Colombia is currently facing a number of urgent environmental challenges, including deforestation, coca cultivation, the illegal cultivation of endangered and threatened species, and the degradation of marine habitats. Addressing these issues, while challenging, may also present Colombia with a number of opportunities: for instance, taking advantage of potential new investment opportunities and regional divestment, given that neighboring countries lag behind on sustainable growth; environmental tourism; and capitalizing on the general international pro-environmental consensus. President Iván Duque has always been an advocate for the environment, but will he be able to deliver on time?
Much has been written about the unique, untapped opportunities that await Colombia if it could only fully and sustainably leverage its unique biodiversity and environmental riches. Just a few weeks ago, Guy Edwards and Matías Francini asked if it was premature to call Colombia a climate leader. We believe that the answer to this question is a multidimensional one, but most importantly, we argue that the government alone cannot fully take advantage of Colombia’s bountiful environmental potential. If Colombia is to truly emerge as a global climate leader, the private sector must get involved.
The signing of the 2016 peace agreement opened up many opportunities for licit and illicit gains, as spaces previously occupied by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) were opened up to occupation by both new landowners and other armed groups. New fronts of deforestation have emerged, the agricultural frontier has expanded, and environmental degradation linked to illegal logging and cattle ranching has surged. Colombia has begun tapping into its potential as a breadbasket and food larder, increasing its agricultural exports to Asia and the Middle East. However, in order to balance a full embrace of its agricultural prowess with sustainable developmentalism, Colombia must learn from Brazil’s mistakes and implement environmental regulations sooner rather than later.
Enacting strong environmental regulations would be a start, but regulation alone will achieve very little, given the Colombian state’s limited enforcement capacity, especially in rural areas. Nonetheless, the government has made some progress in this respect with the announcement of Plan Artemisa, an initiative aimed at curbing deforestation, cracking down on the illegal trafficking of plants and animals, and increasing regulations on fishing stocks. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, however, more efforts are still needed to ensure that Colombia can make progress towards meeting its commitments under the Paris Agreement.
It has become abundantly clear that the government is behind on its pledges to curb deforestation, plant nearly 180 million trees, and improve environmental governance in peripheral regions. Recently, the private sector announced that it had planted 54 million trees in order to help the government inch closer to its goals. However, it is still a tall order for President Duque to meet his nation’s commitments under the Paris Agreement while simultaneously addressing the demands and concerns of the National Strike Committee—which include demands that the government improve its environmental track record by suspending aerial fumigation with glyphosate and ratifying the Escazú Agreement, to better protect environmental activists.
As it has sought to deal with other crises, the Duque administration has addressed environmental issues with a security-oriented approach, deploying military forces to carry out operations against deforestation. This method, however, has been widely deemed disproportionate, and fails to address the problem of state absence in rural regions. At the same time, the lack of a permanent state presence has been a boon for criminal organizations, which have escalated their campaign of terror against environmental and social leaders. It will be key for the Duque government, then, to address its environmental and security goals in a manner that is not unnecessarily militaristic and that paves the way for further private sector engagement.
Development and Investment Opportunities
Despite its current struggles with environmental issues, Colombia still has the potential to take advantage of sustainable growth initiatives to consolidate income sources for vulnerable populations and to promote sustainable alternatives to commodity agriculture and resource extractivism. Green growth initiatives, such as sustainable livestock and sustainable exploitation of timber and non-timber forest products, provide new opportunities to impoverished and economically underdeveloped communities in Colombia’s interior. The participation of the private sector in these projects will be key to promoting development in conjunction with local communities. Additionally, thanks to international and domestic government support, new production projects structured around energy efficiency, waste reduction, and environmental compensation through habitat banking will likely enjoy immense opportunities for advancement in Colombia.
The progress of these green growth initiatives is likely to facilitate investment from companies seeking to meet their own environmental commitments, mitigate reputational risk, and implement traceability and transparency standards. As major industry players increasingly ponder divestment from Brazil, countries with adequate environmental regulations, potential for industrial development, and guarantees of sustainability throughout the value chain will be in a position to attract them. If Colombia is clever enough to read the writing on the wall, it could feasibly develop a world-leading, sustainable cattle ranching industry with a reputation predicated upon strong environmental and social welfare standards. Such an industry could provide jobs and investment to rural areas where both are badly needed.
Recently, President Duque was invited by U.S. President Joe Biden to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. For the Colombian government, this summit will be a space where it can discuss the challenges inherent to preventing the dreaded global temperature increase of 1.5° Celsius, and reaffirm its previously proposed environmental preservation objectives. Duque’s administration has thus far remained steadfastly committed to this multilateral agenda, given both its pursuit of close ties with the Biden administration and Colombia’s heightened vulnerability to climate change. To meet its climate commitments, however, Colombia will have to face the effects of the gradual decarbonization of its productive sectors and the declining international demand for hydrocarbons. Therefore, Colombia’s challenge will be to generate productive energy alternatives while simultaneously ensuring a smooth transition for the small and medium producers that are at the core of its economy.
The Colombian government has hinted at its interest in attracting the private sector to collaborate on its plans for energy transition, green growth, and environmental protection, but has not yet spent the time and political capital that will be necessary to get industrial interests on board. Nevertheless, such a task would doubtless be easier for a right-wing leader like President Duque than it would be for any left-of-center opposition leader, given the Colombian private sector’s complicated political history, its preference for pro-market leaders, and its conservatism in the face of Colombia’s volatile politics.
In his last 15 months in office, Duque could establish a framework for state and private sector cooperation on the environment, killing three ‘policy birds’ with one stone in the process: a successful framework would address some of the concerns of the strike committee, take concrete steps toward ensuring Colombia’s compliance with its international environmental obligations, and attract jobs to deprived regions of the country. The private sector should get on board with gusto—not only to appease its own customers, who are increasingly demanding greener products and policies, but also to improve its own battered image among the Colombian public.
Time is of the essence: will President Duque seize the moment? And will the private sector take the lead or take a backseat, waiting until Colombia’s political environment changes?
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk
Miguel Nieto is a Research Intern at Colombia Risk Analysis and an undergraduate student at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. Follow him on Twitter @Miguel__nieto
All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the authors and do not represent the viewpoints of Global Americans.