Conservation news

Colombia’s new president faces daunting environmental challenges

On August 7, Juan Manuel Santos ceased to be the president of Colombia and handed over the office to Iván Duque, who was the right-wing candidate for the Democratic Center political party and had the support of former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

The environmental performance report of Santos’ government shows important progress in this sector. According to official government’s figures, by 2018, and after eight years in office, the National System of Protected Areas (also known by its acronym in Spanish, SINAP) increased from 13 to 31 million hectares. In addition, 1.8 million hectares were declared Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance.

One of the biggest achievements of the Santos administration was the expansion of marine protected areas from 1.2 million hectares in 2010 to 12.8 million in 2018. Another was the declaration of Serranía de Chiribiquete National Park as a natural and cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site, which, at 4.3 million hectares, is now the largest protected area in the country.

Four Colombian environmental experts made a general assessment of Juan Manuel Santos’ eight-year term. They identified four primary challenges that will be passed on to Ivan Duque, the new president of the country.

Recently expanded, Serranía de Chiribiquete National Park now protects 4.3 million hectares. Photo courtesy of the Amazon Conservation Team

Declaration and expansion of protected areas

“One thing that sets the Santos government apart, no question about it, is the great legacy in protected areas that it leaves,” said Manuel Rodríguez, former Minister of the Environment of Colombia.

According to Carlos Castaño, former director of the National Natural Parks System of Colombia and current scientific director of the Caribbean Foundation of Environmental Heritage, there is no doubt about that progress has been made regarding environmental management. He said that during Santos’ term, a large number of new protected areas were declared, and others expanded, and mining presence was removed from several strategic Colombian ecosystems like the páramos, mangroves and coral reefs.

“The goals for the expansion of protected areas, as a result of agreements in the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan, were fully met. It meant going from 12 to 25 percent of the national territory in a state of protection, which was achieved and even exceeded. This is, without a doubt, the great legacy that this government passes on,” Castaño told Mongabay.

Ernesto Guhl, formr vice-chancellor of the University of the Andes and member of the Colombian Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences, agrees with Castaño but told Colombian magazine Semana Sostenible that a report from the Comptroller General on the state of natural resources found that “18 areas of the system overlap with 29 oil blocks in execution and another 12 with 15 reserved or available blocks, which makes the lack of coherence of environmental and mining-energy policies visible.”

The cave paintings in the Serranía de Chiribiquete National Park are thought to be between 12,000 and 20,000 years old. Photo courtesy of the National Parks System

According to Carlos Castaño, the new government will be left with the challenge of implementing and effectively enforcing management plans for Ramsar wetlands. Castaño said that of particular attention should be paid to Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, an important protected area that has gone more than 20 years without enforcement of an effective management plan.

According to Ernesto Guhl, the government has failed to be present in territories that were once controlled by the FARC, such as those in Caquetá, Guaviare, Meta, Catatumbo and Pacífico, which has allowed the occupation of these areas by illegal groups. Many of these territories coincide with various protected areas in the country where illegal activities are taking place, including mining and the cultivation of narcotic crops.

“An important indicator of Ivan Duque’s future environmental management performance will be the position that his government adopts against mining titles and licenses for the exploitation of minerals and hydrocarbons in strategic ecosystems,” said Gustavo Wilches Chaux, a university professor who has worked for many years on environmental matters and disaster management.

Organization of the Ministry of Environment

Until 2010, the Ministry of Environment was merged with Housing and Territorial Development. During the government of Juan Manuel Santos, the ministry gained greater independence, which Castaños, who acted as vice minister during its renewal, said allowed it to better focus on the needs of environmental sector.

Ciénaga Zapatosa was declared a Ramsar wetland in April 2018. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Environment of Colombia

“We tried to give comprehensiveness to the socio-environmental variables; for example, with the floods caused by the La Niña Phenomenon in 2010-2011,” Castaño said. “There was great progress in understanding the effects of climate change and that served as a backdrop for various things. One of them was the creation of the Adaptation Fund, which focused on solving the problems left by the La Niña Phenomenon, which it did with an integral vision that previously we lacked. Adjustments were also made to the watershed management plans of Colombia from the macro level to the micro level.”

Ernesto Guhl agrees with Carlos Castaño but believes that the new Environmental Ministry fell short because water management, essential for sustainability, was divided into two sub-ministries, which led to less effective administration.

Iván Duque’s government proposes to continue with the extractive activities, but with greater supervision to make sure they comply with sustainability standards. However, cooperation between the environmental and the mining and energy sector is of great concern.

Despite the independence of the Ministry, Manuel Rodríguez believes that the entity has been very weak and there are many doubts as to whether the National Authority of Environmental Licenses (also known by its acronym in Spanish, Anla) is adequately performing its task regarding environmental licenses, “especially for the granting of ‘express’ licenses. There are many questions.”

Another issue is that many environmental strategies have not advanced as expected due to frequent changes in senior officials. Ernesto Guhl said that since 2010 there have been six ministers “with very different profiles, which affected the consolidation of the Ministry.”

On June 5, Environment Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo announced the protection of the Bita River, which covers a length of 710 kilometers. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Environment of Colombia

National Environmental System

Colombia’s National Environmental System (SINA) is comprised of local environmental authorities called Regional Autonomous Corporations (CARs); the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam); the Research Institute of Biological Resources Alexander von Humboldt; the SINCHI Amazon Scientific Research Institute; the John von Neumann Pacific Environmental Research Institute; and the Institute of Marine and Coastal Research (Invemar).

According to Manuel Rodríguez, the five research entities are playing a crucial role. “I had to create the Ministry of the Environment 25 years ago and if I compare the information we had at that time with what exists today, I have to say that SINA has achieved a substantive increase in environmental knowledge, which is extraordinary,” he said. Regarding CARs, Rodríguez said that from a technical point of view they are not well structured due clientelism issues.

Carlos Castaño claims that the survival of SINA is not easy. “Institutes operate like an arm for decision making. If it was not because they go out to sell other services they would not have sufficient funding.”

Regarding CARs, Castaño has an opinion similar to that of Rodríguez; he claims that many of them are not functioning properly, largely due to lack of resources, inadequate intervention by politicians and corruption.

“The government adopted a centralist tendency, seeking to reduce the autonomy of CARs, a very debatable initiative that did not prosper. It is notorious that CARs did not become actors,” Guhl argues in Semana Sostenible.

The civil society reserve Manacacias in Colombia. Photo by Rodrigo Durán Bahamón

All experts interviewed by Mongabay agreed that it is necessary to reform CARs. “I would say that we have to turn them into technical and meritocratic entities,” Manuel Rodríguez said. Carlos Castaño believes that it is necessary to strengthen them, which he said is a huge challenge.

Gustavo Wilches Chaux said changes are needed to ensure CARs isn’t influenced by business interests. “It is important to establish the way in which the proposal to reform the Regional Autonomous Corporations is approached, processed and decided,” he said. “[It remains to be seen] if indeed that reform will really aim to ‘free’ CARs of the regional and national political commands that have some corporations at the exclusive service of their interests, or if, on the contrary, this is used to eliminate requirements such as environmental licenses that for many economic-political sectors constitute obstacles to development.”

Budget concerns

The operating budget of Colombia’s National Environmental System is one of the biggest concerns of the environmental sector every year. Manuel Rodríguez bemoans what he said is a very drastic budget cut for 2019, “which is very worrisome and has to do with the country’s fiscal deficit that severely weakens [financial] investment.”

In 2016, the contributions of the National General Budget to the National Environmental System stagnated (2,989,789 million pesos equivalent to around $1 million) and decreased in 2017 and 2018, particularly in regard to funding assigned to research institutes and the protected area system.

Dead mangroves in Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta. Photo by Sandra Vilardy

Ernesto Guhl summed it up bluntly: “The government had a double discourse: it proclaimed its achievements in environmental matters but the resources to achieve the goals and continue SINA’s work were insufficient. The participation of the environmental sector in the General National Budget (PGN) remained at a low 0.3 percent, while the participation of the mining and energy sector, one of the largest environmental monitoring and control efforts demand, was between 1.3 and 1.8 percent.”

According to Castaño, Colombia has reached a budget level close to 0.3 percent in recent years when the world standard is above 3 percent. “We are far from having adequate resources,” he said. In the case of national parks, Castaño said that management statistics have currently improved but with monumental efforts. For example, there is one park ranger for every 50,000 hectares when the international standard is one official for every 100 hectares. “And with the current budget we are absolutely distant from being able to fully comply with our functions,” he said.

Although progress was made by the Santos administration when it comes to protected areas, many say park management is still an issue. According to Castaño, the national parks system lacks critical funding and staff.

“Where is the budget going to come from to do all the restorations and rehabilitation that the environmental liability has left us for many years? If we continue to weaken the financial capacity of the environmental sector, these issues will never be resolved,” Castaño said.

Manuel Rodríguez is sure that the “lifeline” for the sector actually ended up serving other government stakeholders more. “There was significant [funding] with the new carbon tax, but unfortunately part of those resources are destined for other sectors and not the environmental one. Only 30 percent goes to that sector,” Rodríguez said. “We had high hopes for that instrument but they ruined it.”

Large tracts of land in Tinigua Park have been deforested to grow illegal crops like coca, from which cocaine is produced. Photo courtesy of Cormacarena


 Castaño and Rodríguez agree that deforestation will be the main environmental challenge for the next government. Specifically, according to Rodríguez, the key issue here is the breakneck deforestation happening in northern Colombia’s Amazon region. For Rodríguez, this has been the most negative part of Santos’ environmental legacy.

“[Deforestation in the Colombian Amazon] has to do with the peace process, with the post-conflict,” Rodríguez said. “We know that in countries that have gone through processes like these, environmental deterioration has been greater in the post-conflict. We knew that it would be the case in Colombia, but no preventive measures were taken.”

Carlos Castaño believes that progress was made in developing a policy and a strategy, obtaining international cooperation and resources, and laying out the groundwork, but still “there are very high indices and rates of deforestation in the last two years related to the post-conflict issue.”

Rodríguez believes that most deforestation in the Colombian Amazon is due to the influence of criminal origins. “That is, without doubt, the most complicated and urgent environmental problem that the next government has to face,” he said.

According to Castaño, FARC demobilization left huge vacuums in forests they once occupied, particularly in Caquetá and Guaviare. He said that “in my opinion, they are the most affected areas of the country and where all the effort must go. Deforestation is one of the problems that must be solved in the short term and one of the biggest challenges that the next government will assume.”

Finally, Castaño believes that there is a need to strengthen United Nations REDD+ mechanisms by which developed countries provide financial incentives to developing tropical countries to keep their forests – and the carbon they contain – in the ground. But Castaño underlines that “at the same time, the sustainable use and management of the forests must be improved, [which is] something that has been difficult for the country,” he told Mongabay.

Castaño said Colombia has not yet undertaken effective management efforts that can be extended to sensitive areas of the country. “Having the forests without using them properly is a very big flaw that we have to overcome and where we have to involve [local] communities, ethnic minorities and the most vulnerable populations that are settled in these areas of the country, which are especially rich in biodiversity.”

Castaño also emphasized that the country’s forestry institutions are currently weak and poorly organized.

“Part of the national economy could be reinforced with models of forest exploitation,” he said, “especially for those communities that require an economic alternative that is not cutting trees or raising cows.”


This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on August 6, 2018.

Banner image: Outgoing Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left) and incoming President Iván Duque. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Feedback: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.