Will Colombia’s Government Deliver on Sustainable Development?

When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was re-elected earlier this year, many wondered whether his second administration would present a more innovative agenda. Sadly, big questions marks have been raised since the start of Santos’ second term, as signals indicate that the country is nearing a deeper dive into “more of the same”. Here we analyze the recent developments in the Colombian environmental and development agenda.

When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was re-elected earlier this year, many wondered whether his second administration would present a more innovative agenda. President Santos has defined his new term’s focus as “social priorities for times of peace”, with major investments in peace, equity and education. After the election’s results, Nivela examined his promises and wondered whether he grasped the need to move beyond the focus of growth at any cost, since an increasing number of Colombians no longer see this type of growth as good enough. Sadly, big questions marks have been raised since the start of Santos’ second term, as signals indicate that the country is nearing a deeper dive into “more of the same”.

Santos began by appointing a new cabinet, including Mr Tomas Gonzales as Minister of Energy and Mines and Mr Gabriel Vallejo as Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development. Mr Gonzales previously served as a British Petroleum senior executive, and Mr Vallejo is an expert in customer service and business. Even with the monumental environmental challenges that Colombia faces – effects from El Niño, poor water management, unrestrained mining and a lack of institutional strength to enforce environmental standards – Mr Vallejo was appointed despite a lack of experience in environmental management, policy or politics. Even more concerning is that the country faces these challenges, while Mr Vallejo’s ministry budget has been slashed by 12% for 2015. Upon appointment to his post, Mr Vallejo wasted no time in announcing his good friendship and willingness to work together with Mr Gonzales, raising the question of whom the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development is most ready to provide customer service to.

There is no doubt that Minsters Gonzales and Vallejo will need to work together. One key issue is environmental oversight of mining activity, with particular attention to the preservation of protected areas such as national forests. Thanks to recent changes, protected areas can now be defined with no prior consent or public consultation, though before an area can be protected its mining and energy interests must be identified. This gives mining and extraction companies nearly free reign to interfere with any special protections. Given the economic and political interests around Colombian natural resources, and with the implicit support of Mr Vallejo, Mr Gonzales is expected to hastily secure all areas with oil reserve potential. This logic has been reinforced by returning Minister of Finance Mr Mauricio Cardenas, who made it clear that “the oil sector should be kept dynamic as it is of utmost importance for the national budget equation.”

Minister Cardenas has a point. The Colombian national budget is highly dependent on oil, which accounted for over 55% of exports in 2013. The state received nearly $11 billion pesos in oil exports in 2010, which was more than the entire budget set by Bogota. However, this type of growth is economically, socially and environmentally unsustainable. Rather than extending its dependency on oil, Colombia should develop and follow a path that frees itself from the social and environmental burdens oil extraction and production bring.

Colombians know that economic growth cannot come at an unfeasible price. Mr Cardenas’ equation lacks a holistic vision of what is best for the country. Recent environmental crises are proof that the government’s push for unsustainable mining is shattering national natural capital and limiting the government’s capacity to provide people with basic needs, exemplified by the sagging water services in a country that is historically water-rich.

It is hard to believe that a business-as-usual oil approach will drive Colombia towards a more peaceful and egalitarian society, which is what the government’s main goal should be. Signs are increasingly clear that such old fashioned equations will not continue to work. The government’s inability to plan and account for the risks from climate phenomenon like El Niño and La Niña is dreadful, especially with the risks becoming stronger and more frequent. While Colombians experience climate change impacts, the government fails to grasp the scale of the challenge. Floods or drought, the government seems only able to reply with quick fixes and fire-fighting reactions.

No more than four years ago, Colombia experienced one of the worst natural disasters in its history – record breaking floods associated with La Niña. The country is now faced with El Niño, which in its initial phase has already affected 3.5 million people, leaving 70,000 families at risk of humanitarian emergency, 117 municipalities with water shortages alerts and 302 more municipalities at risk. Furthermore, the continuing environmental and agricultural crisis at Casanare due to intense drought remains in complete impunity. During congressional debates on the topic, members of congress were often caught by the media playing games on their phones or reading unrelated books. Where is the political willingness and urgency that Colombia needs?

It is clear that a critical problem exists in water management and protection, overlapping with issues of infrastructure, large-scale agriculture and deforestation. The situation is exacerbated by mining and oil exploration activities. Governmental response can be summed up by a recent quote from President Santos, who stated that “fortunately Colombia has a good availability of groundwater resources, and we will increase efforts to drill more wells especially those in the areas that are most affected”. What was left unsaid is that in August the government began adjudicating rights for non-conventional fossil fuel exploration to include fracking. Fracking is a technique famous for its gross use of water and the dangers it poses to underground water resources. How these two actions can co-exist leaves many doubting the certainty of future water availability. The government will need to decide whether its thirst for oil is greater that its thirst for water.

All told, important questions remain for the second Santos administration. Plenty of opportunities exist that offer Colombians a sustainable development path, but leadership and consistency in policymaker actions is sorely needed. No more timid actions.

A new renewable energy regulation that seeks to enable the exploration and generation of national alternative energy is a step forward; but the window it opens for the fast evaluation cycle of hydrocarbon projects is a step back. Additionally, ongoing efforts to develop a national climate change law have the opportunity to put climate and energy on legislators’ agendas, but important input from relevant stakeholders and Colombian civil society has yet to be considered.

Clearly, decoupling our economy from fossil fuels is a great challenge, one that cannot be solved under a single administration. This will require long term vision and consistent action, but given the impact that we are already living and the opportunities that a cleaner way of growth offer to our society, this action must start now. Colombia has been developing a Low Carbon Development Strategy and a National Adaptation Strategy to climate change; these strategies now need to be translated into action. Clear and legal targets need to be set to drive low carbon practices in key sectors such as Energy, Agriculture, Transport, and Industry. Renewable energy generation share should also be made explicit and processes for land management and territorial planning must integrate climate change vulnerabilities, with water protection as an absolute priority.

As part of a serious agenda, Santos will need to show leadership on driving legislative processes through congress that effectively institutionalize climate change as a core element of Colombian development. This will require a public and inclusive debate, with Mr Cardenas as key actor, to define how Colombia can offer better jobs and better standards of living that meet 21st century challenges. Mechanisms of inclusivity, transparency and accountability will be key; corruption cannot prevents us from following a cleaner and more egalitarian growth path. In order to put a deadline to drive action, let’s define this commitment in Colombia’s Intended National Determinate Contribution to be presented to the UNFCCC in March 2015.

Only time will show if President Santos and his team of “super ministers” are up for the task to deliver leadership and innovative vision for the long term. Colombia does not need a soft government to publish intermittent reports on booming national economic conditions. Colombia needs a solid agenda for how the government intends to secure itself for the future, ensuring the safety of its natural resources, its people, and at the very least, access to clean water.

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