In Defense of Biodiversity Through the Colombian Peace Deal: Meet Juan David Giraldo

Juan David Giraldo on the day of his first Climate Strike. (Photo courtesy of Juan David Giraldo)

Juan David Giraldo was born in Quindío, Colombia, an Andean region just northeast of the Amazon Rainforest. But Giraldo lives in Medellín, where his mother relocated to escape the violence of the five-decade long civil war between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). There, Giraldo has brought Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture #SchoolStrike4Climate to Colombia, and with it, to Latin America.

In the fall of 2018, Giraldo joined tens of thousands of students who took the streets across Colombia to protest massive cuts to the country’s public university system under newly elected President Iván Duque Márquez. “In every mobilization, you learn,” Giraldo explains.

Right around the same time, Giraldo remembers catching a glimpse of Thunberg somewhere in the depths of social media. Climate change wasn’t yet a clear-cut concept for him. Giraldo has grown up amidst the single longest war in the Americas, which came to a symbolic end when then-President Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace deal with FARC in 2016. After hearing about Thunberg, Giraldo immediately began researching climate change, and was floored by what he found. “It was a big shock for me,” he says. “Every new fact I learned made me more and more anxious,” he explains. “I told myself ‘I need to stop [reading], I need to stop,’ but I couldn’t.” The science was scary.

Giraldo went to spend some time in rural Quindío. “I was in the hammock looking at the sky, trying to convince myself that climate change wasn’t real,” he recalls. “I tried to escape from the fear, but it wasn’t possible.”

So, following the model Thunberg provided, Giraldo planned a strike in Medellin. It was a little awkward. “These people with ties leaving their offices completely ignored me, as if I was not there,” Giraldo explained toEl Tiempo. But Giraldo told himself that he had already started, so there was no going back. He made plans to strike every day from there on out.

Then on January 17th, a car bomb went off in Bogota, killing 21 people. Again, Giraldo was scared. “Sorry, but I will leave the #ClimateStrike,” Giraldo posted on Twitter on January 19th. “Our president destroyed the Peace Agreement and the war is about to start again.”

Giraldo says he received an outpouring of support on social media, including that from the Colombian chapter of Extinction Rebellion, which was also organizing in Medellín. The group was working to combat climate change by planting trees—specifically those native to Colombia. In seeing other Colombians involved in climate justice work, Giraldo came to believe that there was little to lose in the fight for climate action. “Colombian violence will not kill me,” he says, “but climate change will.”

Giraldo has been on strike every Friday since then. And now he has company. Giraldo spent much of February recruiting students from schools throughout Medellín. He has joined with other student groups protesting the mismanagement of the Hidroituango Dam, and invited them to his regular strikes. Then in mid-February, another student leader, Alejandro Lotero, began organizing weekly strikes in Cali. “From Colombia: Medellin and Cali. We are united,” Lotero posted on Twitter. “Please join forces and understand that we are in a crisis!”

Two students join Giraldo on Climate Strike in
Medellín on February 15th, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Juan David Giraldo)

Today, Giraldo, Lotero and other activists are striking to protect the Amazon Rainforest, which spills over into Colombia from northwest Brazil, covering some 35% of the country’s landmass. “The Amazon rainforest is the lungs of the world,” Giraldo explains. Though Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world—it boasts 314 unique ecosystems that are home to 1,800 species of birds, many of them endemic to Colombia, 456 mammal species, and 208 endangered amphibian species—its rich lands are being deforested at the rate of about half a football field per minute.

In 2016, before signing the country’s historic peace agreement, former President Santos signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement, committing to reducing Colombia’s deforestation rate to zero by 2020. But the peace accord has had complicated ripple-effects that have made this goal difficult to meet. “The advantage of the agreement was the death rates went down by about 90%,” Giraldo explains. “But when they signed the agreement, [FARC] left the forest and these zones empty.”

As rebels abandoned their camps to turn in their weapons and return to civilian life, many of the forests and towns they had occupied were left empty, and struggling agricultural communities got involved with coca cultivation. One farmer in southern Colombia told KUNC, a pound of paste made from the coca leaf sells for more than one ton of corn. Coca cultivation reached an all time high of 171,000 hectares in 2017, and is a major contributor to the surge in deforestation—34% of which took place in Colombia’s Amazon Rainforest in 2016. Part of the 2016 peace agreement included the crop substitution program la sustitución de cultivos ilícitos, which has made headway at helping farmers transition from coca production to growing more sustainable crops. As Giraldo sees it, the program has both supported rural communities and made headway at slowing deforestation.

But the crop substitution program is facing budget cuts, and as the peace agreement continues to unravel under President Duque, Giraldo says he is worried that farmers will be pulled back to coca production, and that deforestation rates will surge. Today, Giraldo, along with students from schools in Medellin, Cali, Bogota and other towns will demand that the Colombian government uphold all articles of the 2016 peace deal, six of which President Duque has objected to. “The way to save the rainforests and the Amazon is saving the peace accord…the agreement is the vertebrae of our country,” he says. “It is what sustains our biodiversity.”

#FridaysForFuture Medellín on strike on March 29, 2019 (Photo courtesy of Juan David Giraldo)


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