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Colombia, a biodiversity hotspot, holds lessons for other countries trying to balance development with conservation, Stanford-led study shows

Our health and economic stability depend on biodiversity, but our governing policies often fail to address it coherently. An analysis of the world’s second most biodiverse country

Plants and animals do not respect legal boundaries, oblivious to the policies that govern different jurisdictions. A new Stanford-led study highlights how policies in forestry, agriculture, and other sectors can fit together to govern biodiversity in a more coordinated and effective way. Published Feb. 6 in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the first of its kind analysis focuses on Colombia, one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, finding that biodiversity is governed by almost 200 distinct policies that cover a variety of ecosystems, conservation approaches, scales, actors, and threats.

A Green-bearded Helmetcrest hummingbird
A Green-bearded Helmetcrest hummingbird – a species endemic to Colombia – in the Parque Nacional Natural los Nevados, the national park that secures Colombia’s snow peaks. (Image credit: Getty Images)

“We were surprised to see that biodiversity is governed by policies that aim to do many other things, such as alleviating poverty and ending civil conflicts,” said lead author Alejandra Echeverri, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford Natural Capital Project.

Home to approximately 10% of the world’s species, Colombia has the most birds of any country. It is also rich in cultural diversity with more than 170 Indigenous and ethnic groups who manage about a quarter of the land and waters there. The country’s biodiversity faces pressing threats from farming, mining, and invasive species, making it an ideal place to study how policies interact to govern biodiversity.

Tragedy of the commons

In Colombia and elsewhere, conserving biodiversity is a tragedy of the commons – its importance is widely recognized, but it is not the responsibility of one single agency. For that reason, species and ecosystems are governed through a mix of conventional policies like protections against certain activities in natural areas, financial sanctions for polluting waterways, and corporate pledges, like cattle ranchers’ promises to conserve forests.

A golden poison frog in the Pacific rainforest of Colombia.
A golden poison frog in the Pacific rainforest of Colombia. This species is targeted by the illegal wildlife trade, as people desire them as exotic pets or for ornamental uses. (Image credit: Getty Images)

The researchers analyzed nearly 200 biodiversity-related policies issued by government agencies, Indigenous peoples and local communities, and other actors in Colombia over the past six decades. They spanned instrument types, such as economic incentives, taxes, and endangered species lists.

Over time, more actors and sectors have been added to the governance mix. For example, as the country has developed, policies that seek to end poverty and combat the ongoing civil war have incorporated biodiversity conservation as a secondary goal.

The researchers found policy gaps in the governance of invasive species, which contributed about 8% of the overall threat to national biodiversity, but less than 2% of the policy mix. They also found that relative to other topics, there are fewer policies that target the illegal wildlife trade. Invasive species, such as the hippos introduced by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, deplete local fisheries and jeopardize livelihoods by outcompeting native species. Unique species, such as parrots, macaws, and dart frogs, are traded illegally, which can decimate their numbers and drive them to extinction.

While the researchers found the private sector and banks that fund non-commercial development projects have become increasingly involved in biodiversity-related policymaking, they have largely avoided initiating such policies.

Focusing on policy mixes

Among the key takeaways: biodiversity-related policies can become increasingly difficult to coordinate as, over time, more policies get added and more actors take leadership roles. Adding new biodiversity goals without abandoning previous ones might create confusion. For example, there are policies that ban mining while others allow for mining as long as compensation for biodiversity happens elsewhere. As new sectors are added, this study points to the need for broader coordination across sectors and actors.

“Discussions on environmental governance often focus on single policies,” said study senior author Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor at Stanford and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Our research demonstrates the importance of focusing instead on policy mixes: how multiple public and private interventions interact to reinforce or undermine each other, and may leave policy gaps despite their proliferation.”


Study co-authors also include 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 Kuthy, a research assistant in the Stanford School of Engineering at the time of the research who is now at CBRE Group Inc; Lisa Mandle, a lead scientist at the Stanford Natural Capital Project; Mary Ruckelshaus, managing director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project; 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.

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