Meet… Valeria Zapata Giraldo

My journey towards social and environmental justice in conservation

I grew up in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, Colombia, which at the same time has experienced more than six decades of internal armed conflict. I remember how, in my youth, television news showed the country’s rainforests as epicentres of war between the state, guerrillas and paramilitary groups. These images and narratives erected a barrier that prevented meaningful connections between urban populations and natural ecosystems. At the same time, it perpetuated ignorance about the social realities and experiences of the rural and ethnic populations living in these regions. Frequently, many refer to the areas far from urban centres as ‘la Colombia profunda’ (deep Colombia) often unaware of the complex realities that this label can conceal. 

I studied journalism in a quest to narrate and document the stories happening beyond the Andes mountains surrounding my city, Medellin. At the same time, it became a personal yearning to make visible the stories of communities, landscapes and biodiversity that had been fragmented and obscured by social crisis. One of the first stories I developed as an environmental journalist was about the annual migration of the leatherback sea turtle, the largest of its kind, to lay their eggs on the Atlantic coast of the Chocó region, and the collective actions of a local NGO to protect its nests.

Encouraged to continue portraying Colombia and Latin America’s social and environmental realities, I founded an environmental education and outreach platform called Esfera Viva in 2017. There I published stories on various topics, including wildlife trafficking, urban rivers, waste management, and the air quality crisis in some Colombian cities. These online stories were later expanded to in-person workshops, talks, hikes, birdwatching, and a podcast called Conexión Natural to share knowledge about various environmental issues with the Spanish-speaking community.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to work with local NGOs and community conservation projects to restore degraded ecosystems in Colombia. These projects were mainly about raising funds from private companies and individuals to carry out reforestation initiatives. Tree planting was seen by companies as a mechanism to offset their environmental impact and carbon footprint, as well as an attractive symbol to enhance their corporate reputation. The promise was that local communities and NGOs would benefit economically from participating in this market-based mechanism, where they would be paid for each tree planted.

However, this experience brought me to a crossroads between philanthropy and greenwashing. At the end of each month, the companies and project funders were more concerned with the number of trees planted, which they could brag about in their corporate reports. In contrast, the ecological benefits of the projects were questionable and the people living in these areas continued to live in poverty. This was an occasion to reflect on the ‘sustainability’ promises under which these projects were developed and the extent to which these conservation measures were socially just and environmentally transparent.

While carbon offsetting strategies have become a key element of green growth in countries of the Global South like Colombia, many people living in these same areas are still waiting for the distribution of direct benefits from those projects to improve their quality of life. At the same time, Colombian national parks, known for their breathtaking natural landscapes and rich biodiversity, carry a history of misrecognition of traditional inhabitants of these areas. These include for example numerous comunidades campesinas (rural communities). Misrecognition by park authorities restricts their meaningful participation in the governance processes of protected areas. In addition, diverse ethnic and rural communities face the daily task of defending their territory and natural ecosystems against the economic interests of extractive companies and land grabbers, often at the cost of their own lives. Regrettably, Colombia has the distinction of being one of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental and social leaders.

This sparked my interest in social justice issues in conservation and led me to do an MSc in International Development, Environment and Climate Change at the University of Manchester in 2022. My master’s thesis, which was supervised by Rose Pritchard, was focused on exploring justice in area-based conservation in Colombia. I sought to understand the dominant discourses and policies that shape Colombia’s priorities in achieving national and global area-based conservation goals, and whether they take into account social justice considerations with indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs).

In CONDJUST, I look forward to further research on these issues. Specifically, I am interested in examining justice implications for IPLCs in relation to area-based conservation policy based on data and prioritisation exercises. This subject is of great importance in countries with high biodiversity located in the tropics, where there is an urgent need to ensure that the goal of expanding protected areas and OECMs to 30% of the planet by 2030 is socially equitable with the thousands of indigenous peoples and rural communities living in priority areas for conservation.

Valeria Zapata Giraldo

Doctoral researcher