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Balancing agricultural expansion and biodiversity loss in Colombia

Colombia is one of only 17 megadiverse countries in the world. It has an unusually high biodiversity and is home to many rare and endemic species, including the pink river dolphin, cotton-top tamarin, giant capybara and Orinoco crocodile. Although the country’s biodiversity has been inadvertently protected by years of human conflict and governmental instability, Colombia is now at a crossroads where peace has brought agricultural expansion and a consequent threat to its precious biodiversity.

A recent study by researchers from Arizona State University has identified priority areas where the benefits of conservation actions would be the greatest, while the economic impacts from not developing the land for agriculture would be the least. This is largely in response to the findings of the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) report of 2019 that pointed the finger at human land-use changes as the major cause of biodiversity loss around the world.

“We focused on the case study of the country of Colombia to demonstrate an approach to maximize the biodiversity benefits from limited conservation funding while ensuring that landowners maintain economic returns equivalent to agriculture,” said Leah Gerber, who was lead author of the IPBES report, and is a professor in the School of Life Sciences and founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes (CBO) at ASU. 

In the study, Professor Gerber teamed up with Colombian native Camila Guerrero-Pineda, who, just three years ago, left her home country to join the ASU and hopefully make a difference back home in Colombia. The study developed a prioritization map showing areas of the country that were at highest risk of being developed agriculturally, and areas where biological diversity could be protected most effectively.  

“It’s fair to categorize that Colombia is a megadiverse country,” said Guerrero-Pineda, who is first author on the publication. “It arguably has some of the greatest biodiversity in the world, given its size, and a lot of scientists and academics in Colombia fear the ecological consequences of human actions.” 

Although years of guerrilla war, led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), kept many forest areas from being settled and developed, the peace treaty of 2016 has led to the opportunity for agricultural expansion and to the consequent loss of vital habitats for the resident fauna and flora.

“FARC had a lot of control over the forests, and it prevented a lot of economic development,” said Guerrero-Pineda. “It also prevented a lot of scientific monitoring because scientists were afraid of going into the forests,” said Guerrero-Pineda.   

FARC controlled the forests for coca leaf (the plant used to produce cocaine) production and the drug trade, which financed five decades of warfare. Coca tends to be grown in remote, isolated areas, away from roads. In fact, the ASU-led study found that the probability of forests being cleared for use in farming cattle and other crops decreases with increasing distance to roads, while the probability of transformation to coca plantations increases. One of the unplanned consequences of the way in which FARC operated was that development was limited and the spectacular biodiversity was preserved.

The presence of FARC was the most influential variable determining the fate of deforested areas, as the odds of forest conversion to coca crops over conversion to cattle or other crops in areas with presence of FARC was around 300 percent higher than the odds in areas where FARC was not active.

Gerber’s team feels that if no action were taken to change the current trajectory of farmland development, Colombia’s current biodiversity loss rate could increase by 50 percent by the year 2033. The challenge, therefore, is to balance the need to preserve biodiversity with the country’s need to develop economically. 

In order to tackle this dilemma, the researchers applied a unique quantitative model that relates investment in conservation to national biodiversity outcomes. 

“The methods developed here offer an approach to identifying areas of greatest conservation returns on investment by balancing cost of conservation action, measured as opportunity cost for agriculture, and biodiversity impacts,” said Guerrero-Pineda.

The declaration of any conservation area will come with inherent costs to people who would otherwise have developed and used the area for generating a livelihood. Therefore, the opportunity cost is a measure of foregone benefits that would otherwise have been derived by farmers who have now lost the opportunity to develop the land. 

“Opportunity cost is what you’re missing out on or what you’re not doing because of a decision to do something else,” said Guerrero-Pineda. “What that means is that someone is not going to be able to use the land that is going to be used for conservation.”

Professor Gerber’s team modeled the opportunity cost of conservation (OCC) to agriculture as an approximation of the expected cost of compensating a landowner for avoiding conversion of their property. They assumed that deforestation can be counteracted by compensating the land owner, either by purchase – such as setting the sale value of a piece of land equal to its expected future cash flow – or in the form of continued payments for ecosystem services.

“Our strategy for targeting conservation funding involves first identifying regions with a high risk of forest conversion to agriculture (such as cattle ranching or other crops),” said Professor Gerber. “More broadly, the research agenda is around incorporating cost into decision-making to achieve the most outcomes, given limited resources.”

They found that the Andean region of Colombia contains the highest mean OCC, reflecting a very strong probability that the remaining forests in this region will be converted to agricultural lands. This was followed by the OCC in the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Orinoquía regions. The Amazon region had the lowest mean probability of conversion to agricultural land and the greatest percentage forest cover remaining. According to the team’s model, it also had a much lower OCC. 

The researchers estimated that Colombia would have to invest US$37 – 39 million annually (in the best and worst-case scenarios of deforestation) to avoid further severe loss of biodiversity. According to them, this means an increase in its conservation spending of between 7.69 and 10.16 million USD per year. In total, preventing further biodiversity loss in Colombia would require between US$61 and 63 million annually, which is more than twice the amount spent on conservation before the peace agreement.

“One of the things we’re excited about with this work is that it’s a demonstration of the potential of this idea of using return on investment for thinking about allocated conservation resources,” said study co-author Gwenllian D. Iacona. “And so, we took these two high profile approaches that are out there, called the Waldron Model and the Species Threat Abatement and Restoration (STAR) metric, and we put them together so country-level decision makers can make the best-informed decisions at that type of scale.”

Professor Gerber’s team thinks they have developed a new blueprint, not only to aid Colombia but also to extend to other policymakers in other countries where biodiversity and economic development are in conflict. 

The study results can also assist in the planning of land preservation and national parks. In Colombia, the National Natural Park System is working to declare five new protected areas, and to expand three more. This builds on evidence showing that more effective and lasting conservation outcomes are achieved when governance empowers local communities and supports their environmental stewardship, including indigenous communities, reserves and Afro-Colombian lands.  

“I think Camila’s work really sets us up to assist entities, whether they be countries or companies, in quantitatively measuring the impact of conservation interventions on different metrics, whether they need biodiversity or climate mitigation, or other types of conservation strategies,” said Gerber. “I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to build and scale this to improve conservation outcomes more generally.”

The research is published in the prestigious journal Nature Sustainability.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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