By Luis Gilberto Murillo, Martin Luther King Fellow at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative and former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia (2016-2018), and Caroline White-Nockleby, ESI Research Affiliate
The Biden-Harris administration has defined advancing racial justice, tackling global climate change, and furthering peace across the Western Hemisphere as key priorities. These priorities have been ratified with recent reports from the White House, particularly the Biden-Harris Administration’s Statement on Drug Policy Priorities for Year One, the State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, and the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The fact that these issues were elevated within the first three months of the Biden-Harris administration sends a strong message to the region and reaffirms the administration’s commitment to racial equity.
Confronting these challenges domestically is vital over the coming months, but the Biden-Harris administration will also have the opportunity to support racial justice efforts across Latin America, where roughly one in four people self-identify as Black or Afro-descendant, and often issues of race tend to be overlooked.
Recent policy initiatives in Colombia, some of them backed by USAID, exemplify how the Biden administration could make supporting community-led Afro-descendant initiatives—for peace, autonomy, climate solutions and sustainable development—a central component of its Latin America agenda. This will allow the U.S. to reclaim and strengthen its leadership role with an equity lens that uplifts and supports historically disenfranchised communities.
In Colombia, as elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, Afro-descendant communities have higher rates of poverty, lower educational attainment, and are underrepresented in positions of leadership. Though the UN estimates that in Colombia they comprise about 26 percent of the total population, they are undercounted in official census statistics.
Moreover, Colombia’s decades-long conflict with the far-left guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which officially ended with the peace agreement of 2016, had a disproportionate impact on Afro-Colombian communities. Afro-Colombian territories in the Pacific coast, the Magdalena river, and the Amazon were affected by violence and related activities including drug trafficking, coca cultivation and illegal mining. Since 2016, the conflict has reemerged. In 2020 alone, the UN recorded 375 conflict-related deaths, many of them Afro-Colombian leaders and activists. With some exceptions, media coverage has largely elided the conflict’s devastating impacts on these communities.
In January, a coalition of Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and Campesino leaders wrote a letter calling on the Biden-Harris administration to take action to secure peace, in part by supporting the political and economic autonomy of Afro-Colombian communities in their territories. President Biden has recognized Colombia’s crucial role in regional stability, calling it “the cornerstone of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean.” As the Biden administration develops its concrete policy for Latin America, it has to promote security and economic development for marginalized communities, in addition to tools and resources that help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Afro-Colombian communities have sometimes been marginalized not only in discussions about the conflict, but also in those regarding peacetime development and conservation initiatives. Colombia is the second most biodiverse country worldwide. Its forests, which cover half its total landmass, are also vital sites of carbon sequestration: preserving them is crucial to meeting global climate mitigation goals. Many of the most biodiverse areas of the country are in traditional Afro-Colombian territories.
Today, deforestation, due to both illicit and sanctioned activities, poses a grave threat to the Amazon and the Pacific region. Though some media coverage suggests that the 2016 peace agreement led to deforestation, this interpretation is inaccurate. Deforestation has complex causes, including in some cases fighting and related illicit activities themselves. This narrative contributes to the invisibility of the role that Afro-Colombians have played in stewarding the Pacific and the Amazon forest, riverside, and coastal environments where they have historically resided.
The passage of Law 70 in 1993, in part spurred by Afro-Colombian social movements, paved a legal pathway for the collective titling of these traditional territories. With this law, Colombia became the first country in Latin America to encode the right of a non-indigenous minority group to receive collective title. Law 70 has inspired similar initiatives in Ecuador, Panama, and Brazil.
Despite the violence and displacement that have been exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, collective titling has strengthened the ability of Afro-Colombian communities to conserve and protect their lands. Multiple studies have found that collectively titled lands have, on average, lower deforestation rates than individually titled land—and, in some cases, than traditional national parks.
Investing the necessary resources in the governance of ancestral territories can present a promising pathway of advancing not only peace and wellbeing, but also drug policy, climate and conservation goals. Indeed, both regionally and worldwide, titled Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, which cover about one fifth of carbon stored in all forests, are often associated with lower deforestation rates. In a recent report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization highlights the case of Afro-Colombian territories and documents how Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities are central for nature-based solutions to the climate crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In Colombia, as worldwide, racial justice, peace, climate mitigation, and biodiversity conservation are intertwined. During my term as the Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development under President Juan Manuel Santos, we addressed these issues in tandem in the formulation of key policies such as the 2016 peace agreement and Colombia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. Much work remains to improve these policies and their application. Yet these, alongside Colombia’s climate ambitions and other innovative environmental initiatives, might inform and inspire the Biden Administration’s Latin America policy agenda.
Across Latin America, Afro-descendant communities are on the frontlines of deforestation and climate change. With the unprecedented COVID-19 American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan, and other legislation to implement the administration’s proposed FY22 budget, President Biden has the chance to make substantial strides in priorities including tackling global climate change, addressing racial injustice, and furthering hemisphere-wide stability in a way that reflects the centrality of racial and ethnic minorities in any solution. As the case of Colombia demonstrates, investing in Afro-descendant communities throughout Latin America offers one effective means to reach these goals.
An excerpted version of this op ed appeared in Impacto Media on April 17, 2021.
A Spanish-language version of this op ed also appeared in the following outlets: