ECC Platform Library


Ecologist Special Report: Ecological Conservation in Post-Conflict Colombia

21 February, 2017
Forest Ray

Colombia is now closer than ever to finding a peaceful resolution to generations of violence. With so much to gain in a post-conflict world - as much for the Colombian people as for their environment - the sudden prospect of losing it all will make for tense months ahead writes Forest Ray.

Colombia stands at a crossroads. The Colombian government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) recently signed a peace accord, signaling an end to the Western Hemisphere's longest running war. The deal was signed with extensive international assistance, particularly from the United States, whose continued financial and military aid will be needed to successfully field and maintain an effective security presence in former conflict zones.

The conflict with the FARC has left deep scars in Colombian society and on the environment. For the better part of 60 years, people concerned with the health of Colombia's vast ecosystem have had to watch from the sidelines, as bitter foes have battled each other throughout some of Earth's most biologically rich landscapes. As the country begins the disarmament and reintegration process for thousands of FARC fighters, Colombian ecologists will finally be able to assess the state of ecosystems long off-limits to research and development.

While concerns regarding the social aspects of peace, such as complete disarmament, reintegration of guerrillas into society and compensation and reconciliation for the multitudes of people displaced by the war receive the most press, environmental concerns cannot be ignored. Environmental stewardship and economic development go hand in hand. In particular, the issues of how to end coca cultivation, the potential of the land to yield useful scientific discoveries and ecotourism as a form of economic development each highlight how environmental concerns can form integral parts of the peace effort.

Colombia is one of the planet's greatest sources of cocaine, which is derived from the coca leaf. Cultivation of coca contributes to profound environmental and social damage. Grown largely beyond the reach of Colombian law enforcement, coca has existed as an unregulated industry. This lack of regulation has led to many cases of deforestation, as land has been cleared to make room for coca fields.

As Dr Liliana Dávalos, of Stony Brook University and a leading researcher in the field of environmental conservation in conflict zones explains, patterns of coca plantation underwent a marked shift around the start of the 21st Century, as efforts to eradicate those fields evolved. Until approximately the year 2000, she says, coca plantations had been clustered about the foothills bordering the Andes Mountains and the Amazon Basin.

The proximity of each field to the others made them too difficult a target to defend, however, leading to a redistribution of plantations west of the Andes and into the Chocó region, wherein the rebels could use the forest cover as a form of natural camouflage

The Chocó region is known as a biodiversity hotspot. It contains a high number of species, many of which are endemic to Colombia, living together in a high density.  Although the distributed fields appear to cause less deforestation than before, Dr Dávalos explains that they can still cause great harm to their ecosystems through habitat fragmentation. Scattered growing fields connected by an irregular road system carve continuous habitats into a patchwork system of smaller habitats, which complicates the free movement of local animal species throughout their former territory. This leads in turn to altered patterns of seed dispersal, plant growth and nutrient access.

How the government deals with coca plantations and any communities that may have sprung up around them will have profound environmental effects on those areas. In Guaviare department, for instance, coca cultivation was severely curtailed through a combination of policing and the development of good land connections and services. This strategy, while largely successful in limiting coca production and bringing much needed economic development to the region, also resulted in the destruction of a significant portion of the region's forest.

Any plausible post-coca scenario for these regions must involve economic development. As Dr Dávalos points out: "places that grow coca do so because they are underdeveloped."  Removal of coca plantations and the ecological damage that they cause therefore necessitates some form of economic development. "If there is economic developent," says Dr. Dávalos, "then coca will decline. If it's just more policing and that's it, coca will persist and continue to move into less controlled territories."

A healthy environment encourage ecotourism investment

Conservationists like Dr Dávalos hope that the government will take more current research into account when planning the restoration and development of former FARC territories. The health of Colombia's wilderness will be a boon to the communities living there, as a healthy environment encourages ecotourism investment, already a strong economic driver throughout Latin America. It also benefits the world at large, as places with high biodiversity are typically sources of great biotechnological innovation. 

Colombia's staggering biodiversity makes it prime real estate for the search for microbial, plant and animal species from which commercially valuable compounds such as medicines can be derived.

Plants, in particular, have a history of medicinal use dating back thousands of years. Even in today's highly tech-driven pharmaceutical companies, an estimated 11% of the 252 drugs considered to be basic and essential by the WHO come from compounds found in flowering plants. Plant compounds form the basis not only of simple drugs like aspirin, but also of powerful anti-cancer medications like paclitaxel and camptothecin.

Beyond plants, recent animal studies have demonstrated that several Colombian frog species secrete substances from their skin, which have anti-yellow fever effects. Rare in the developed world, yellow fever is endemic in throughout Central and South America and Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that yellow fever was responsible for between 29,000 and 60,000 deaths throughout Africa during 2013 alone. If the frog skin secretions can be successfully developed into marketable medicines, they could have profoundly positive effects on the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Colombia is known far and wide as a major coffee producer. With coffee plantation comprising 17% of Colombia's agriculture, it makes for one of their biggest exports. The economic value of coffee has prompted extensive research into the soil conditions that make coffee grow so well in Colombia. As Dr. Juan Bueno, a chemist planning microbial biodiversity surveys in the Quindío region, where much of Colombia's coffee is grown explains, "Colombian ecosystems contain a large number of species in a high degree of symbiosis and interaction."  Understanding how various biological organisms in play conspire to produce such fertile soil can provide profound benefits to agricultural initiatives in other areas of the world.

Two factors holding back research efforts in the Colombian forests are access to the land and enforcement of treaties protecting indigenous intellectual property related to biotechnology.

Regarding land access, researchers interested in knowing what useful species abound in these regions must be able to perform detailed surveys of the species found therein. These surveys not only help those interested in the biotechnological features of the land, but also help conservationists establish clear and rational plans for restoring and protecting degraded regions. Until the conflict zones are open and secure, no such surveys can take place.

Biopiracy is a point of contention

Regarding the protection of indigenous intellectual property, Colombia was an early signer of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Article 80(j) of the treaty mandates that signatory nations protect indigenous knowledge by establishing laws to share any benefits derived from their knowledge of the land, such as profits from a novel prescription drug, among the community from where the knowledge of that drug came.

Although Colombia quickly ratified this treaty and has established a legal framework to support it, enforcement of the treaty has been found lacking by some researchers. In a recent publication, human rights researchers Drs. Leonardo Güiza and Diana Bernal found that bureaucratic delays and weak enforcement of bioprospecting regulations led to an increase in biopiracy within Colombian borders. Biopiracy is a significant point of contention between indigenous communities and the rest of Colombian society.

Both human rights researchers and scientists, like Dr. Bueno, hope that a peaceful future will enable more resources to be applied to upholding laws regarding responsible research into natural resources and in upholding treaties such as the CBD, that form the legal basis from which healthy relationships between indigenous communities and researchers can grow.

One of the most economically valuable pursuits in the renewal of communities in conflict zones will be that of tourism and of ecotourism in particular. Tourism doubled in Colombia between 2006 and 2016, with ecotourism playing a significant role in that growth. Given Colombia's natural richness, this is not surprising. As María Claudia Lacoutoure, Colombia's Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, recently stated, "The growth of tourism cannot be uncoupled from [environmental] sustainability."

Tourism has rightly been criticized for contributing to some environmental degradation. However, as numerous ecotour operators interviewed pointed out, tourists don't come to places that don't hold a natural charm and that charm is incompatible with environmental degradation. The trick is to strike a balance between the ecological needs of the land and the community needs for tourist dollars. Finding and maintaining this balance is not an easy task.

Tour operators and community members are not alone in this task. There to help is the Colombian Network for Ecological Restoration (Red Colombiana de Restauración Ecológica, or REDCRE). REDCRE is a group of scientific, legal and administrative experts, whose mission is to fortify ecologically degraded land within Colombia's borders. A fundamental aspect of REDCRE's strategy for providing aid is to teach remote and often indigenous communities how to best take an active role in the development of their communities and the conservation of their land.

Dr Jéssica Rubio, an ecologist at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá and secretary of REDCRE, explains, "The people living in rural communities are far more in tune with the needs of their community and the state of the land than any distant professional, but they often lack the knowledge and scientific rigor involved in designing effective strategies to balance personal economic needs with regional ecological needs."

The members of REDCRE strive to bring scientific knowledge and technical skills to remote communities and to work with community members to generate ideal strategies for the long-term health of each community. As the country turns towards a post-conflict future, REDCRE increasingly focuses on communities found in FARC-occupied territories.

Despite REDCRE's organized efforts, they still rely on government support in the form of security and government investment in support of community and ecological development. To this end, the Colombian government created the Agency for the Renovation of the Territory (Agencia de Renovación del Territorio, ART), which is tasked with coordinating just such efforts. The Colombian press, however, has criticized the ART for not having clearly defined powers of enforcement. Further fueling skepticism, the ART does not present itself in a particularly transparent manner. The Agency lacks an official website and did not reply to repeated requests for information.

Funding for ‘Plan Colombia' is now under review

Beyond bureaucratic opacity, one of the greatest impediments to a successful resolution of Colombia's conflict comes from what should have been a very unlikely source. For the past 18 years, Colombia has received significant military and diplomatic aid from the United States under an agreement called Plan Colombia. Despite past criticisms of the plan's execution, the military support it provides forms one of the pillars of a successful peace deal. On 22 January, the new U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, cast doubt on the continuation of Plan Colombia, stating that he would "review" both that agreement and "seek to review the details of Colombia's recent peace agreement, and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it".

Under the terms of Plan Colombia, Colombia is due to receive $450 million dollars from the United States to reinforce recent security gains and to extend the rule of law into areas that have long existed under FARC control. Without that ability, there exists a legitimate fear that, rather than fully demobilizing, FARC fighters will be recruited into other armed groups, which will extend their own rule into these areas and over the long-oppressed communities found therein, much as occurred with the EPL and AUC, other armed groups from past conflicts.

Colombia is now closer than ever before to finding a peaceful resolution to generations of violence. With so much to gain in a post-conflict world, as much for the Colombian people as for their environment, the sudden prospect of losing it all will make for tense months ahead.

This Author

Dr Forest Ray holds a PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University. He has published a dissertation on genomic sequencing technologies and has a paper on low-cost sequencing methods under review. He currently lives in Mexico, where he has gained an interest in how scientific research is used to improve public health when research budgets are constrained.

[This article originally appeared on The Ecologist.]

Biodiversity & Livelihoods
Conflict Transformation

South America


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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