Elections and Development in Colombia: More of the Same?

President Juan Manuel Santos was re-elected after the second round of Colombian elections in mid June. These elections did not raise questions about development, environment or climate change. Instead, voters were offered development as usual — putting the short term over the long term and treating resource over-exploitation as the price to pay for progress. While this re-election is good news for the peace talks, the results from the 2014 campaign do not mean that the public favors a model of development that seeks growth at any expense. This article highlights some elements suggesting why the Colombian public will continue to demand more than growth as usual.

The elections took place amid high growth, historically-low unemployment and unconvinced voters. Colombia is a “hot economy” that continues to conquest international markets and attract foreign investors as the government upgrades our investment policies. Yet Colombians feel the country’s progress is slow and economic opportunities are not easily available for them. They do not yet see Colombia as a safe place. The results from 15 June should therefore not hide the political reality of Colombian voters being unsatisfied with the government’s policies. Rather, Santos’ elections should be seen as a victory over an alternative they considered worse.

Protests and strikes in agriculture, transport, mining and health took place in 2013 and 2014. The population’s complaints covered a wide range of grievances from free trade agreements, rising fuel prices and informal mining to financial headaches and unpopular health reforms. These protests highlighted the contrast between Colombia as a “hot” market and Colombia as an unsatisfied society that expects more from government than the delivery of high growth rates. Moreover, the widening gap between the rich and poor seems to have no solution in sight.

Colombia bears the weight of a violent past. This uncomfortable reality is still part of daily life. The peace dialogues between the government and one of the leftwing guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has won some victories. According to some, a peace agreement might be near, , yet the talks are vulnerable and face recurrent setbacks whenever guerrillas attack communities. Drug dealers continue to spread terror around the country, affecting disproportionately the most vulnerable and the poor.
Growth and peace are the natural political slogans during Colombian elections along with some priority areas for public investment. Between 2010 and 2014, the Santos Administration turned mining into the central economic engine of an agenda that - his narrative proposed - would create “prosperity for all”. The largest share of the national budget went to mining and energy expansion (36%) compared to 34% to housing and 3% to environmental management and sustainable development. Thus, the question is where will Colombia end if it deepens a model of unsustainable growth? Will this model work politically given that the public dissatisfaction is already high?

The wrong way?

Illegal mining is widespread and on the rise. Water pollution has reached unprecedented levels and the reduction of river water levels is occurring in areas of immense natural capital, thus creating a negative cycle of effects. Public concerns about the negative impacts of mining – legal and illegal – are on the rise. Last year, people complained about irresponsible practices by international coal mining company Drummon in the northern city of Santa Marta. The company had already been accused of causing pollution across beaches and ocean water. Due to public outcry the government stopped Drummon’s operations until the required environmental standards were put in place. Similar examples are emerging around the country.

And yet the political offer still remains focused on promoting mining and energy as a source of quality of life for Colombia. The Santos proposal for 2014-2018 states that:
“the mining and energy sector is the major partner in the eradication of poverty. These resources will support economically millions of compatriots in need. We cannot leave on the ground our mining and energy wealth if we want to improve the quality of life for all Colombians. To continue to help build a country at peace and with greater opportunities for all, we must ensure that the sector is strong, dynamic and socially and environmentally responsible.”

Then there is the issue of climate change. Climate and weather-related impacts are not new in Colombia. In 2010 and 2011, La Niña - a hydro-climatic event - affected over 3.2 million people and flooded 3.5 million hectares causing asset losses equivalent to 2,2% of GDP in 2011. Due to these events and severe floods, awareness of climate impacts in Colombia is on the rise.

The question is how much longer will it take for the political class, traditional Parties in particular, to wake up to impacts of climate change. The country needs to have an explicit and public debate on the kind of economic development path we want for Colombia and the price of growth as usual. Will the economic engines of growth that the government (and other traditional economists) promote harm our quality of life and valuable natural capital? These and other questions must be at the ,forefront of public discussions. These are not second-order “environmentalist” issues but fundamental themes underpinning our country’s future.

The question is how much longer will it take for the political class, traditional Parties in particular, to wake up to impacts of climate change in our country.

An opportunity looms large as the push for action to combat climate change gains traction in Colombia. The government has designed a low carbon strategy with specific actions in this area and is executing the MAPS program (and innovative international initiative combining experts from South Africa and Latin America).

And yet the signals are mixed. Economic institutions rarely integrate climate realities in their approaches and proposals. And even the government drags its feet. Take for example the recent design of a comprehensive institutional arrangement for climate change (to be called SISCLIMA) which should have been approved by now. Or the new Law 1715 which promotes renewable energy, yet co-exists with the government’s welcoming approach towards fracking - and fossil fuels more generally.

Unless we take a decisive step to turn mitigation and adaptation to climate change a matter of State priority, we will weaken the basis for Colombia's prosperity. We cannot afford to wait until Colombia’s climate vulnerability worsens. The cost of inaction to tackle our vulnerability is high and so are the gains from ensuring a clean economy future. (ECLAC has done work on the cost of inaction in Latin America, for example).

What did Candidates offer?

The political landscape is changing in Colombia. New parties and coalitions have emerged, leading to five candidates running during the first round of this presidential election on May 25th.

For the second round, President Santos from the Social Party of National Unity ran against Óscar Iván Zuluaga from the Democratic Centre - a close ally to former President Uribe (who did not support Santos even if they were allies in the past). Santos and Zuluaga are considered liberals in the Latin American sense: pro-market and socially conservative. They too take a similar industrial vision. Not surprisingly, the public viewed their political recipe as offering “more of the same”.

The fundamental difference between these two candidates was their approach to building peace. Santos has led an aggressive effort to deepen the peace talks with the guerrilla and turned the peace agenda into the centrepiece of his campaign. Zuluaga, on the other hand, did not support the ongoing peace talks. This might explain why despite the public dissatisfaction with Santos, a majority granted him a second term on 15 June.

Clara López from the Alternative Democratic Pole and Enrique Peñalosa from the Green Alliance represented non-traditional parties. They talk of alternative development. They both favour social investments and sustainability, yet fell behind the more traditional candidates probably because voters expressed doubts about their ability to run the country. The public is, arguably, unwilling to give a presidential mandate to non-traditional parties. Colombians, however, are willing to end (or at least reduce) their historical loyalty to the traditional politicos and parties. For example, the Alternative Democratic Pole came head to head with the Conservative Party with around 15% of votes each in the first round.
The candidates’ proposals offered the traditional menu: health, education, job creation, peace and security. Very few spaces to debate specific proposals on environment and sustainability were created.

What environmental proposals were made? They mostly dealt with mining activities and water management. The two traditional parties, offered greenhouse gas mitigation plans and some environmental management issues (Santos), better planning and management of water resources (Zuluaga). The Alternative Democratic Pole proposed to create a superintendence to control state intervention for the conservation of natural resources as well as to position environmental issues as crosscutting topic in all policies. The Green Alliance proposed a broader menu including sustainable cities, alternative forms of transport to reduce pollution and a plan on environment and sustainable development. Ramirez, from the Conservative Party, proposed a law to protect moors ecosystems and to delimit areas of natural reserves, prohibiting their use for industrial purposes.

Although most of governmental proposals mentioned climate change, few concrete actions were defined. One of these included the Green Alliance party proposals, which consisted of a national climate change policy with three tracks: regions with unique environmental resources like the Amazon, rural areas enduring drought, and cities. Lopez and Ramirez aimed for defining a national climate change policy. Zuluaga included in his proposal elements of climate change mitigation, adaptation and risk management, yet he failed to bring any of these elements to his campaign discourse.

Making the link

During elections politicians make grand promises - on health, economic growth and peace - that leave climate change out. Three pillars underpin Santos´s government plan for 2014-2018: 1. Social (Solidarity, inclusion and opportunity), 2. Economic (Entrepreneurship and Employment) and 3. Peace (Fear, War and Winning Peace).

Clearly, these pillars matter. However, the failure to build linkages to climate change within these dimensions shows not only a lack of political imagination (which is a broader problem not exclusive to Colombia) but also the extent to which our politicos fail to grasp the scale to which climate change poses a challenge to our country. A safer and more peaceful nation will have to promote a climate resilient economy that protects its people and key sectors from climate risks. A clean energy economy would benefit the goal of promoting entrepreneurship and employment. Colombians deserve (clean) jobs for the XXI century. The traditional approach to development as presented in this election turns a blind eye to the state of our valuable natural capital and the long-term impacts accruing from our unsustainable use of natural resources.

Once again, we have missed the opportunity in Colombia to use the ballot boxes to shake politics and drive a deeper discussion about the kind of development that benefits our country. Colombia will likely stand divided on key political ideas - especially on how to achieve peace - and trapped into the never ending debate on corruption. While putting an end to civil conflict and winning the battle against corruption are essential, the country is also awakening to the realization that a sustainable Colombia is the way to go.

We have missed the opportunity in Colombia to use the ballot boxes to drive a deeper discussion about the kind of development that benefits our country.

Santos might have been re-elected as our President for four more years, however we would argue that Colombians’ willingness to find cleaner “economic engines” and take action on climate change is on the rise. The question will be whether the second Santos’ administration will grasp the need to go beyond growth at any cost given that a growing number of Colombians no longer see “more of the same” as good enough.

The authors would like to thank Monica Araya for the feedback on earlier drafts.

A Spanish version of this article is available here.

Complementary information:

Santos Proposals 2014 - 2018: Official website, See Energy and Mining and Environment.
Santos Government´s Plan 2014-2018. Vision on Employment as Video May 2014.

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