“Public officers are also human beings”: trust and environmental governance

Turning legal frameworks into real agents for environmental change can depend on understanding complex human stories. Guest blogger Paula Ungar reports from Colombia. 

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Insight by 
Paula Ungar
Paula Ungar leads research on environmental conflicts at the Humboldt Institute
08 July 2020
A group of men in felt hats and woollen capes

Colombia's rural peasants have been fighting for their rights for decades (Photo: copyright Carlos Tapia)

In the modern, artificially lit meeting room, two old campesino leaders – wearing their impeccable felt hats and white woollen ponchos – watched serenely as officers of the Regional Environmental Office and my colleague and I heatedly argued for more than three hours.

We were debating the request by the campesinos, or peasant farmers, for their land to be acknowledged as a Campesino Reserve Zone (CRZ). My colleague is a geographer, and we were both working as independent consultants. We were arguing for the CRZ, which also had support from an influential international agency, but it was being strongly questioned by the Colombian government. 

A CRZ is an area of land adjudicated to rural peasants to protect it from land grabbing and thereby prevent further expansion of the agricultural frontier into natural areas owned by the state.

The campesino organisation had gone through an eight-year participatory process and had complied with all the legal requirements to get their land declared as a CRZ. But now their request was facing strong opposition from environmental authorities. 

The main argument of the environmental authority (CAR, for its initials in Spanish) was that 78% of the requested CRZ was inside a páramo. Páramos are upper mountain ecosystems, extraordinary in terms of their biodiversity, and key for the provision of water for most of Colombia’s population (Spanish language site).

In 2015, páramos had been defined by a controversial law as strict preservation areas, where most forms of agriculture and cattle were forbidden, and mining was totally prohibited – even though most páramos have been inhabited and cultivated for centuries.

We argued that the campesinos' land in the Sumapaz páramo was in a good conservation state after decades of human presence, and that the strength of their organisation was an asset for environmental governance. But CAR maintained that within the applicable legal framework, it made no sense to permit the establishment of a CRZ in a páramo

A few months after our meeting, the request was formally denied by the National Land Agency’s directive council, with the decision based on similar legal arguments.

Only a couple of months after this refusal, in 2018, parliament passed a new páramos law. Acknowledging the long tradition of mountain community governance and use, this law specifies that páramos management must be carried out jointly by authorities and communities, that agriculture can take place (high-impact activities have to transit into low-impact, with governmental support), and that decision-making must be the result of transdisciplinary and intercultural collaborations. 

One would think that with the introduction of this law, the outlook was much better – not only for the campesinos Sumapaz but also for the tens of thousands of people who live in Colombian páramos or depend on their use.

Other stories

But other storylines were playing out in the meeting room where I started this blog, ones that were not communicated in the official PowerPoint slides, in the documents with institutional letterheads, or in the explicit arguments. 

These storylines are about enormous challenges that persist for inclusive governance of páramos, and more generally for collaborative governance in the global South, even with inclusive conservation laws.

Sumapaz, like most páramos in Colombia, is inhabited by families that came to the upper mountains searching for land, often fleeing civil war, in a country with some of the world’s most unequal land distribution. Páramos inhabitants have on average much lower access to education, health and basic infrastructure (Spanish language website) than people in other rural areas.

In Sumapaz, peasant organisations have  been defending their rights for decades, their leaders have been – and still are – threatened and persecuted, and were frequently trapped in the crossfire between guerrillas and the army. 

The silence of the campesinos sitting with us in that meeting room was eloquent: as I later discovered, both of them had been imprisoned in their youth, only to be released years later due to lack of evidence.

In the Territorial Diagnosis document supporting their CRZ request, campesinos dedicated a whole section to human rights. Along with numerous other arbitrary detentions, some lasting for up to seven years, the document lists nine local leaders killed because of their activism; some deaths are blamed on the army, while others have still not been cleared up.

Other conversations

Although not all páramo histories are as dramatic as this, most share this lack of trust between local people and government institutions. At a workshop (Spanish language website) we organised at the Humboldt Institute to discuss the implications of the new páramos law, peasants from other páramos initially did not want to participate, as they heard government officials were also going to attend.

When they finally agreed to take part, in initial conversations it was common to hear sentences such as “we only see government officials in páramos when they come to impose fines”, or “restrictions are only for poor campesinos: industrial cultivations are untouchable”. 

However, the event eventually turned into an open dialogue, where the participants listened to each other, and jointly made proposals for implementing the law. In the closing plenary session, one campesino leader got up and, with a wry smile, said: “This workshop was important: we realised public officers are also human beings”.

His statement shows the profound challenges that socially inclusive conservation policies face. Despite the important shift implied by the 2018 law, it is key to keep in mind that laws and policies are produced and enacted by people; by women and men who are immersed in contexts that have been woven by history and threaded with power inequalities. Dealing with such issues, however context-dependent and complex, is decisive for making legal frameworks into real agents for more just and diverse landscapes. 

How to do this is a question with no easy answers. Some of the sources of distrust are structural – such as unequal land distribution and related long-standing violence – and mostly lie beyond the reach of environmental practitioners and institutions. Others, though, might be tackled by agreeing on some guiding principles for the implementation of environmental laws and policies. 

Some principles identified in our workshop (Spanish lanaguage site) include recognising local organisations as legitimate interlocutors for governance, acknowledging peasant knowledge as fundamental for understanding the territories, and enhancing the capacity of government institutions to reflect on their history and engage in creative social dialogue.

Adopting these principles might constitute a more fertile ground for jointly caring for the territories than the cold conference room where this story began.

About the author

Paula Ungar ([email protected]) leads the research stream on environmental conflicts at the Humboldt Institute, Colombia's national biodiversity research institute.

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