How is biodiversity governed? The case of Colombia

Biodiversity is the diversity of life forms on Earth, from genes, to species, to ecosystems. How do countries govern it? We answer this question by analyzing the policy mix of one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth: Colombia!
Published in Ecology & Evolution
How is biodiversity governed? The case of Colombia
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Many scientists dedicate our lives to understanding biodiversity patterns across the world. Some of us count species and track them to see how they are doing in the face of environmental change. Others map genomes and look for the genetic diversity within species, while others study ecosystems-documenting coral bleaching and deforestation. If you think about it, governing biodiversity across scales-from genes to ecosystems-is a monumental task

When I first joined Stanford University as a postdoctoral scholar, I had amazing conversations on environmental policy and biodiversity science with Profs. Eric Lambin, Gretchen Daily and Drs. Paul Furumo and Mary Ruckelshaus. At the time, Paul and Eric had just published some research on forest governance. They found that the private sector and the public sector interact to lead zero-deforestation initiatives, while the government plays a key role in orchestrating those initiatives targeting zero deforestation goals through partnerships.

Their findings led us to explore whether the same type of coordination happened for biodiversity governance. A “zero deforestation” target is very different from the myriad of goals and targets that we hope to achieve for biodiversity. Indeed, according to the last COP15 of the United Nations held in December in Montreal, Canada, the parties agreed to 23 new biodiversity targets! 

So how do countries govern their biodiversity?

What type of policy instruments do they use? Do they favor some instruments over others? Do they govern their species, ecosystems, genetic diversity individually, or all of the above collectively? Is a country more prone to use laws that penalize harmful behaviors, like wildlife trade? Or are they more likely to issue incentives that promote biodiversity-friendly behaviors, like biodiversity credits in agriculture? 

Motivated to understand the many policy initiatives and instruments used to govern biodiversity, we focused on Colombia as a case study. Colombia is home to ~10% of all the birds of the world, more than 50% of its territory is forested, and it is also home to more than 170 Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups that manage 24% of the land. It also has many ecosystems, including the páramos, which are high elevation ecosystems that are important for water provision and regulation, as well as home to many endemic flora and fauna.

Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, Colombia. Paramo ecosystem with the iconic "frailejones". Photo by Mike and Lara Wolfe
Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, Colombia. Páramo ecosystem with the iconic "frailejones" or "big monks"(Espeletia sp.) Photo by Mike and Lara Wolfe (Flickr users CC0 1.0) 

Like any other biodiverse country, its nature is at risk. Illegal mining to extract gold; illegal trade of parrots, butterflies, and dart frogs; and invasive species including Pablo Escobar’s hippos are all threats that need to be governed in order to protect the country’s rich biodiversity.

What are policy mixes?

A policy mix refers to the combination of policy instruments issued by public and private sectors that influence the quality and quantity of biodiversity and ecosystem service provision. To document it, coauthors Sydney Moss, Alan Figot Kuthy and I entered nearly six decades worth of policy data. It took us almost 2 years to enter all Colombian policies led by national government ministries, private sector companies, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, multilateral development banks, and departmental and local governments. 

We found 186 instruments issued between 1959 and 2018: from national policy instruments that set the vision and the targets of biodiversity conservation to fiscal instruments that tax the use of plastic bags. We learned that biodiversity is governed across scales, not only biological scales (from the genetic to the ecosystems), but also from the municipal to the international governance scales. 

Through time, more sectors and actors are participating in biodiversity governance. While in the 60s, it was relegated to mostly the traditional sectors like agriculture, pollution, and forestry; most recently, the mining, tourism, and health sectors have started to mainstream biodiversity in their sectoral policies. 

We also worked with coauthors Ivan Dario Valencia and Daniela Garcia Aguirre, who are environmental policy analysts, environmental lawyers, and practitioners based in Colombia. Coauthors Dr. Lisa Mandle and Mary Ruckelshaus have also worked with many countries in guiding environmental policies that help secure biodiversity and its benefits to people. Together, we were able to understand how biodiversity is integrated into sectors and how vague policy language might get implemented. 

What are the policy implications of this work?

As new sectors and actors get added into the policy mix, a need for coordination is evident. While the central government plays a key role in orchestrating initiatives, there is an opportunity for other actors to lead and coordinate initiatives across scales. We found for example, that in recent years, the private sector has increased its participation in the mix, yet compared to the government-led policies, the private sector has led fewer policies.

While nobody knows the right number of policies needed to govern biodiversity effectively, we do know that a combination of instruments is important. Therefore, a balanced policy mix is one that has some policies that set the vision while others fund policy objectives in addition to policies that penalize harmful behaviors while others motivate beneficial ones. We found that actors are using all policy instruments available to them to manage biodiversity against its threats. 

Our results show, however, that some threats are impacted by a policy gap. Invasive species and wildlife trade seem to be under-regulated compared to other biodiversity threats. In a country where hippos and lion fishes are threatening local fauna and flora, and where parrots, macaws and parakeets are traded illegally by the thousands, perhaps policymakers can address these threats through more cohesive policies that utilize the full portfolio of policy instruments.

Invasive species like the lion fish (Pterois volitans) threaten native species. In the policy mix, we found that only a few policies target invasive species. Photo by: Swimfinfan (Flickr user- CC-BY-SA 2.0) 

While biodiversity keeps declining worldwide, more actors, countries, and sectors are joining efforts to halt its loss. We need more studies that help us understand how policy mixes translate into effective implementation of those initiatives. We will continue to see a growth of biodiversity policies over time; hopefully we can also start to see a reverse in biodiversity declines!

Study coauthors also include Dr. Paul Furumo, a postdoctoral scholar in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability at the time of the research who is now at the California Council on Science & Technology; Sydney Moss, a research associate at the Stanford Natural Capital Project at the time of the research who is now at the University of California, Berkeley; Alan Figot Kuty, a research assistant in the Stanford School of Engineering at the time of the research who is now at CBRE Group Inc; Dr. Lisa Mandle, a lead scientist at the Stanford Natural Capital Project; Dr. Mary Ruckelshaus, managing director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project; Prof. Gretchen Daily, Bing Professor of Environmental Science at Stanford Department of Biology, and Faculty Director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project; Daniela García Aguirre of AIDA Americas and Stanford LLM alumni '21 from Stanford Law; and Ivan Darío Valencia of the Global Green Growth Institute.

This study was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Contacts for the media
Alejandra Echeverri, Stanford Natural Capital Project
ale.echeverri@stanford.edu

Rob Jordan, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
rjordan@stanford.edu

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