Duque’s grand debates: The environment

By Ángela Forero-Aponte November 29, 2019

We dip into the national conversation with a look at what was talked about in yesterday’s environmental discussion.

The environment was also a topic during the protests. Photo: Otto Berchem

There are two ‘national conversations’ taking place in Colombia at the moment. One is on the streets where the protests continue, and the other is the official ‘national conversation’ that the government announced over the weekend. 

Strike organisers have said they won’t participate in the national conversation which started on Tuesday because it does not address the reasons that people are protesting, which they’ve shared in a manifesto. But what is being discussed in this national conversation? And who is joining those discussions?

On Wednesday, they talked about education. Today was about transparency and anti-corruption. And yesterday was about the environment. Since there’s not a lot of coverage of what’s happening in those debates we translated and summarised the account from Camilo Prieto, spokesperson of the Movimiento Ambientalista Colombiano who took to Facebook live to share his perspective.

Prieto, a surgeon and philosopher who “dreams of a country where education and the protection of the environment are vital axes”, presented a summary of the conversation held yesterday with the ministers and the president. The surgeon and activist says in his video stream that he does not intend to substitute the general conversation, but rather act as a conduit so we can all understand, and in turn, share this understanding of the environmental issues besieging the country. He’s invited the general public to contribute to this conversation by exerting pressure in a respectful, non-violent yet vehement way.

The meeting was attended by the president, the ministers of mining, and the environment and representatives from different environmental organizations. A number of environmental organizations decided not to attend. Prieto talked about the three specific proposals he and his movement have, and about the conclusions to the meeting.

Issue 1: Deforestation

According to the Movimiento Ambientalista Colombiano, this is the most serious environmental problem Colombia is facing, and one which damages the climate stability of the country both now and in the future. 

Deforestation is one of the main generators of greenhouse gases, because of the scale at which it is destroying the forests. This releases even more carbon into the air than heavy industry. He said this not new information, but stressed that 70% of the deforestation in Colombia is concentrated in the Amazon – and this is dramatic. According to Prieto, studies conducted by Fedesarrollo state that 60% of that deforestation is connected to extensive livestock production. In Colombia alone, 38.9 million hectares are used for livestock production alone, in an unsustainable manner, and within a framework that is almost feudalistic.

Related: The Amazon is burning – deforestation in Colombia

The movements’ proposal is to migrate livestock production to something called a silvopasture system – a mutually beneficial way to integrate forage, trees, and animal grazing. According to experts, this diversifies farm income sources as well as the overall viability of the farm. It also expands the abundance and diversity of wildlife, and contributes to carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation. 

According to Prieto, the president’s answer to this suggestion was: “People will be given the chance to voluntarily migrate to silvopasture systems.” The environmentalist was not satisfied with this answer. For him, this is not about giving people the chance to voluntarily migrate to those systems, but about creating public policies which lead the country to more sustainable cattle-raising. Prieto also called the National Development Plan’s target that allows 220,000 hectares of deforested areas per year totally despicable, and inadmissible.

Issue 2: Public Health, and Environmental Degradation

There is no denying the alarming degree to which environmental degradation has harmed public health, not only in Colombia, but around the world. Dr Prieto commented on the absence of the Ministry of Health at the meeting. He was concerned as he feels public health needs to be tackled through a joint effort involving both ministries and there is no consensus as to the amount of money spent on health issues stemming from environmental degradation.

Prieto invited the president to check the three reports available at the website of the National Planning Department (Dirección Nacional de Planeación) which portray very different expense figures in that respect: COP$15.6 billion in one, COP$12 billion in the second one, and between COP$2-12 billion in the last one. 

“In Colombia, we don’t have the slightest idea of how much environmental degradation is affecting the health of Colombians, and how much it is costing us,” says Prieto. “This demonstrates a disconnect between the ministries.”

Issue 3: The Escazú Agreement

The regional Escazú agreement was signed last year to increase access to information, public participation and justice in environmental matters. The treaty “aims to combat inequality and discrimination and to guarantee the right of every person to an equal environment and to sustainable development. In so doing, it devotes particular attention to persons and groups in vulnerable situations, and places equality at the core of sustainable development”. 

Speaking more in layman’s terms, Prieto explained at the meeting that the agreement compels governments to be more transparent with the environmental information available, not only the academic information, but also that which relates to environmental conflict.

This agreement was signed on three main axes: sharing environment-related information, sharing judicial information related to environmental conflict, protecting environmental leaders – a key aspect. Prieto reminded the audience in his live video that Colombia is the second most dangerous place in the world for environmental activism. He invited the president to enter the agreement, to which Colombia is not a signatory, but a mediator.

If the government signs the agreement, it would mean committing to transparency on environmental data. Prieto states that there are big interests that often trump the flow of the judicial proceedings in this respect. He provides a simple example why this matters: Only people in Bogotá and Medellín have access to open data about air quality.

Prieto says no conclusions were reached at the end of the meeting, and the government did not make any commitments regarding these three issues. His only hope is for more people to help feed the protests with arguments, peacefully, and to share this information to exert a vehement, solid, categorical, and unrelenting pressure on the government. When it comes to the environment, our country needs to be re-routed and change its mentality.