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In Colombia, a new president faces old environmental challenges

  • Mongabay Latam spoke with experts about the environmental challenges Colombia’s former president, Iván Duque, leaves for his successor, Gustavo Petro.
  • Deforestation looks to be the biggest issue left by the Duque government.
  • Other challenges include strengthening protected areas, keeping environmentalists safe, containing environmental crime networks, and speeding up the development of sustainable energy.

“What the figures show us today is that President [Iván] Duque’s government is closing out its term by breaking the rising trend of deforestation in Colombia, which had reached its peak in the year 2017 with 219,552 hectares [542,524 acres],” Carlos Correa, the environment minister under Duque, said this past in July, a month before leaving office.

But others, such as former minister Manuel Rodríguez, consider Duque’s deforestation policies a failure. Deforestation of 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) during his four-year term was 5% higher than during the second term of his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos. Gustavo Petro, who took office in August, promised to make reducing deforestation one of the priorities of his administration.

Forest loss is just one of the many issues highlighted by experts, environmental organizations and former officials interviewed for this article, which analyzes the challenges the Duque government leaves behind for Petro.

El Presidente Iván Duque saludó a los soldados que participaron en la primera acción de la Campaña ‘Artemisa’ contra la deforestación, en la que se recuperaron 120 hectáreas de bosques. Foto: Efraín Herrera - Presidencia de Colombia.
Then-president Iván Duque salutes soldiers of Operation Artemisa, an initiative to fight deforestation. Image courtesy of Efraín Herrera/Presidency of Colombia.

Future challenges of deforestation

Rodríguez, who served as environment minister from 1993-1994 under then-president César Gaviria, was blunt in his evaluation: Over the past eight years, Colombia has failed in the fight against deforestation. “To say it was very successful, when what really happened was we kept deforestation at between 170,000 and 180,000 hectares [420,000 to 445,000 acres] annually, is a resounding failure. With that performance, it’s impossible to reach the goal of zero deforestation by 2030.”

Nicola Clerici, a deforestation researcher at the University of Rosario and considered one of the most important biologists of the Andean-Amazonian region, also questioned the figures presented by the former administration, including the ministry’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM).

“IDEAM’s model for future deforestation scenarios is like a black box,” Clerici said. “It isn’t easy to understand how it was constructed and what the associated intervals of uncertainty are. Former minister Correa said, ‘We contained deforestation [in 2011],’ but I wouldn’t be too happy. The figures are very high.”

Deforestación en la Amazonía colombiana. Foto: James Bargent.
Deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. Image courtesy of James Bargent.

One way the Duque government tried addressing deforestation was with a plan to plant 180 million trees, announced in 2019. It managed to plant 143 million trees, or 80% of its goal.

According to Rodríguez, the program has its flaws. First, he said, combating deforestation should take priority over planting. “Yes, I believe the priority, if a country has scarce resources (like Colombia), should be to focus entirely on combating deforestation. Because the loss of the Amazon or other healthy forests is irreversible. Some restoration can be done but the forest that is restored isn’t going to be the same as what was once there.” He also said planting shouldn’t be a priority in areas with the worst deforestation or forests in danger of extinction. Silvia Gómez, director of Gaia Amazonas, pointed out that the number of trees planted is much lower than the number of deforested trees

In 2019, Duque announced what would be his main anti-deforestation policy: Operation Artemisa, involving the military. But at the close of his government, the impact of the operation has been limited, according to experts. “Operation Artemisa hasn’t hit the big deforesters, which have political connections in the territory. They’ve gone for the small land invaders, who are responsible but to a lesser extent,” Clerici said.

Gómez said the punitive approach behind Operation Artemisa wasn’t enough. “It requires differentiated, preventive actions that prioritize coordination between Indigenous communities and people overseeing deforestation. Otherwise, it doesn’t attack the origin of the problem.”

The operation has also raised questions about possible human rights violations. Carlos Garay, technical secretary of the National Human Rights Commission of Indigenous Peoples and leader of the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC), told Mongabay Latam that Operation Artemisa targeted Indigenous communities. “Operation Artemisa has captured an Indigenous governor. He’s still in jail. President Duque said he was the biggest deforester in San Vicente del Caguán.”

Now, fixing the problem falls on President Petro. Deforestation is without a doubt a huge challenge, Rodríguez said, which is why he recommended that the new government start by “carefully examining its causes as well as the weaknesses of anti-deforestation policies of the Duque and Santos governments. The new government’s advantage is that, for the first time in years, people in the ministry [of environment] know what they’re doing.”

Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, told Mongabay Latam that, given the role cattle ranching and land grabbing play in the deforestation of the Colombian Amazon, the new government needs to promote the monitoring of Colombian cattle supply chains. “It’s the possibility of monitoring the meat and dairy supply chains, from their place of origin to their final destination in the commercial chain, which allows us to know if at any time deforested areas were used.” With this in mind, Congress members Juan Carlos Losada and Julia Miranda have introduced bills to improve traceability in the livestock industry.

Unprotected areas?

A week before the end of his term as environment minister, Carlos Correa tweeted: “Colombia has more than 30% of its marine and terrestrial areas protected and conserved.” This fulfilled the promises Duque made to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which requires every country to protect at least 30% of its water and land.

Tiburones martillo (Sphyrna lewini). Foto. Fundación Malpelo.
Scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini). Image courtesy of Fundación Malpelo.

However, Rodríguez questioned those figures. “It’s true that Colombia has already met its goal for the year 2030 for maritime areas. But on land, the areas that were created [to meet the claimed 30%] were complementary areas, which is different from protected areas. In Colombia, the only protected areas are national natural parks and sanctuaries for flora and fauna. It’s a farce.”

Mongabay Latam also spoke with Sandra Bessudo, former adviser to Santos for environmental management, biodiversity, water and climate change. She welcomed the expansion of protected maritime areas. “There are areas that, for me, should have been created as no-fishing zones that were left as fishing zones. A great effort was put into expanding marine protected areas and obtaining financial resources to support their implementation. The implementation, that challenge, is up to the Petro government and the environmental entities, particularly the national parks [system],” Bessudo said.

Rodríguez said he has doubts about their implementation. “There’s little control in Colombia over [protected] areas. In the coastal areas, there’s very insufficient management of the control and surveillance of fishing. Who is going to monitor these marine areas? With what resources? I believe that the president [Duque], in order to show results, rushed to create all the marine areas and that that, strategically, was a mistake.”

Although expanding protections of land areas is a good thing, Clerici said, there’s a concern that much of the protections exist only on paper. “We think, for example, that in Tinigua National Natural Park, with its recent high rates of deforestation, nobody is controlling it effectively. And there are similar confirmed situations in Catatumbo [national park] and Sierra de la Macarena, among others. They aren’t investing in effective park management.”

That’s why the topic of protected areas presents important challenges for the incoming government. Rodríguez said control is an important starting point: “They must ensure state control over national parks. Today, that doesn’t exist in at least nine of the 11 natural parks in the Amazon. There isn’t a government presence because subversive forces pushed them out.”

Protection of social leaders and environmental defenders

According to experts, the Petro government started off on the right foot with its policies on protecting environmental defenders. Before Petro’s inauguration, the Senate approved the Escazú Agreement, a regional pact to protect environmental defenders. Under the Duque government, Congress had rejected the agreement.

And on Aug. 27, Petro’s government announced the first Unified Command Post for Life in Cauca, a joint initiative to reduce violence against social leaders organized by the executive and legislative branches of government, the police, military, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ombudsman’s office.

Policies to protect environmental defenders were also developed with the help of civil society. An emergency plan, spearheaded by the organization Somos Defensores, was recently approved by the government. Mongabay Latam reached out to the coordinator of Somos Defensores, Lourdes Castro, who said she’s hopeful about the new government and the possibility that social leaders will regain confidence in its institutions.

Ministra de Ambiente de gobierno Petro, Susana Muhamad, y Luisz Olmedo Martínez, nuevo director de Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia
Petro’s minister of environment, Susana Muhamad, and national parks director, Luisz Olmedo Martínez.

A lot of trust in the government was lost during Duque’s term. Between 2016 and 2022, according to Indepaz, a peace and development studies institute, the country saw 1,341 aggressions against social leaders, 329 killings and 337 attacks on signatories of the 2016 peace agreement that ended Colombia’s long-running guerrilla conflict.

“During Duque’s four years, spaces for dialogue about these issues were left on the wayside,” Castro said. “There wasn’t fluid dialogue with the government to jointly analyze the situation and the measures that should be taken. Additionally, control bodies were in some ways taking the side of the government. I’m talking about the Prosecutor’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office and the Ombudsman’s Office. A behavior of denial of the situation was adopted by the authorities.”

Castro also criticized the focus on military strategies. “During the last government, the response was militarization. In many cases, that tends to lead to increased risks and the vulnerability of leaders rather than their protection.”

But she said she has hopes for the new government. “The Petro government is going to work with representatives of social organizations, in prioritized territories, with Indigenous and Afro-Colombian authorities. For example, Indigenous guards should be included in action plans,” Castro said.

In fact, some of the strongest defenders of the environment and forests in Colombia are Indigenous communities. Indigenous leader Carlos Garay of OPIAC had this to say about the Duque government: “As Amazonian peoples, we watched with great concern the lack of protections of Indigenous territories and their leaders during the Duque government. The Amazonian Indigenous people are considered protectors of the Colombian Amazon … but they were practically unknown by the previous government. There wasn’t a protection strategy.”

Líderes sociales de la OPIAC en su congreso de 2019.
OPIAC social leaders at the organization’s congress in 2019. Image courtesy of OPIAC.

Garay also pointed to the number of Indigenous people who were killed or threatened. “We had a teacher who was killed in Caquetá, more than 12 Indigenous companions killed in Putumayo, including the governor of the Kichwa peoples killed in the village of Alto Remanso, in Puerto Leguízamo, in an apparent extrajudicial killing. Four Awa companions were killed in the town of Nariño, who have also been victims in Putumayo. Another Awa companion who was disappeared by the same public forces. In total, in the Amazon, there were 13 people killed.” He also noted Indigenous communities that had been confined by order of illegal armed groups.

Garay said Indigenous groups have expectations of their own for the new government. “We’re hopeful. They have to establish a policy for protecting the environment, consolidating a working strategy between the government and Indigenous peoples.”

Environmental crimes

Garay also spoke out against the previous government’s failure to contain illegal mining in the Colombian Amazon, particularly in Inírida, Guainía department. “The illegal mining in those territories has increased and there really wasn’t a state policy to combat illegal mining. We don’t know what the government’s intention was. The military operations were always against traditional mining. But efforts against large-scale mining never happened. It hurt the Indigenous territories significantly.”

Rodríguez also said the Duque government didn’t improve the problem, but added this had to do with a regional problem that was made worse by the ever-rising international price of gold. “Very little progress was made. You have to recognize that the problem is out of control in Latin America in general. You can find the same problems in Peru, in Brazil. It’s a highly profitable activity and, unlike coca, can be marketed legally. Projects for tracing gold have failed,” the former minister said.

Rodríguez also highlighted the challenges of illicit coca cultivation and drug trafficking. “Colombia continues to be trapped in the same tragedy it has been in for the past 40 years, that of illicit crops,” he said. He added many of the killings of social leaders are related to retaliation by armed groups.

When it comes to illegal mining, although the Petro government appears willing to fight it, the measures employed by his predecessor have been criticized by experts as being heavy-handed. “Every illegal dredge that is found will immediately be destroyed with dynamite,” Petro said.

Garay said the strategy is problematic: “I lived that experience in Caquetá, where fighting illegal mining meant bombing mining rafts or river dredges, but what that did was create more pollution because the fuel sank into the Caquetá River. The public forces never admitted that the fuel had contaminated the river.”

Petro has also talked about stopping mining from serving as a means of money laundering, by designating a single buyer of gold: the central bank.

Botero, from the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, pointed to other pressing illegal activities, including land grabbing as a driver of deforestation, a phenomenon that was addressed in a recent Constitutional Court ruling. “As long as there isn’t massive and rapid allocation of vacant plots, as the Constitutional Court ruling says, to generate rights for the peasant populations, who are the most affected by this lack of a legal definition, the market for informal and illegal land is going to continue to worsen the issue of illegal deforestation, because it’s a big business. The relationship that has to be made immediately are the rights of the rural communities that also maintain the nature of a forest reserve.”

Prior consultation and licensing of projects

Another important topic to consider is prior consultation of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities for extractive projects on their lands. For Indigenous leader Garay, the current framework isn’t enough. “What we really want is a policy of directly protecting the Amazon with Indigenous communities, one recognized by Indigenous environmental authorities.”

Gómez, from Gaia Amazonas, recommended that the Petro administration work hand in hand with Indigenous peoples to protect their territories and the prior consultation process. “I would even venture to say that [the process of recognizing Indigenous peoples] got worse during the previous administration and that the new government won’t be able to fix it. It’s a historical debt that the Colombian state has had for a long time, but it’s without a doubt something the Petro government needs to address and adjust institutionally … Indigenous governments really can be autonomous and efficient governments. There are already Indigenous governments in over 24% of the Amazon that maintain almost 95% or more of the standing forests. They’re already doing their part. It’s really about understanding that Indigenous governments are key actors.”

El presidente Gustavo Petro recibe un obsequio de una lideresa indígena en el departamento del Amazonas, Colombia durante su segunda semana de gobierno. Foto: Presidencia de la República de Colombia.
President Gustavo Petro accepts a gift from an Indigenous leader in the department of Amazonas during his second week in office. Image courtesy of the Presidency of Colombia.

According to Rodríguez, the topic of licensing was correctly managed by the previous government. “During the Duque administration, the National Agency for Environmental Licenses got stronger. You see that the agency registered two requests for environmental licenses in Santurbán and another in Jericó.”

Renewable energy, oil and fracking

Rodríguez spoke favorably about the Duque government’s work developing renewable energy. It reported tripling the capacity of non-conventional renewable energies in 15 months, including wind and solar. In terms of energy capacity, he said the government started with 60 megawatts and ended with 2,250 MW. Duque also created 27 clean energy projects worth 16 billion pesos ($3.5 million) for wind, solar, and nine transmission lines.

As for the Petro government’s intentions to not sign new contracts for oil exploration, Rodríguez said he isn’t convinced. “I disagree with that. Obviously Colombia has to lower its use of fossil fuels as part of the decarbonization of the economy — it’s absolutely key in the transportation sector. But that’s different from the export business. Colombia should continue to sell oil because it has a lot of other issues to resolve.”

Regarding the Petro government’s support for a bill that prohibits fracking, Gómez welcomed the decision. “The [Duque] government was really stubborn in pushing its proposal for pilot fracking projects, despite being proven without a doubt that it impacts groundwater sources and generates uncontrolled seismic movement.”

Banner image of fires in the Colombian Amazon, courtesy of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Aug. 25, 2022.

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