Politics of the Amazon

Click here for printer friendly version
Click here for full report

Petro faces difficulties on the road to a Colombian green agenda

Gustavo Petro took office in Colombia at the beginning of a four-year presidential term in August 2022. He was the country’s first left-winger to take office, and the first to assemble a ruling coalition including his own Pacto Histórico (PH) and an environmentalist party, the Alianza Verde, respectively with 28 and 15 seats in the 188-strong Chamber of Deputies. However, as in the case of the Lula government in Brazil, the balance of power in the Colombian congress is held by a range of smaller right and centre-right parties.

Petro’s policies on the protection of the Colombian Amazon and on a transition to renewable energy have to be seen in the context of a wider package of tax, health, pension, and educational reforms, as well as the highly ambitious total peace programme which calls for parallel negotiations on a peace settlement with all of the country’s armed rebel and criminal groups. As Petro approached the end of his first year in office, the initially feverish pace of reform was beginning to wane, with allegations of corruption eroding government popularity and the congressional opposition beginning to block or delay proposed new laws.

Petro set out his vision for the Colombian Amazon while attending the COP27 global climate conference in Egypt in November 2022. In a key part of his speech the president said that “saving the Amazon rainforest means life, it means building a multilateral fund that is capable, over 20 years, of financing the social forces, peasants, farmers, humble people, who are today the agents of destruction of the rainforest. The aim is to transform them into a positive force, which means paying them monthly for environmental services, for protecting the Amazon rainforest and allowing it to grow."

However, many details and budget allocations have yet to be fixed. Amazon policies are intended to form part of the four-year Plan Nacional de Desarrollo (PND), for which investment projects are still being finalised. In the meantime, there have been complaints that staffing levels in the system of national parks continue to be overstretched. Pending progress on total peace, many parts of the Amazon remain under the direct control of armed groups and vulnerable to the environmental depredation caused by illegal gold and rare-earth metals mining.

Petro has also run into some significant political trouble over his plans to reduce Colombia’s dependence on fossil fuels, switching instead at a rapid rate to renewables. Together with energy and mining minister Irene Vélez-Torres, he has promised to stop new oil and gas exploration as well as banning fracking. In January 2023 at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Petro said: “We are convinced that strong investment in tourism and clean energies will allow us on the short term to fill gaps left by the fossil fuel industry.”

But a range of critics have said a very rapid transition is difficult and that the plan has not been properly thought through. Colombian oil and gas production accounts for nearly half of exports and one-fifth of government revenue, while current reserves stand at only 7-8 years’ worth of consumption. The Centro Regional de Estudios Energéticos (CREE), a think-tank, says that meeting Colombia’s commitment to become a net-zero emitter by 2050 while reducing fossil fuel dependence, will require an extraordinary five-fold increase in electricity supply, some of which will have to be gas-fired at a time when Colombia’s gas reserves are also dwindling.

Meanwhile, as part of the tax reform that was approved by congress, the government has actually increased taxes on wind and solar generation while putting a major new wind farm project on hold in La Guajira department, pending completion of a lengthy consultation process with the local indigenous community. Finance Minister Ricardo Bonilla, trying to reassure the fossil fuel industry, has said that “the energy transition is going to take 15 to 20 years and we are going to continue exporting oil and coal for much longer”. Bonilla also said the government was considering launching carbon credits to combat deforestation as well as green bonds to fund projects that restore the environment and recover water resources.

Just as the Brazilian ministerial team has experienced internal disagreements over oil drilling in the mouth of the Amazon, the Colombian authorities are somewhat split over whether or not to ban all new oil and gas exploration. In both countries the pink-green coalition may therefore find itself under pressure, and the two presidents will need to use their political skills to reconcile opposing positions. It is also interesting to note that in his speeches Petro takes the more radical and abrupt position of favouring renewables instead of fossil fuels, while Lula in Brazil is following the more pragmatic rule of pursuing renewable energy as well as fossil fuels, at least for the medium-term future.

Intelligence Research Ltd.
167-169 Great Portland Street,
5th floor,
London, W1W 5PF - UK
Phone : +44 (0) 203 695 2790
You may contact us via our online contact form
Copyright © 2022 Intelligence Research Ltd. All rights reserved.