Colombia: Green Washing or Environmental Champion? A Tale of Contradictions

photo Héloise pichotAbout the author : Héloïse Pichot is a young French economist specialized in sustainable development. Her passion for the environment and people brought her to CliMates. She uses her travels around the world as an inspiration for her blog pièces.

With the COP21 looming in, it is time to take a closer look at the national positions on climate change and mitigation efforts. An easy way to do so is to refer to the official stance of the nations in international negotiations; another is to look at the domestic policy and actions. Surely they should be coherent? Well, perhaps not always, as the case of Colombia demonstrates.

Columbia

Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos at the UN Climate Change Summit 2014 (Photo: EFE)

Why Colombia?

Why talk about Colombia, and not for example Argentina, Morocco, or Thailand? If Colombia is most known for its drug production and decades-long guerilla between the FARCS and the government, it is also a mega-diverse country. Indeed, it ranks second when it comes to biodiversity per square unit thanks to a wide range of unique ecosystems, such as the Sierra Nevada, the paramos, or the open savannas. This already gives a good argument to get a look at what the Colombian government thinks of climate change, wouldn’t you agree?

Not completely convinced? What if in addition to being home to more than 10 percent of the world species, Colombia was also very vulnerable to climate change? And here you have a dreadful mix. The former environmental minister of Colombia, Frank Pearl, went as far as to affirm that Colombia was the third most vulnerable nation to climate change in the world. This might be a difficult figure to confirm. However, with Colombia being one of the wettest countries in the world, it unequivocally risks deluges from changes in the Andes climate and severe permanent coastal flooding, while other parts are threatened with droughts and the extensions of barren areas, such as the northern desert of La Guajira. And to paint a complete picture, the entire country presents a high recurrence of natural disasters associated with climate conditions.

An Environmental Champion on the International Scene

With this sword over its head, it would seem reasonable to assume that it is a top priority for the country to see a stringent agreement to be adopted in Paris and to do its share to mitigate climate change. At first glance, indeed, Colombia appears to be a good student among developing and emerging countries. Colombia adopted the UNFCCC in 1994 and approved the Kyoto protocol in 2001. In 2012, during the Rio+20 summit, President Juan Manuel Santos positioned the country as a frontrunner by proposing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim at expanding on the Millennium Development Goals. More recently, President Santos made a vibrant speech about climate change during the UN climate change summit held last year in New York, appearing as a vehement ecologist. Lastly, and to confirm this stance, the government just announced in July its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) before the COP21. The country committed to curb its emissions by 20 percent compared to business as usual scenario before 2030. This is good news, as few developing countries had given a significant quantified commitment this early, engaging other counterparts to do the same.

Columbia 2

Paramos Sumapaz, Colombia. (Photo: Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero)

More Ambiguity When It Comes to Domestic Actions

If, from the outside, Colombia thus seems to lead the charge on climate change, many domestic experts and media have not been so kind with the government, accusing it of green washing and other unflattering adjectives for a reason. To start, in the last five years, the ministry of environment has seen five ministers come and go, often with absolutely no experience on the subject. In 2013, while President Santos declared the extension of an important national park in the largest protected area in the Amazon, he also established nearly 20 million hectares of virgin forests in the Amazon and the Pacific as part of the strategic mining area. The following year, the ministry of environment started to issue authorization for fracking oil explorations in highly sensitive regions. One of the reasons is that fracking offers a way to mitigate the drop in international oil prices. With the industry accounting for about 20 percent of the Colombian government’s revenues, the fall is threatening the established growth goals. Indeed, the fiscal crisis has already prompted the state administration to cut planned investments for the 2016 fiscal year by nearly 10 percent, including a budget cut in the ministry of environment. Accompanying the green light for fracking extraction, the government reformed the environmental license process, creating an express track that has been seen by many as a harsh step backward in the protection of the environment. It now allows the mining sector to receive a new license in a little more than four weeks against a previous average of thirty weeks that were necessary to implement all the environmental and safety checks. From this non-exhaustive list of domestic actions undertaken by the Colombian government, one can say with little doubt that having to choose between short-term growth and the environment, the government resolutely leans for the former.

Leniency from the International Community

Why, if Colombia cares so little about its incredibly bio-diverse environment does it get such a good reputation in international circles? Three pointers can help us to understand.

First, few developing or emerging countries have, like Colombia, stated so strongly their convictions and engagement in favor of a climate change agreement during official meetings and summits. Thus, the United Nations and other developed countries might be wary to rebuke Colombia publicly, as they attempt to convince more developing countries to engage concretely in the fight against climate change.

Second, it is likely that the international community does not know the domestic policy of every country, especially when it is yet to be considered a major player.

Finally, it is not all black and white. Colombia has shown–and still shows–a real concern for the environment and mitigation issues. The government has created a new institutional framework mapped out in a document dating from 2011 that intends to formulate long-term climate policies and mitigation actions. However, new institutions are often weak and need time to build on their capacity and to be able to defend and implement policies. Colombia has for a long time bet on extractive industries to develop and win the poverty challenge, and although the government is dedicated to climate change, the shift in the development paradigm cannot be easy with powerful opposing interests trying to lobby against it.

The story of Colombia is not unusual, and more countries than not still struggle between genuine good intentions, timeworn growth paradigms, and conflicting interests, leading to observed contradictions, even in well-developed societies. The reality of climate leaders and stallers is not so clear-cut after all.

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