Skip to main content
opinion

This country has made great strides in recovering from a decades-long conflict. Now it has an opportunity to decide the fate of its greatest asset: the unspoiled environment

The Cauca River passes through the Pipinta Canyon, above, before reaching the town of La Pintada, Colombia. This is one of the more breathtaking natural vistas in Colombia, where vast regions of the country, long isolated by a war between the government and leftist guerrillas, have been spared from modern development.CAMILO ECHAVARRÍA ; ATLAS OF THE ANDES

Wade Davis is the author of 20 books, including Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. He served as explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society from 2000 to 2013, and is currently professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His latest book is Magdalena: River of Dreams. In 2018, he became an honorary citizen of Colombia.

For more than 50 years, Colombia has been convulsed by a brutal conflict that has left some 220,000 dead and almost 100,000 missing. Every family has suffered. In a nation of 50 million, the great majority of Colombians have been innocent victims of a war fuelled almost exclusively by the unprecedented profits of the drug trade, a flood of illicit wealth that for a time had traffickers processing currency like hay, weighing bales of hundred-dollar bills just to estimate the value.

At its height, the Medellin cartel shipped 80 tonnes of cocaine into the U.S. every month, generating tens of millions in profit per day. Accountants budgeted US$1,000 a week just for the purchase of rubber bands.

Without the black money, siphoned off and spread freely like poison, the struggle of the leftist guerrillas would have fizzled out decades ago, and the blood-soaked paramilitary forces might never have come into being. In late 2012, as peace talks took place in Havana, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), down to 8,000 cadre, mostly teenagers in search of a meal, made US$600-million from extortion and drug trafficking, with roughly half of this coming from the cocaine trade.

Colombians, most of whom have never used or seen cocaine, have lived with the consequences of the trade for two generations.

In 2000, a kidnapping occurred every three hours of every day. Altogether 30,000 men, women, and children were torn from their families, many never to return. By 2012, nearly five million Colombians had abandoned their country, some by choice, others desperate to escape the violence. Within Colombia, those displaced by the conflict numbered more than seven million.

Imagine how differently the people of the United States would feel about their War on Drugs, not to mention their casual consumption of cocaine in bars and boardrooms across the nation, if they knew that, as a consequence of both obsessions, no fewer than 80 million fellow Americans would be driven from their homes or forced into exile.

Cocaine has been Colombia’s curse, but the engine driving the trade has always been consumption. The cartels rose out of the barrios and country clubs of Medellin and Cali, but the ultimate responsibility for Colombia’s agonies lies in good measure with every person who has ever bought street cocaine and every foreign nation that has made possible the illicit market by prohibiting the drug without curbing its use in any serious way.

Colombia is most assuredly not a place of violence and drugs; it is a land of colores y carino, where the people have endured and overcome years of conflict precisely because of their character, which is itself informed by an enduring spirit of place, a deep love of a land that is perhaps the most bountiful on earth, home to the greatest concentration of ecological, geographical and biological diversity on the planet, with more species of birds than are to be found in any other nation.

It speaks volumes of the strength and resilience of the Colombian people that through all these difficult and impossible years, the country has maintained its civil society and democracy, grown its economy, greened its cities, created millions of acres of national parks and sought meaningful restitution with scores of Indigenous cultures, a record unmatched by any other nation-state.

Hugo Hernán Montoya – an animero, or keeper of the lost souls of purgatory – prays before the tombs of the dead at the cemetery of Puerto Berrío, Colombia. He is one of the last practitioners in a lineage dating back more than 2,000 years. Around 220,000 people have been killed during more than 50 years of drug-related conflict in the country.

An Arhuaco woman harvests hayo, or coca, the divine leaf of immortality, a benign and highly nutritious stimulant used by Indigenous societies throughout the Andean world.Photos: Wade Davis

For two generations, Colombia’s political leaders, challenged by the foreign press and often humiliated as they travelled abroad as representatives of their country, have put their lives on the line to end the scourge of cocaine and a war imposed upon the country by the drug trade.

Between 1987 and 1990, five presidential candidates were killed and one future president was wounded in targeted attacks. In 1989, president Virgilio Barco, with a price on his head, nevertheless created the Search Bloc to bring down the cartel, even as he successfully secured agreements that led to the demobilization of four guerrilla groups. His successor, Cesar Gaviria, under constant threat of assassination, pursued drug lord Pablo Escobar relentlessly until the kingpin’s bloated body lay stretched in the sun on a tin roof in Medellin, a bullet in his ear, on Dec. 2, 1993.

Elected a hardliner in 2002, a year that marked a low point in Colombia’s fortunes, Alvaro Uribe, in a political move that recalled Richard Nixon going to China, initiated negotiations that led to the formal demobilization of the country’s biggest paramilitary group, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), and other paramilitary forces in 2006.

It was, to be sure, an imperfect compromise; the government’s terms were exceedingly generous. Still, in exerting government control over the paramilitaries, with the full backing of the army, Mr. Uribe effectively neutered what had become the third leg of the conflict, open marauding militias that had been responsible, according to the United Nations, for fully 80 per cent of the deaths during the prolonged war.

With the paramilitaries neutralized, at least for the moment, and the army growing in strength by the day, the way was paved for the military efforts that, under the leadership of both Mr. Uribe and his defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, broke the will of the FARC and brought its representatives to the peace table in Havana.

Though forged in war, as president Mr. Santos found his way to peace, putting his entire legacy on the line in a single-minded quest to return stability and prosperity to Colombia. The signing of a peace deal in Cartagena on Sept. 26, 2016, sent a powerful message to every nation that while the world might be falling apart, Colombia was falling together.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with FARC commander Rodrigo (Timochenko) Londono at the 2016 signing ceremony in Cartagena.LUIS ACOSTA/AFP / Getty Images

The prospect of peace left many Colombians in a state of euphoria, but their hopes were dashed not a week later, on Oct. 2, when the deal was narrowly rejected in a national referendum. (The vote was 50.2 per cent against to 49.8 per cent for – a difference of less than 54,000 votes out of the almost 13 million cast.) The no vote maintained that the terms of the agreement were excessively lenient, allowing former members of the FARC to go largely unpunished. Five days later, Mr. Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a powerful endorsement from the international community. He subsequently sent a revised deal directly to Congress, thus avoiding a second national vote. Though legal, the manoeuvre infuriated the opposition. Indignation that the original referendum had been effectively bypassed ultimately fuelled a conservative surge that allowed Ivan Duque, a young protégé of Mr. Uribe’s, to split a divided field and win the presidency in 2018. His platform promised to modify, if not dismantle, a peace agreement that, though flawed, had within a year seen homicide rates drop to levels not known in Colombia since 1975.

Four years after the signing of the historic accords, peace in Colombia remains precarious. Key commitments from the government concerning the welfare of rural Colombians – promises of universal access to education, potable water, electricity and roads, economic investments and subsidies – have yet to be implemented in any number of regions previously controlled by the FARC.

In a country ravaged by war for decades, the obligations taken on by the state are daunting. Full implementation of the peace agreement – all 578 terms of the deal – will cost an estimated US$45-billion, at a time when Colombia’s revenues from oil have plunged and the nation has absorbed a massive humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, providing basic services for more than 1.8 million refugees.

A man holds a flower and a flag reading 'peace' in Popayan, Colombia, this past August at the funeral of two men massacred by alleged members of an armed group.LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images

An even greater threat to peace may be the weight of history, as elements of the extreme right continue to target those who challenge the established order, as they have since the birth of the nation. The effective capitulation of the FARC inspired long-suppressed community and Indigenous leaders to action even as it left a vacuum in much of the country that the government has failed to fill. Instead, into the void came opportunists, a corrosive mix of drug traffickers, resurgent paramilitary forces and dissident factions of the FARC with little interest in peace – criminal groups for whom the voices of the people and the local town councils calling for government action only drew unwanted attention to their illegal activities. Since 2016, some 500 activists, community leaders and journalists have been killed. The United Nations has documented 33 massacres in 2020, up from 11 in 2017. Four years after the end of the longest war in Latin American history, peace is still tenuous, with violence surging.

A fundamental pillar of the peace accord, a reconciliation process by which former combatants under a broad immunity would testify before public tribunals, confessing their crimes much as the paramilitaries were encouraged to do in 2006, has been undercut by a conservative government intent on exposing former guerrillas to more severe sanctions. Faced with uncertainty and the prospects of betrayal, an uncertain number of ex-FARC cadres have vowed to once again take up arms. Meanwhile, cocaine production has increased, with deforestation spreading even within the boundaries of national parks. Colombia, having come so far, will never revert to the madness of the past 50 years. A people exhausted by violence will surely not tolerate a return to war.

Colombians today long for peace. Those of a certain age look back to a time when the country made sense, before the rivers were awash with the dead. Those born into the cauldron of war yearn simply for a chance to live in a land without fear, where violence no longer clouds the destiny of the young.

Lovers embrace each other at dusk on the Guillermo Gaviria Correa bridge, which spans the Magdalena River in Barrancabermeja. Calls are growing for an environmental renewal of the Magdalena, the Mississippi of Colombia.

A man leads horses along a stream in the Colombian Massif mountain range. When in Colombia, no place in the country is more than a day removed from every natural habitat one can find on our planet.Photos: Wade Davis

It will be a long, slow and uneven process of reconciliation and rebirth. Sporadic violence is certain to arise. Intense pressure will be brought to bear to exploit lands and forests long insulated from development by the conflict. The corrosive influence of cocaine will remain, unless governments everywhere have the courage to destroy the illicit trade with the cleansing stroke of legalization, a dim prospect despite being widely acknowledged as the only rational solution.

For the nation to heal, Colombians will have to find their way to forgiveness. War is easy. Peace will be hard. But it implies limitless possibilities. Two generations of young Colombians forced to flee the conflict are returning from New York, London, Paris and Madrid, with highly developed skills in every conceivable field of endeavour, placing their nation on the verge of an economic, cultural and intellectual rebirth unlike anything ever seen in Latin America.

And as men and women were at last free to discover their own homeland, all of Colombia woke to the realization that because of the conflict, vast regions of the nation, long isolated by the war, have been mercifully spared the ravages of modern development. This perhaps will be the real peace dividend, the opportunity for the nation to consciously and deliberately decide the fate of its greatest asset: the land itself, along with the forests, rivers, lakes, mountains and streams. If the lowland rain forests of Ecuador, to cite but one example, have since 1975 been utterly transformed by oil and gas exploration, colonization and deforestation, the Colombian Amazon, though now under threat, has remained until recently an essentially roadless expanse of pristine forest nearly the size of France. Decisions made today about the future of all the wild lands of Colombia will benefit from decades of scientific research, all informed by an awareness of the importance of biological and cultural diversity that simply did not exist when the fate of lowland Ecuador was determined 50 years ago. Rarely in history has a nation-state been given such an opportunity to envision its future, and such a reprieve from the industrial forces that have devastated so much of the world over the past half century.

In the end this may well prove to be the redemption of the nation. Throughout Colombia, men and women from across the political spectrum have come together to resist the violation of their lands. In the southwest of Antioquia, to cite but one example, former enemies have found common ground as they resist AngloGold Ashanti’s plans to exploit gold deposits with a string of massive open pit mines that will violate a bountiful and bucolic agricultural region that already enjoys full employment for its people. Others have rallied to oppose the construction of a deep-water port that will industrialize the Gulf of Tribuga, a pristine tropical Eden on the Pacific coast of the Choco that is home to the highest concentration of endemic species yet reported on the planet. A growing movement is calling for the rehabilitation of the Rio Magdalena, the Mississippi of Colombia, as a symbol of the rebirth of the people and their country. The path to peace and prosperity, as challenging as it has been throughout Colombian history, has today become indelibly associated with the protection of nature, just as Simon Bolivar, inspired by Humboldt, anticipated at the very inception of the nation.

In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, a European woman asks a professor from Bogota what it means to be Colombian. The man hesitates before replying, “I don’t know. It is an act of faith.” Colombia is like that. Nothing is as expected. Magical realism, celebrated as Colombia’s gift to Latin American literature, is within the country simply journalism. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote of what he saw. He was an observer, a practising journalist for most of his life, who just happened to live in a land where heaven and earth converge on a regular basis to reveal glimpses of the divine.

Only in Colombia can a traveller wash ashore in a coastal desert, follow waterways through wetlands as wide as the sky, ascend narrow tracks through dense tropical forests and reach in a week Andean valleys as gently verdant as the softest temperate landscapes of the Old World. No place in Colombia is more than a day removed from every natural habitat to be found on earth. Cities as cultured as any in the Americas were for most of their history linked one to another by trails travelled only by mules. Over time, the wild and impossible geography found its perfect coefficient in the topography of the Colombian spirit: restive, potent, at times placid and calm, in moments tortured and twisted, like a mountain that shakes, crumbles and slips to the sea. Magic becomes the antidote to fear and uncertainty. Reality comes into focus through the reassuring lens of the phantasmagoric. A god that has given so much to a nation, as Colombians never fail to acknowledge, always gets his piece on the back end.

As Colombians chart their way forward, everything hangs in the balance. Some months ago, outside Santa Marta on the banks of the Don Diego River, an old friend and revered Arhuaco elder, Mamo Camilo, summed up the challenge. “Peace will not matter,” he said, “if it is only an excuse for the various sides of the conflict to come together to maintain a war against nature. The time has come to make peace with the entire natural world.”

Elder Mamo Camilo speaks at Katanzama, an Arhuaco settlement east of Santa Marta on the Don Diego River. 'Peace will not matter if it is only an excuse for the various sides of the conflict to come together to maintain a war against nature,' he says. 'The time has come to make peace with the entire natural world.'WADE DAVIS

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.