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Economic Reality Undermining Colombia’s Ambitious Environmental Plans

The divergence between rhetoric and reality in the environmental policies of President Juan Manuel Santos points to real tensions between development and environment, between the desire to lead by example but not to sacrifice opportunities. But plain old corruption gets in the way too

In mid April, the small town of Útica in the Colombian department of Cundinamarca was effectively wiped off the map by a landslide which also killed two residents unlucky enough to miss the last minute warnings of the authorities. This was only one of the latest tragedies to befall the country after months of extreme weather which has affected over two million Colombians and left three hundred dead.

This has made the environment front page news in Colombia. Catching the mood, last December President Juan Manuel Santos announced that climate change was the key challenge facing his administration and the country for the future. Santos then heralded a series of ‘state of the art policies,’ which he claimed would make economic development compatible with environmental sustainability. This is the philosopher’s stone for which development economists, environmentalists and politicians have been searching for years, yet the Colombian president believes he has the answers.

Echoing his words in March while in Bogotá, Al Gore claimed Colombia could be a ‘leader’  of developing countries in fighting climate change. Gore pointed to the fact that Colombia already produces an impressive percentage  of its electricity from renewable resources. Another advantage is the country’s ecology; by some measures considered the world’s most bio-diverse. After years of rural conflict Colombia’s protected areas are largely untouched by multinationals.

All this appears to give the president a valuable head start. Santos’ approach is based on the creation of a stand alone ‘Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development,’ the implementation of a UN proposed anti-deforestation strategy (REDD) and the incorporation of low carbon commitments to the government’s National Development Plan. Yet even within government there is considerable scepticism over the new environmental agenda.

‘Colombia could be a huge source of hope for the world in fighting climate change, but only if it transforms discourse into reality,’ says Edward Davey, Colombia’s lead advisor on international environmental cooperation. ‘At the moment ambitions remain just that. For example, despite the national REDD policy, deforestation continues to rise by 330,000 hectares a year.’

Indeed, Colombia shares a number of problems common to developing countries in tackling climate change and strengthening environmental institutions. One of these is local government. Colombia’s CARs  (Corporaciones Autónomas Regionales) are regional bodies given the dual function of implementing environmental policy and licensing companies wishing to undertake any project with a possible environmental impact in their area of jurisdiction. This obvious conflict of interest has led to endemic corruption  in many of the 33 bodies, which manage close to $500 million between them.

While running large commercial ventures of their own (the CARs are responsible for all Colombian sanitation infrastructure, for example) ties between CAR directors and business interest groups are common, meaning regulatory oversight is often flimsy and abuses ignored.

‘The CARs are politicised, have a bad reputation and are unfit for purpose,’ says Sandra Bessudo, High Presidential Advisor on Environmental Affairs and soon to be head of the new Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

Bessudo is part of the Santos administration’s efforts to reform the CARs. After blaming them for the devastating impact of the floods, citing mismanagement of funds designed to strengthen defences and preserve water tables, in January Santos attempted to liquidate  the lot and bring environmental management and regulation more firmly under the grip of central government. But Colombia’s 1991 constitution guarantees their autonomy, leaving the government with a fight on its hands. ‘We haven’t finished with the CARs,’ promises Bessudo.

Another key area of institutional weakness at the local level is Colombia’s mining industry. Santos has declared war on illegal miners which heavily contribute to deforestation and many of which finance guerrilla and paramilitary activity. Operations in Huila, Chocó and Antioquia departments have been shut down by the police.

Yet environmentalists argue that the government’s approach obscures the larger question, which is the future of large-scale mining activity in the country, much of it in the hands of multinationals. ‘The idea of sustainable mining is a fiction,’ argues Brigitte Baptiste of Colombia’s Humboldt Institute, the country’s largest biodiversity institution. ‘We must choose between which areas we are willing to set aside for extracting natural resources and which areas we want to protect.’

The Santos government has placed large scale mining and oil production at the centre of its four-year National Development Plan. Like his predecessor Alvaro Uribe the president has encouraged and attracted foreign investment in both sectors, meaning Colombia now accommodates a wide variety of North American, Asian and European companies most of which are seeking to expand their operations. Millions of hectares have been identified as resource-rich in hydrocarbons or other commodities. Forty percent of Colombian territory is currently under consideration for concessions bid for by miners. All this represents an enormous economic opportunity for Colombia.

The environmental costs, however, are potentially catastrophic. Much of Colombia’s natural resources sit beneath environmentally fragile areas. Notwithstanding the potential damage to Colombia’s diverse habitats and local communities from badly managed operations, deforestation and soil erosion are two consequences of intensive mining activity that are particularly detrimental to climate change mitigation.

Moreover, Colombia already has experience of when large scale mining goes wrong. In one example the Alabama coal miner Drummond was accused in 2007 by Colombia’s attorney general of deliberately underestimating the environmental consequences of a concession it was bidding for in the department of César. A previous project by the company had caused irreparable damage by leaving behind mountains of untreated rubble. Drummond was nevertheless granted the concession by the miner-friendly Uribe administration.

Environmentalists fear that these mistakes will be repeated by a government too eager to court foreign investment and without the environmental institutions to properly regulate the industry. Undoubtedly, Santos’ crackdown on mid-scale illegal miners will mean little if not combined with the political will to take on larger players breaking the rules.


Aside from the impact on Colombia’s local environment the government’s determination to take advantage of the country’s commodity wealth stands in ironic contrast to pronouncements on carbon emissions and entreaties to the ‘developed’ world to reduce C02 consumption. Here lies the dichotomy between environment friendly developmental models and growth friendly economic models in countries such as Colombia. It would be unthinkable for the government to slow down commodity exports with higher global prices and increasing production. After all, they are needed to pay for much needed investment in infrastructure, education and health. Yet public concerns for omission reductions ring shallow (Santos even promised he would consider implementing a carbon tax during Al Gore’s visit), when a drop in hydrocarbon consumption in the US or Asia would eat into development budgets.

The answer ultimately lies in a managed reduction in global hydrocarbon demand combined with economic support for developing countries reliant on exports. Until then Colombia’s good intentions will have to focus on mitigation more than anything else.

Whatever technocratic solutions Santos proposes, mitigation will be difficult when the incentives are so great to exploit vulnerabilities just as Colombia rapidly opens up to international investment and the government’s new environmental institutions are still nascent. The stakes could not be higher. According to the UN Colombia is most at risk in Latin America from natural disasters related to climate change. The outcome of Santos’ policies will soon be evident, at least.

By. Oliver Harvey

Source: Open Democracy

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