRF project brings together researchers from around the world to work across disciplines to grow the economy sustainably and to conserve biological wealth in Colombia. As the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, policy makers will need to work with bioscientists and economists alike to set a new course to prosperity without compromising the planet’s ecological integrity.”

The multidisciplinary GROW Colombia initiative is funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenge Research Fund and involves an international collaboration of academic and civil society partners. The project has a strong socio-economic component, led by UEA and involving the Earlham Institute, University of Sydney, Humboldt Institute, Natural History Museum, and Universidad de Los Andes.

The reports ‘Colombia’s Natural Capital’ and ‘Biodiversity Protection in Colombia: An Economic Perspective’ are published on Thursday December 17 at www.growcolombia.org/resources/.

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