This story appears in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, 66, won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to his nation’s 52-year civil war. He was honored recently by National Geographic for greatly increasing protected land and marine areas in Colombia, one of the world’s most biologically diverse countries.
You dramatically expanded, by thousands of square miles, areas protected in parks, wildlife sanctuaries, marine reserves, and elsewhere. Why were you so intent on doing that?
We are one of the richest countries in terms of biodiversity, and we are one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. That gives us a special responsibility to protect, as soon as possible, the largest amount of territories that are a jewel for Colombians and for humanity. That’s why I accelerated the process of protecting the most valuable resources we have.
Colombia faces many challenges in the postwar era: compensating farmers who were ousted from their land, educating some 7,000 demobilized guerrillas, accounting for tens of thousands of people who are missing and presumed dead, and removing land mines buried throughout the countryside. What’s most urgent?
All of the above, but there’s one priority we need to address, which is demining. Colombia is still the second most mined country in the world, after Afghanistan. If we want to enjoy peace, we need to demine the country. That’s priority number one. But of course restitution of land to the peasants, which we are doing, is a priority, along with the sustainable way of developing [areas touched by the war], for people to see change as fast as possible.
You’ve said that the summer 2017 storms in the Caribbean and Texas reflect the dangers posed by climate change. What do you say to skeptics?
Anybody who doesn’t see the impact of climate change is really, I would say, myopic. They don’t see the reality. It’s so evident that we are destroying Mother Earth. This is not the problem of one country or a few countries; it is the problem of mankind. We need to work together to stop this. Otherwise our future generations will simply disappear.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.