Gabriel Vallejo López, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, discusses the progress being made in repairing the environmental scars left by decades of war on an area so vital for the population’s livelihoods.
Colombia is going through an exciting time in a complex global context. It has been rated first by the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index in Latin America, and it has been invited to be a member of the OECD. What can you tell us about the moment Colombia is going through at the moment, and what is the role of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development in the process of making the country a full member of that organization?
This year it is likely that we will be the fastest-growing country in Latin America, in a context of general downturn.
Although there are adverse external factors, like the drop in the oil prices, they are being counteracted by strategic points in the domestic context, like the peace process and the modernization carried out by President Santos.
In this context, entering the OECD is one of the pillars of this administration. As for the requirements for becoming a member, 35% of them are under the umbrella of the Ministry of Environment.
We have set ourselves a series of goals, which we are accomplishing within the expected time limit. We are trying to adapt to the current views on environmental topics, updating our legislation, and looking for supporters and allies who will accompany us in the process of building a new Colombia.
As a minister, you have assured that the environmental policies of the government will be marked by the three main pillars of the Santos administration: education, equality and peace. How will these pillars be integrated into the environmental policies? How will the achievement of peace impact on the environment?
I was the director of the Department for Social Prosperity (DPS), which means that I not only have an understanding of environmental issues, but of social issues as well. Every environmental policy has a direct impact on the communities and on the general population.
The Ministry of Environment has a responsibility in those three pillars. Let me give you an example. With the achievement of peace and during the post-conflict era, most of the people who will be getting back to their normal lives will do it in the areas where there are forests and biodiversity.
Those territories have been victims of the guerrillas, who have carried out illegal actions, sometimes devastating entire ecosystems.
There has been deforestation, illegal trafficking of flora, fauna and timber, there has been illegal mining using mercury and cyanide, polluting the river basins.
We have to point out that, after the population, the environment has suffered the most during the conflict.
That is why, after these 50 years of war being so detrimental for the entire country, achieving peace is a priority for this administration.
The ministry is now focusing on reducing the negative effects on the environment and creating spaces that can be inhabited equitably by the entire population of this country.
As the head of the ministry you have expressed concern for the possibility that, in order to fulfill all the necessary reforms in the area, the economic resources might be insufficient. How can you compensate for the lack of a bigger budget for the implementation of all the planned reforms? Which investments are most urgent?
Every ministry has the problem of not having enough resources allocated to carry out the policies they intend. In positions like these, you can't just stay still thinking about your insufficient resources, you have to go out and get the money you need.
To get financing, I have developed a strategy in terms of international cooperation. We've had very good results.
For example, one of the most ambitious projects of President Santos, called Visión Amazónica, is being supported by the European Union.
They have helped us with more than €6 million to maintain, preserve and reestablish the Amazon rainforest. The Netherlands are also helping us solve the problem of coastal erosion.
On the other hand, we have set a strategic plan based on the four pillars of environmental education, governance, climate change, and pollution.
We are thinking about how each country can assist us regarding these four issues, not only with resources but also in matters of science and technology.
Colombia is leading the project for the “Triple A Corridor”. This ecological corridor, implemented together with Venezuela and Brazil, will be the largest in the world, stretching over 135 million hectares. How is this project progressing?
We are making great improvements. Not long ago, President Santos met with President Rousseff of Brazil.
The main goal of this project is protecting the Amazon rainforest in a structured and cohesive way. We are talking about the “lungs of the Earth”, so this is definitely the job of the three countries together.
The 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 2015 (COP21/CMP11), also known as Paris 2015, will be held this year. What expectations do you have on achieving a binding agreement among the 13 members? What will Colombia contribute?
We are hoping that this will mean a real and binding commitment, especially among the countries with higher emission rates in the world.
There is debate on the subject of the financing of the $100 billion fund. Currently we have gathered around $18 billion, so there is still a long way to go, but I am confident that we will get there.
Particularly in Colombia, we have been working for two years now in the “Colombia low in carbon” strategy.
Even though Colombia is not a significant contributor over the total carbon emissions globally, our geographical location makes us highly vulnerable.
This has forced us to come up with an elaborate strategy. We have eight cross-sectorial agreements and we have worked with eight different ministries, with all the labor unions and economic groups in the country.
At the Asobancaria Convention, you said that the financial institutions should consider requiring a sustainability plan before giving credit. What kind of negotiations are you having with the banks?
Our goal is to design a program that establishes that, when you ask for a credit, there has to be a sustainability assessment according to pre-established environmental criteria.
That assessment will allow you to have access to the credit or to a better interest rate. We think that this way the environmental variable will become especially relevant and will generate, in the long term, a huge cultural change.
For example, one of the biggest problems the country has now has to do with the tires. Now we have a regulation which establishes that all the infrastructure projects that include tire recycling will have extra points in the tendering process.
With measures such as these, we are creating an individual conscience and responsibility in people from the environmental point of view. It is a long journey but we are going in the right direction.
What environmental education projects are you particularly proud of?
I would like to be proud of the project for the reduction of water consumption. We have high levels of waste. For example, one person in Bogota spends between five and eight minutes in the shower every day.
If we manage to get people to reduce one minute per week, with all the water we save we could supply water for an entire town in the north of the country. In the next few years the problem of water scarcity will get worse, and here we still haven't become aware of it.
When you were appointed to this position, you spoke in front of a skeptical audience and said that your work “will be a service to the environment, the community and to the different sectors”. How do you assess your work in charge of the ministry so far?
I can tell you that never in the history of this ministry has a minister been out there as much as I have. I spend four days a week outside Bogota.
I visit the regional autonomous corporations, which are the local organizations with the authority to carry out the environmental public policies.
The worst place you can be to manage this ministry is this office; in here all you receive is administration problems, but when you are out there you get to know the environmental realities, which is what this entity is about.
Besides, we have developed a much better articulated environmental system, we have a well defined education strategy, an structured cross-sectorial strategy, and authorities at the national level who are aligned with the policies of the ministry.
The government is putting its trust in “fracking” as a new way to extract hydrocarbons. What plans do you have in order to do this in a sustainable way?
The production of oil from unconventional sources, known as “fracking”, has generated much debate in the world.
The minister who was in charge before me had defined and authorized the reference terms for the production of unconventional oil.
When I became in charge of the ministry I performed a detailed study. From a technical point of view, I am sure that those terms of reference are complex enough and give us the basic and fundamental guarantees that, if we comply with all those standards, there wouldn't be any environmental risks.
Right now, the drop in the oil prices means that the extraction of unconventional oil is actually being postponed, because this way of production has a really high cost.
In your opinion, what is the key to a sustainable development?
We must tell the country that development is important, but always in a responsible and sustainable way. We have taken 4 million people out of poverty, but we still have 14 million to go, so there is still a lot of work to do.
We have to create new income and create the necessary resources to overcome this situation, taking every possible precaution.
There are thousands of examples where we can see that environmental care and sustainable development are complementary and not mutually exclusive.
Considering that we are publishing in the United States, where would you like to see investment in your sector? What areas could benefit from a closer cooperation between Colombia and the United States?
There are two areas in which we have been working and where the United States have helped us in a significant way. One has been the problem of oil spills.
The US has a lot of experience in this, which has allowed them to develop important technology to control the spills. The other issue is environmental education.
I am sure that no resources or support will be enough as long as we don't change the way we perceive the environmental problems.
Finally, when you travel abroad and you have to talk about Colombia, which are the three things you like the most about your country?
First the biodiversity, what the country has to offer in terms of ecosystems. We are one of the countries with more biodiversity per square kilometer, and that has a great value.
Second are the people. I am very proud of what we are, of our human quality. I like to highlight the existence of a great diversity with always a great mutual respect.
The third thing is our ability to overcome adversities and move forward. We managed to become one of the most solid communities in Latin America, and the whole world has its eyes on us despite the 50 years of war.
I can't stop thinking about what a Colombia in peace could achieve.