BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia’s rainforests and biodiverse environment are coming under growing pressure from land turned over to pasture, mining operations and the illegal timber trade, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has said.
Colombia, the world's fifth-biggest coal producer and Latin America's fourth-largest oil producer, is enjoying record foreign investment buoyed by better security and steady economic growth driven by a commodities boom.
But in a report, the Paris-based OECD said the Andean nation should do more to ensure its natural resources are exploited in a sustainable way, implement existing laws to protect the environment, and recognise how biodiversity underpins economic development.
“Colombia is growing fast as an economy and it needs to take action now to protect what are some of the world’s richest forests and ecosystems,” Simon Upton, the OECD’s environment director, said in a statement on the the organisation’s first environmental performance review of Colombia, issued on Thursday.
The government of Juan Manuel Santos is pushing for Colombia to become a member of the OECD, which it sees as a key way of integrating its emerging economy into global markets and trade. The OECD’s environmental review will feed into talks about Colombia’s membership.
“Bringing environmental policies in line with the best international practices will be a key step towards bringing Colombia into the OECD,” Upton said.
In recent years, Colombia’s economic growth has been driven by local and international companies tapping into its oil, mineral and coal reserves for export.
“The downside of this is that these extractive industries are polluting soil and water, harming sensitive ecosystems and damaging human health,” the OECD said.
The review urged Colombia to stem the environmental impact of mining, which includes soil erosion and contamination, and river pollution caused by toxic chemicals, in particular mercury, used to extract gold.
Colombia’s marine and coastal areas, which make up nearly half of its territory, face rising threats if offshore oil and gas reserves are exploited, the OECD said. There are “major shortcomings” in prevention and response mechanisms for possible oil spills, the review noted.
Colombia is considered the world’s second most biodiverse country, with nearly 55 percent of its land covered by forest, the OECD said.
The country boasts varied ecosystems – from Amazon rainforest and alpine grassland savannahs known as "paramos" that control water supplies, to snow-capped Andean mountains.
Forest turned into pasture for livestock grazing, and to a lesser extent food crop production, are the main causes of deforestation in Colombia, the OECD said. Stemming deforestation is difficult because about half of all timber is harvested illegally in the country, it added.
A third of Colombia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, mainly methane generated by livestock, but also nitrous oxide emissions from fertilisers, the OECD report said. Emissions and air pollution are set to increase as Colombia’s growing middle classes buy more cars for use in ever-expanding cities.
Colombia has been hit hard by severe weather events linked to climate change. Widespread floods and landslides due to heavy rains in 2010 and 2011 disrupted the lives of 3 million people and prompted the government to declare a national state of emergency.
“The event underlined Colombia’s vulnerability to climatic changes and prompted efforts to better integrate environmental considerations into economic plans. Yet more could be done to improve coherence between economic and environmental policies,” the OECD report said.
Critics of the government’s record on protecting the environment say the country is unprepared to deal with climate extremes, including a severe drought in Colombia’s oil-rich eastern province of Casanare. The drought, which started in March, has caused reservoirs to dry up and brought water shortages, killing over 20,000 animals, mainly cattle.
Local environmentalists say unsustainable cattle-grazing and a rise in land converted to grow commercial food crops are factors behind the drought. They also blame oil drilling and exploration, which they say has changed the natural course of rivers and uses a lot of water.
But industry leaders deny the accusations. “Oil operations are not generating the drought,” Alejandro Martinez, head of the Colombian Oil Association, was quoted as saying in El Espectador newspaper earlier this month. “Of course, oil operations consume water but in very low amounts,” he said.