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Colombia can grow economy "through nature without destroying it" - environment vice minister

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 5 Jun 2014 10:22 GMT
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Aerial view of the Campo Rubiales oil field in Meta, eastern Colombia, January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez
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BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Colombia must tackle conflicts over land use and look for new ways to extract natural resources while protecting biodiversity as prospectors rush for territory in the country’s rainforests and mountains, says Colombia’s environment vice minister.

One of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies, Colombia is enjoying record foreign investment driven by a commodities boom and improved security.

However, it needs to balance this growth and ensure natural resources are exploited in a sustainable way, while protecting indigenous land rights and ecosystems from the Amazon rainforest to Andean mountain glaciers, the vice minister said.

“I think that the development model Colombia has needs to be shifted towards a development model that’s more compatible in terms of how rich we are in natural resources,” Pablo Vieira told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

“Fifty percent of the country is covered with forests. We are probably the most biodiverse country in the world per hectare. Our economy is not really compatible with that.”

The world's fifth-biggest coal producer and Latin America's fourth-largest oil producer, Colombia is attracting rising numbers of oil, coal and mineral companies looking to extract resources for export.

Furthermore, unexplored frontiers could open up and more investors come in if ongoing peace talks between the government and Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), succeed in ending 50 years of war.

Vieira urged innovation in the extraction of natural resources – so that it’s not just “cutting forests and extraction”.

“I’m not saying we need to stop extractive activities. I’m saying we need to plan better the way we use our ground,” he said. “I do believe there’s a real source of economic growth through our nature without having to destroy it. So we have to find that balance.”

RUSH FOR LAND

The next frontier, Vieira said, is the fertile Orinoquia – a region spread over six different provinces in eastern Colombia where conflicts for land are coming to the fore as cattle ranchers, oil palm and rice growers, and oil companies scramble for territory.

Land turned over to pasture and crops as well as oil exploration are all putting pressure on Orinoquia’s water and rainforest ecosystems, he noted.

“What we have now is everyone going to the same place with different interests,” he said, adding that the government is now producing maps with the stakeholders in the region to determine the best use of the land.

“We don’t have really clear rules about how to solve those conflicts... A lot of times it's about who gets there first.”

BETTER WATER MANAGEMENT

Another challenge is raising awareness about poor water quality and water wastage, even though Colombia is the world’s sixth richest country in terms of water per capita, the vice-minister said.

Many municipalities do not have water treatment plants, so water goes back to the rivers as waste, and is not recovered, Vieira said, noting that water management is a key issue at the International Environment Fair in Bogota this week.

“We need a cultural change in terms of understanding that natural resources are not unlimited,” he said.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Vieira also expressed concern about the impact of climate change on Colombia, which suffers from severe floods, droughts and coastal erosion partly due to rising sea levels.

“Colombia is a country very vulnerable to climate change but it’s a country that emits little,” he said.

“When you have economic growth like Colombia has had, the pressures on the environment increase and your resilience is reduced and your capacity to adapt also is reduced,” he said, stressing the need to focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Vieira said Colombia got its wake-up call after the La Nina weather pattern in 2010 caused widespread floods due to heavy rains, disrupting the lives of 3 million people and leading the government to declare a national state of emergency.

He said the government has since invested in projects to reduce the impact and economic losses from natural disasters, including flood early warning systems, mangrove conservation, embankment and dyke construction, and work with the Netherlands which has expertise in flood management.

Yet critics say the government needs to do more because many local officials are simply not up to the task of managing multimillion-dollar climate change projects without money being siphoned off or wasted.

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