Colombia heads to the polls with new environmental conscience

Colombian presidential cadidate Gustavo Petro at a school in the capital Bogotá (image: Gustavo Petro Urrego)

Colombia heads to the polls with new environmental conscience

Colombians vote for their next president on Sunday and for the first time in decades, the nature of the country’s extractive-oriented economic model is the subject of serious debate. Left-wing challenger Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogota, surprised analysts’ early projections to reach the run-off vote with an economic manifesto for a “humane Colombia” that looks to phase out oil and mining and convert Colombia into “an agrarian and agricultural power.”

Is Colombia about to move away from its oil and coal dependence? Probably not. Petro trails right-wing candidate Ivan Duque by an average of 13 points across the latest round of polls and has a 20% probability of winning, according to national daily El Tiempo. Even if the ex-M-19 guerrilla pulls off an upset, any attempts at a large-scale overhaul of the liberal economic order would be nearly impossible, given that congress has a strong right-wing bent.

But Petro’s decision to put environmental concerns at the centre of the debate had a profound effect on the campaign. In April, the Gran Encuesta, one of the largest polls undertaken through various media outlets, found that 77% of respondents considered environmental issues to be “very important” to deciding their vote, placing them behind healthcare and security, but ahead of taxation, the peace process and pension reform.

“This is the first time that the environment debate has had a major impact on the presidential campaign,” Margarita Florez, director of Bogota-based environmental NGO Ambiente y Sociedad, told Diálogo Chino. “Environmental activists have lobbied hard in recent years to make changes to Colombia’s national development plan. Today, citizens demand a greater say over the development of natural resources projects; they can see the effects of negligent environmental planning.”

This has been evident in two major environmental incidents, which have buffeted the campaign. For the duration of March, the Lizama oil well, owned by state-run hydrocarbons firm Ecopetrol, pumped an estimated 550 barrels of crude into major water sources near the city of Barrancabermeja in the western department of Santander, leaving a slick 30 kilometres long.

Then in May, a malfunction at the Hidroituango dam, 175 kilometres north of second city Medellín led to flooding and the evacuation of 24,000 people living downstream. The project is financed by a fund administered by the Inter-American Development Bank, to which the People’s Bank of China and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) pay in, according to Ambiente y Sociedad research.

Footage of both disasters was widely shared on social media and highlighted the inability of the state to regulate and supervise major corporations. The fact that current regulations were insufficient to prevent a spill at a relatively straight forward, conventional oil well such as Lizama, suggests that they will struggle to prevent similar occurrences with more complex “fracking” projects, which have been met with widespread resistance.

Since the event, Duque – whose elevation has been based on the strong backing of former president Alvaro Uribe – has reeled-in his previously straight-talking support for fracking.

The Hidroituango dam was built during the Uribe era in an area of the country previously affected by paramilitary activities. Petro – one of the sternest critics of paramilitarism as an opposition senator during the Uribe administration – wasted no time in blaming the ex-president for failing to consult locals prior to the construction of the project and drawing attention to his own plans to produce more of Colombia’s energy from solar and wind projects.

It’s unlikely to be enough to push Petro into the Casa Nariño presidential palace, however, and a Duque presidency is likely to see an acceleration of extractive industry activity through tax-cuts and improved competitiveness.

“We can’t have a policy of destroying productive sectors,” Duque told Reuters. “We are not yet an oil country. We are a country with potential. We must continue exploration of conventional and offshore oil so that we maintain the foreign currency flows that oil exports bring us.”

This could have damaging effects for Colombia’s remote regions, according to Benjamin Creutzfeldt, a post-doctoral fellow in Sino-Latin American relations at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “It’s clear that a Duque government would support the export of commodities, primarily oil, coal, gold and palm oil at the expense of the environment,” he told Diálogo Chino. “The central government has little control over outlying areas where the exploitation of gold and minerals goes on without any supervision and with severe environmental impacts.”

In 2016 Colombia attracted US$362 million in Chinese FDI – mainly from oil investments, according to data from China’s Ministry of Commerce, compiled by the China-Latin America Academic Network (Red ALC-China). This is far less than the US$1.2 billion received by Ecuador and the US$760 million invested in Peru, the country’s smaller Andean neighbours. However, in recent years Chinese firms have bid for major port, road and dredging projects that make up part of Colombia’s 4G infrastructure plan.

“Colombia’s relationship with East Asia is one of the least developed in Latin America, both in terms of trade and investment and cultural exchange,” says Creutzfeldt. “However, Chinese firms have successfully built major infrastructure projects in Ecuador and Peru and there is the potential for huge development in Colombia going forward.”

Companies must engage with communities to ensure tangible benefits to remote regions. “The Chinese have developed strong guidelines for their mining and infrastructure investments abroad. These need to be combined with prior consultation and stakeholder engagement to go beyond existing legislation, which are insufficient to ensure against damaging results for future generations,” says Creutzfeldt.

The sheer scale of mining and infrastructure investments planned in Colombia makes the effective oversight of state authorities nearly impossible. “While green infrastructure may be possible, the number of train, road and port projects are insane, we don’t have the institutions or transparency necessary to manage them all,” says Florez.

“Colombia already has a high environmental debt, we need to be reclaiming former mines, not accelerating the extractive model.”

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