In just over a month, Colombia will elect its next president, at a time when it is facing enormous environmental and climate challenges – issues that should be a priority in one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet.
Colombia also experienced unprecedented social mobilisations in 2021, sparked by a proposed tax reform, that evolved into calls for greater protections for social and environmental leaders. Increasingly, in the post-peace deal era, those in rural areas are confronted with the expansion of logging, ranching and extractive activities.
Eight are in the race for the presidency ahead of Colombia's elections on 29 May. Should none fail to obtain an absolute majority of the vote, the first two will go to a second round on 19 June.
According to polls published on April 22 by the Centro Nacional de Consultoría, Gustavo Petro, the veteran leftist fronting the Pacto Histórico coaltion, and Federico Gutiérrez, an independent leading the centre-right Equipo por Colombia coalition, will likely go to a second round. They are polling at 38% and 23.8%, respectively. They are followed by Rodolfo Hernández (9.6%) and Sergio Fajardo (7.2%).
Candidates have so far offered various ideas for the environmental agenda, but given “few structured proposals on how they would be carried out”, according to Camilo Prieto, a renowned environmentalist and professor at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá. The key challenges, he says, are to “prioritise biodiversity, change the militaristic approach [to environmental protection] and fight against extensive cattle ranching – the main driver of tropical forest deforestation.”
Manuel Rodríguez Becerra, environment minister during the presidency of César Gaviria (1990–1994), told Diálogo Chino that “the only two candidates who have articulated well-elaborated proposals along these lines are Petro and Fajardo”.
Ahead of Colombia's critical elections, we take a closer look at the environmental leanings and proposals of the four leading candidates.
Pacto Histórico coaltion
Petro, leader of the left-wing Colombia Humana party and a former mayor of Bogotá, has made the fight against climate change one of the pillars of his campaign proposals. He proposes to suspend oil exploration, accelerate the energy transition and take tougher action to confront the growth of deforestation.
Andrés Felipe Páez, a member of the campaign team of the Pacto Histórico – the poll-leading coalition of 20 left and centre-left parties – told Diálogo Chino that they will prioritise “ordering the country around the protection of water – understood as a fundamental right – strengthening the systems of regional protection of ecosystems, and the promotion of the energy transition.”
In the fight against deforestation, Petro’s proposal document points to greater controls against extensive cattle ranching. Páez explains that they are analysing the option of restricting the sale and commercialisation of livestock products produced in growing areas of deforestation.
On energy, Páez affirms that the bet is “towards a society moved by nature, without extracting natural elements from the soil, moving from extractivism to other energies”. But in this regard, Petro has been criticised for his intention to end oil exploration in the country without clearly laying out how he would phase it out in a country that depends heavily on oil exports.
Elsewhere, Gustavo Petro’s pick of renowned environmentalist Francia Márquez for his running mate, and prospective vice-president evidenced the increasing commitment to environmental issues in his plans. Márquez won the 2018 Goldman Prize, often dubbed the Nobel Prize for the environment. Her tireless activism has seen her take on struggles for women’s rights and racial justice, and lead campaigns against mining activities. “We are part of nature, not owners of it”, one of her own campaign slogans says.
Ancestral knowledge is recognised as an asset for environmental conservation
For Manuel Rodríguez Becerra, Petro's proposals are “accurate and ambitious". He recalls that when Petro was mayor of Bogota (2012-2015) he presented similarly structured proposals but was unable to implement them in their entirety. Petro was removed from office in December 2013 and barred from holding public office for 15 years for alleged irregularities in the reform of the city's waste collection system. However, he managed to retain his position after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) suspended his dismissal as a “precautionary measure”. The IACHR eventually ruled in his favor in 2020, leaving the disqualification without effect.
The 2022 campaign is Petro’s third run at the presidency. He lost in the second round in 2018 to incumbent Iván Duque, and received just 9% of the vote in Colombia's 2010 elections.
Equipo por Colombia coalition
Gutiérrez is the leader of a coalition of five centre-right and right-wing parties. He is second in the polls and seen as offering continuity for the current government’s policies.
hectares were deforested in Colombia in 2020
In his proposed government plan, he promises to promote alternative development pathways such as pursuing green hydrogen and the circular economy, using economic incentives. He will focus on reducing Colombia’s annual rate of deforestation from over 171,000 hectares in 2020, the last full year for which data is available, to 54,000 by the end of his four-year term. This will enable the country to get half way to the goal of zero deforestation by 2030, he says. His plan also proposes to make further forays into the global market of payment for environmental services (PES), as an option for indigenous and peasant communities working in ecological restoration.
Gutiérrez has been firm on the eradication of illegal mining, pledging to crack down with military force. He also agrees with the current government in identifying criminal networks that profit from illicit coca cultivation as those primarily responsible for deforestation.
Coalición Centro Esperanza
Fajardo, who fronts a coalition of progressive centre-left parties contesting Colombia's elections, is considered the greenest candidate. He proposes increasing the use of renewable energies, restoring one million hectares of forest, updating the mining census and basing the country’s development on an economy linked to value chains that conserve heritage and biodiversity.
The candidate, a former mayor of Medellín running in his second presidential election, told Diálogo Chino that Colombia is “the most biodiverse country in the world per square metre and, for this reason, our government programme is based on this wealth. We propose multiple strategies so that our development model will be one of bioeconomy, biotechnology, growth and green jobs.”
He added that he hopes to count on the participation of indigenous communities in this process: “Ancestral knowledge is recognised as an asset for environmental conservation.” He also proposes to work on the National Environmental Zoning Plan, which categorise territory that is off-limits for development projects, thereby better guiding investment, and to increase the area of the country’s PES programmes by an additional 300,000 hectares.
Fajardo’s vice-presidential running mate is Luis Gilberto Murillo, a former Minister of Environment during the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos (2010–2018). At an environmental forum at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, Murillo criticised the mining model in Colombia, identifying it as “a completely extractive scheme in which wealth does not settle in the regions and destroys communities.”
Murillo also proposed strengthening voluntary carbon markets, restricting livestock development, channelling those profits to communities, and closing the agricultural frontier, “as established in the peace accords” that were signed in 2016 and brought an end to a more than half-century long civil conflict.
Liga de Gobernantes Anticorrupción
76-year-old Hernández has focused on cleaning-up politics in campaigns prior to Colombia's elections. As an independent leading a centrist “anti-corruption league”, is a well-known construction businessman and former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga. In a recent televised pre-election debate, he said that he will seek to meet with successful businessmen who are “committed to climate change and global warming”.
He intends to design “an environmentally friendly policy”, in search of more energy alternatives that “in the long term will eliminate dependence on the fossil extractive industry”. However, Hernández has not specified how he will do so.
He promises harsher sanctions against people who commit ecological crimes, as well as strengthening environmental authorities, so that they can exercise their functions “with the authority and security that will allow them to effectively prosecute the criminals of mining and deforestation”.
On his campaign site, Hernández includes environmental proposals, such as promoting energy alternatives, typifying environmental crimes in the penal code, ratifying international treaties such as the Nagoya Protocol and the Escazú Agreement. However, it does not mention anything about their implementation. He also suggests “forcing mining multinationals to operate in Colombia as they do in their countries of origin”. Similar to other candidates, he has proposed PES, suggesting the provision of a basic income to those who work in forest protection, and paying local people for their work in “producing oxygen”.