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Global Ideas

In Colombia, critics dispute government's green credentials

In recent years, the Colombian government has been touting its environmentally-friendly policies abroad. But critics say the grand rhetoric doesn't live up to the grim reality on the ground.

firefighter stands at the site where a landslide buried dozens of homes following weeks of drenching rains in Bello, northwestern Colombia, Sunday Dec. 5, 2010. The Red Cross attributes more than 170 deaths to heavy rains in Colombia so far this year

Homes were buried in the landslides following weeks of rain in Colombia this winter

In December, 2010, Colombia's freshly minted President Manuel Santos planned to visit Mexico for the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancún. Ironically, it was the effects of climate change that prevented him from going.

Colombia saw such heavy rainfall that the president had no choice but to stay put and declare a state of emergency as rivers burst their banks and mudslides swept hundreds to their deaths.

According to meteorologists, the cause was a particularly strong El Niño weather pattern lashing Colombia's coast. When the floods hit, Colombia was still reeling from a severe heatwave earlier in the year, which triggered an acute water shortage and forest fires. 

Dire forecasts 

Forests in Colombia

Colombia is home to unique diversity, but some say it is not being sufficiently protected

And things could get much worse. The government expects to see increased rainfall on its Pacific coast and a rise in sea levels of 40 centimeters by 2060. Moreover, it predicts temperature rises of between 2 and 4 degrees in some parts of the country within the next 10 years.

With their fragile ecosystems, the 'Paramos' upland moors will be especially vulnerable to warmer weather.

"We estimate that 75 percent of the 'Paramos' will be degraded by rising temperatures," says Gustavo Ampugnani, coordinator for Latin America at environmental organization Greenpeace.

In 2009, experts announced that Colombia's Andean glaciers will disappear within the next 25 years if the current climatic trend continues.

Water shortages and arid conditions will increasingly impact on the country's energy supply. Colombia's rivers provide the population with 70 percent of its water needs, and the country relies on hydropower for 85 percent of its energy supply.

Government plays up green credentials

Alvaro Uribe

Former president Alvaro Uribe liked to describe Colombia as environmentally pioneering

The government has taken steps to address these challenges, and has made a point of letting the international community know it is not ignoring climate change.

At the UN's doomed Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, Alvaro Uribe, Colombian president from 2002 to 2010, went to so far as to describe his country as some kind of environmental paradise, blazing a trail in the area of green innovations.

These include the "Guardabosques" forest protection scheme, which paid 66,000 families to stop clearing forests in order to make way for cocoa plantations. According to government statistics, the country loses some 200,000 hectares of forest per year.

Meanwhile, urban planners are tackling smog and congestion in the cities with intelligent infrastructure, with Bogotá focusing on improving its bus system and cutting carbon emissions by an annual 300,000 tons in the process. New bus and metro systems have also been introduced in Cali and Pereira, while Medellín is now home to a sophisticated cablecar system that's clean and convenient.

But the government's pride and joy is the development of the agrofuel industry, first pushed by Uribe and eagerly embraced by his successor and close confidant Manuel Santos.

Colombia is pinning its hopes on palm oil, ethanol and sugarcane – after Brazil, it is now the largest producer of sugarcane in South America. The government has repeatedly stressed that its agrofuels production involves neither deforestation nor any waste of farmland.

Not as good as it looks

Cable cars in Medellin

Medellin has a clean and convenient cable car system

But environmental groups beg to differ. They maintain that while Colombia touts its green credentials on the international stage, it fails to keep to its promises back home. 

"There are considerable discrepancies between the boasts and  reality," stresses Tatiana Roa from the Censat organization.

"The environment plays hardly any role in public life,” says Hilmar Ruminski, Colombia expert at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

According to experts, the government's claims are simply not true, and contrary to its official statements, forests are indeed being cut down to make way for agrofuels. 

According to the Swiss-Colombian human rights group ASK, "thousands and thousands of hectares of oil palms are being planted against the express will of the legal landowners, and deforestation is widespread."

Censat can also point to reports of deforestation, with woodland across the country replaced by grazing pastures and crop land.

That's not all. Despite all the government lip service paid to climate protection, Colombia continues to promote fossil fuels such as coal and crude oil.

After Russia, Colombia is the second-largest supplier to German coal-fired power stations, while the world's largest open cast coal mines are located near Cerrejón in northern Colombia. Coal mining continues to be a thriving industry here, and the government is developing plans to drill for oil in the Caribbean and the Amazon.

On the whole, Colombia's environment is facing a dual threat – from climate change on the one hand, and government policies on the other.

"Santos has not made the environment any more of a priority,” says Ruminski. "He might yet do so, since he has made some progress on other fronts, such as human rights. But so far, a green Colombia is not a political concern.“

Author: Torsten Schäfer (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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