By César Giraldo Zuluaga and Sergio Silva Numa, EL ESPECTADOR, September 7, 2022


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The new Minister of Environment talked with EL ESPECTADOR about the challenges she has encountered in her first month as head of the Ministry, the strategy for halting deforestation, and her efforts to improve the conditions of the people working in the National Nature Parks.

Yesterday afternoon, the Minister of Environment, Susana Muhamad, organized a press conference to disclose some chilling statistics: in the last two decades, she said, there have been nearly 3 million hectares of deforestation. On the other side of the coin, only 500 thousand have been restored.

“The truth of the matter,” she warned, “is that we have not improved, and 2022 is already a disastrous year.” In the first quarter, illegal cutting increased by 10% over 2021. How can that be halted? Prior to her statements, Muhamad talked with EL ESPECTADOR to explain the path by which the Gustavo Petro administration plans to control this enormous problem. Speaking from her office, she affirmed that also in the first month as head of the Ministry she had had a nasty surprise: she found an abandonment of the environmental sector in large parts of the countryside, and a dismantling of the National Environmental System.

It’s now a month since you took over as Minister of Environment. What has your landing been like?

It’s a very interesting process to go from the transition to the process of implementation and beginning to understand the decisions that you will be making. It’s a month of organization, making contact with the society, with trade associations, with territorial organizations that need immediate attention, and with social leaders who are threatened. The challenge has been to reach into the agencies and still not lose contact with the organizations and the social actors. We have to start consolidating the programs in the Development Plan, but we have to take some short-term actions. One of these has to do with congressional action on the prohibition of fracking. Next we will be introducing a bill prohibiting the use of glyphosate on the illegal plantings. We are also in a social dialog in Cartagena, about a series of ecosystems that have been in a state of degradation, and in a dialog related to the Dique Canal project. Likewise, we are in a plan to halt the deforestation in the Arc of Amazonia, and working on the way for defenders of the environment to be supported by the ratification of the Escazú Agreement.

In the coming three months, there will be other important challenges, like the climate change summit, where we are consolidating our national position in accordance with the perspective of the new administration, and the Biodiversity Summit. I describe it as a process in which we have to be managing the arrival of the new administration and continuing to lead the various processes. It’s very satisfying. We have already resolved things in one day that have gone unresolved for years, simply because there is a change in policy. An example is the way to define the path to participation on the Sumapaz páramo. In one day, we were able to reach an agreement with the social actors. That went three years without defining that path.

There have been other scenarios, like the mining Congress, very challenging. I observed that the sector has an interest in working, and we are open to that dialog, but there are measures that we have already announced that may not necessarily be what that that sector has received from previous administrations.

Can you explain a little better what will be in the bill that will prohibit the use of glyphosate?

It’s very simple. The use of glyphosate on the illegal plantings is simply prohibited. The bill has two articles. We are putting an end to the work on technical support. We hope to be able to introduce it in a couple of weeks. There are subjects that the social sectors are requesting and that have remained undecided in the Colombian government’s decisions, but it’s time to make decisions. This is a mechanism that has not been useful in the process of eliminating illegal plantings.

Of all the things that you have found, is there anything that worries you (besides the concern for the defenders of the environment, of course, and the deforestation)?

What concerns me is that there has been a great dismantling of the organizational systems focused on the environment. A great uncertainty in many of the regional authorities responsible for the environment. That seems to me to be a huge challenge. The environmental authorities in the most strategic ecosystems have hardly any funds. For example, when I got to a region, the first thing I would do was call directly on the Regional Autonomous Corporation (CAR) to introduce myself, because they are the right hands for implementing environmental policies. “The Ministers never come around here,” was one of the things they said to me. So, there has been a breaking up of the National Environmental System. There is also a very precarious situation for the officials of the National Nature Parks. It seems very sad, hard to take. There are people that have a great calling as forest rangers; they have a strong identity, they are in the most remote areas of Colombia, guarding the patrimony of nature in the country and in some very insecure conditions. It’s very moving to listen to their stories. And they have already filed a case before the JEP because of the human rights situations.

Besides, the “winter wave” is coming. I called together all of the CAR agencies to a joint meeting to see how we can prepare ourselves to take care of the regions. The other issue is that there are a lot of social-environmental conflicts, partly because of governmental decisions. The government itself has created tremendous conflict. And I think that it has left a lot of extractive businesses alone, and they end up with a lot of responsibilities that they don’t carry out. A business can’t be the only entity that offers productive jobs in a region, nor can it be the only Rule of Law.

At some point, you said that the greatest challenge would be in halting deforestation. All of your predecessors have failed in that. What will you do differently to have success?

Deforestation is the environmental consequence of a much deeper governmental problem. But just like in the environmental sector, the government has to defend it and articulate a strategy. Because that has to be understood in an integrated way. We are formulating a strategy that has five components. The first is the systematic inclusion of all of the population in the Rule of Law in those regions. We have to generate a kind of economy that is compatible with the soil, and the soil that is forest soil. So we have to generate a forest economy that has to be based on biodiversity. There is a forest business sector that says, “Let’s get hold of half a million to seven million hectares of forest, for fast-growing monocultures; that will generate restoration of the forest.” But we have seen that that has other impacts.

We have to generate some long-term mechanisms that allow that to be sustained, because that is not a matter of four years. And it’s our job to have the mechanisms, have the financing procedures, and keep the process going forward.

Now we have already identified 15 nuclei. A nucleus of deforestation turns into a nucleus of forest economy, where a process of ecological restoration can begin. Depending on the locality, there will be portfolios full of possible economic activities, from tourism to agro-forest projects. But that basically requires a process of social conferences to reach a social agreement. The other component is the total peace. Opening dialogs with these illegal forces entering into the legal system could help to diminish the pressure on our resources. The third element of that strategy is the matter of justice, and expanding the criminal investigations to generate some exemplary cases. The fourth element is territorial control, now by the Armed Forces, which has to happen, considering the need for restraint. And the fifth is the strengthening of government in the countryside. There need to be government institutions there in the countryside, permanent institutions.

Do you think that putting an end to Operation Artemis will contribute to achieving that objective?

Yes, even though it’s very important to make this clear: we are not giving up control of the territory nor control of the authority represented by the Armed Forces, but rather, we are changing the way in which this has been implemented, because in the end, it generated social resistance to the government. The major change is that the government has to work with these communities there, so that now they can stop being the work force for the illegal economy. After the launching of Operation Artemis, where ex-President Duque dressed as an official of the National Nature Parks, there was a terrible stigmatization of that agency’s officials. So that now there is not confidence in the agencies, and that only serves the illegal economy. We want to change that.

What did you think of the Council of State’s decision a few days ago that requires a reorganization of mining regulation?

It was excellent news. It’s as if the stars were aligned, because ever since the transition, we have been working on a strategy for controls and definitive decisions for areas. For the last 15 years the government has been handing out titles left and right without any consideration of protected areas. We are going to make a total review of titling, to see whether titles have been superimposed on strategic ecosystems. The country has to define where there can and cannot be mining. And it has to define which mineral. The example is Putumayo. Will there be a mining district or a communal work enclave for forest and biodiversity economies? There is copper. Do we take it out? How? At what scale? What do the communities want? What the opinion of the Council of State says is that this has been a mess. It orders us, precisely, to conduct a review, stop giving out all those titles, and organize and define the categories of protection.

Changing the subject. The Climate Change Summit is coming soon. The administration has said that it would like to lead those discussions. What do you have in mind for this scenario?

Here are some mechanisms for the mid-term and some worldwide discussions. A first proposal that the President launched, and that we have worked on in the transition, was the need to have more fiscal capacity. We are thinking of swapping external debt in return for nature. That has already been done in Colombia in 1992 when the EcoFund was created. The interest on the debt was reduced and that money that the government would have had to pay went into the EcoFund. Likewise, we have to generate a national financing mechanism like the fund we created in Bogotá, Fondiger, autonomous, and not attached to the budgets in effect, and whose board of directors is managed by the government, but which possesses legal capacity. All of the funds from environmental compensation go into that, from the licenses, from international cooperation, or funds from the national budget.

The other alternative is an unregulated market, and then you would get coal bonds. We need a control process to avoid what’s happening now, where the financial intermediaries go to the indigenous communities and sign contracts for financial speculation on the environmental property of the country. They enter into private businesses with the communities for the forests of this nation. That would be the first discussion for that summit: how will those coal markets work? Are those markets really lowering emissions throughout the world? We will have to do an evaluation of that.

The other important point is looking for long term commitments on the Amazon, especially the Colombian Amazon. I hope, with time, we will be able to make an agreement with all of the Amazon countries. Also, there is another key point: the damage and the losses. That is, who pays for the damage of climate change? There Colombia has to take a tough  position. There is discussion having to do with setting goals for adaptation. All of the climate summits turn on the goals for mitigation. We have to work on the adaptation goals and on the funds for that purpose.

How easy do you think it will be for Colombia, as it has promised, to lessen its emissions of greenhouse gases by 51% by 2030? Will you have to step on the accelerator for some of those commitments?

Yes. We agree with that commitment made by ex-President Duque; it’s what the scientists are saying. And a diminution by 90% by 2050. What we want to do is look at the details of the plan they left for us. But what there is of a national consensus, it’s that our principal source of emissions is the deforestation and the cattle ranching, which are associated. There we have another challenge, related to the comprehensive rural reform and agricultural productivity, a goal that is central for President Petro. Our climate change goals rely on our capacity for peace in the countryside.

Everything we’re talking about is tied up with a key item: money. But the Duque administration left an allocation for the environmental sector of 0.24% of the whole national budget. That’s much lower than before. Where will you get the money? How is that negotiation going with Minister Ocampo?

The President’s thinking is that first, line up the purposes, and starting there, define what comes next. You never saw me as Secretary of Environment fighting for budgets in the Council. But here, the situation is worse than in Bogotá. If there definitely is a financial deficiency in this sector, there are some budget strategies. One is to request an increase, but you have to look at what’s available. The other has to do with an important procedure with international cooperation. The third one we have to discuss: a tax on coal, 100% of which should be for the environment sector, even though now it’s distributed for next year with the plan for crop substitution, which doesn’t bother me, because that helps me accomplish environmental goals. Fourth, we have a percentage of royalties and, fifth, if funds are lacking, let’s work to obtain them, because we have to meet our goals.

That’s a little bit of the outlook, but to answer, yes, yes, we are going to request more funds for the environmental sector, because now we represent just 0.3% of the budget. We ought to reach, at the least, 1%.

Now we have more protected areas, but National Nature Parks continues scraping by.  Are you going to give them more in your budget?

The previous administration left a strategy they called Colombia’s Inheritance, which we are studying very seriously, but it includes an attempt to get a lot of international donors to generate a patrimonial fund that would permit the sustainability of managing the protected areas in Colombia. We’re going to check to see if it’s well planned; it could be a solution. What’s important is that the protected areas be protected and carry out their function. But definitely, we are requesting a larger budget for PNN to improve the operating conditions.

We’ve been told that they would create a position of “Coordinators for social dialog in the countryside.” What’s that all about?

Yes. There is also a need to strengthen the technical capacity of the sector; we have to strengthen the capacity for social interaction, because the environment is turning into a permanent territorial conflict because of the absence of dialog. That dialog has two purposes. The first is to legitimate the social actors who defend the environment out in the countryside, and they need to have support and a permanent interchange. Second, monitoring socio-environmental conflicts that could appear, so that we are able, with immediate intervention, to resolve them and not let them escalate. And, third, to have interactions of the national environmental system in the countryside, from the Ministry. It also serves for us as a political link to the environmental situation in the region.

What are you going to do about the tremendous problem of the hippopotami in the Magdalena Medio?

Right now we have received some initiatives. We have to see what would work best. One, sterilization, has already been applied to 35 specimens. Another consists in taking examples of that to controlled areas. Two have gone, but there are already a large number. There is also a proposal for contraception. I will have to evaluate how they have worked and work with all of the sectors, the biologists and animal activists, to analyze whether that complete strategy is enough and will help as prevent reproduction, which is the primary objective. The second objective is finding a way to avoid the environmental destruction that they are generating. The third is to evaluate the possibility of killing them. But that has to be the last option. First we will study the other options thoroughly.

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