Main page content

Colombia: The double challenge of internal pacification and decarbonisation

The following excerpt gives an overview of Colombia's exposure to fragility and security risks. 

The full case study addresses the following issues:

•    Exposure and risk 

•    Past and present efforts to decarbonise 

•    Trends and potential

•    Cooperation with the EU 

Still classed as a ‘warning’ area in the Fragile States Index, Colombia had become progressively more stable in the 2010s. There had been significant improvement in the strength of its democratic institutions and governance and in its moves towards ending the longstanding internal conficts with insurgent groups, most notably the peace agreement with the FARC in 2016 (Fund for Peace 2021). However, the peace agreement has become increasingly fragile, its implementation has degraded under the administration of President Duque, and corruption remains a barrier to effective governance. As a result, also Colombia’s assessment in the Fragile States Index has deteriorated in 2020–2021 (Fund for Peace 2021). Climate change may also intensify existing fragility risks in rural areas and impair hydropower electricity generation (see Figures 5.2 and 5.3).

Complex internal conflicts have for long constituted the major national challenge for Colombia. Achieving long-term peace with the FARC, and other insurgent groups, will depend on the successful implementation of the 2016 peace agreement, which covered six main areas – comprehensive rural development, illegal crop eradication, the FARC’s political participation in Colombian politics, transitional justice and reparations for victims, and the demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration of ex-combatants (Felter and Renwick 2017). However, the implementation of the peace process has significantly deteriorated since President Duque took office in 2018 and has suffered further setbacks under the Covid-19 pandemic.

Colombia’s long and complex internal conflict has been shaped by a number of political and socioeconomic drivers. A major root cause of the conflict was the issue of land tenure and land concentration. Extremely unequal land ownership had been a longstanding cause of political tensions since colonial times, and FARC and ELN insurgents gained legitimacy and recruits by opposing the privatisation of natural resources and striving for the redistribution of land to small peasants and the abolition of large landholdings (Bilotta 2017). The peace agreement set out a series of bold initiatives to comprehensively reform and revitalise Colombia’s rural areas, which experts estimated could cost between US$80 and US$90 billion over the subsequent decade (Felter and Renwick 2017). Land is also central to reparations under the peace agreement, with an estimated 8 million hectares of land – 14 percent of Colombia’s territory – illegally acquired either by dispossessing or forcibly displacing people over the course of the conflict (Amnesty 2014; OXFAM 2016). Coca (i.e., the raw material for producing cocaine) and cocaine production was also a key driver of the conflict due to its role in financing the activities of rebel groups, and it continues to present complex challenges for the peace process. Providing economic alternatives to the drugs trade is of crucial importance, but it is fraught with difficulty as other insurgent groups and cartels compete to take control of coca-growing areas previously controlled by the FARC and coca farmers lack alternatives (Bristow 2018).

The conflict and the peace process continue to shape the country’s politics. President Duque was elected in June 2018 on a platform that included harsh criticism of the peace agreement. Since taking office, he has been openly hostile to the peace agreement. His administration has generally been slow in implementing the agreement, and the remaining challenges are daunting (International Crisis Group 2019a; Fund for Peace 2020; Reith 2021). The Covid-19 pandemic has further accentuated these challenges, as it ‘laid bare the shortcomings in implementing the FARC peace agreement’ and strengthened other armed groups (International Crisis Group 2020).

The sustainable use of Colombia’s immense natural resources also has a crucial role to play in Colombia’s post-confict development (UNEP 2017), and the peace agreement set important precedents with specific actions regarding environmental sustainability, natural resource management, and progressive measures on gender. However, FARC’s demobilisation and the end to violence also opened up a vacuum in terms of environmental governance, and, in 2016, deforestation increased by 44 percent as smallholder farmers and industry rushed to take control of the jungle and the Amazon, to log it and convert it for uses such as cattle ranching and goldmining (Reardon 2018).

The Venezuelan crisis has added a further major challenge for Colombia in the late 2010s. By the end of 2020, Colombia was hosting more than 1.7 million of the 4.5 million Venezuelans who had fed their country since the economic and political situation severely deteriorated in 2017 (UNHCR 2020). These refugees added to the approximately 8 million Colombians who have been displaced over the decades due to domestic confict (UNHCR 2020, 2021). The government has provided support in the form of temporary shelter along the border, as well as temporary residency, and access to healthcare and education. However, it faces growing challenges and rapidly increasing costs to stem the emerging humanitarian crisis. International support only covered 24 percent of the estimated €280 million required to provide for the Venezuelan refugees’ basic needs in 2019. Consequently, there is growing pressure on public budgets, and the government was ‘contemplating relaxing deficit targets so that it can spend an extra €800 million on meeting the needs of Venezuelan refugees and reallocating money that should be spent on other priorities, including implementation of the 2016 peace deal’ (International Crisis Group 2019b). The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting crisis have further increased the precariousness of the situation of the Venezuelan refugees.

Despite the aforementioned conflicts, over the past decades Colombia has developed relatively strong democratic institutions. There have been free and fair elections in Colombia for nearly 50 years, and, apart from a few notable exceptions, such as vote-buying and intimidation, there are no major concerns regarding voting rights, party competition, and election campaigns (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2020). Looking at the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, over the past decade there have also been gradual improvements in regulatory quality, and voice and accountability in Colombia, although this index shows that overall few gains have been made in enhancing government effectiveness, the rule of law, and control of corruption (World Bank 2021e). Though still categorising Colombia as ‘partly free’, the Freedom House Index 2021 states that ‘public institutions have demonstrated the capacity to check executive power and enforce the rule of law, and violence declined as the government and the country’s main left-wing guerrilla group moved toward a peace accord signed in 2016’. However, the report also notes that Colombia still faces major challenges with regard to the consolidation of peace and the guarantee of political rights and civil liberties, especially on the countryside (Freedom House 2021; see also Figures 5.2 and 5.3).

Alongside poverty and inequality, corruption constitutes a further central challenge for Colombia (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2020). Each year, corruption is estimated to cost the Colombian economy US$17 billion – equivalent to 5.3 percent of GDP (Grattan 2018). As such, Colombia scored 39 out of a potential 100 on Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, placing it 92nd out of 180 assessed states (Transparency International 2021). One driver of corruption may be the process of decentralisation in Colombia. Beginning in the 1980s and consolidated in the 1991 constitution, this process resulted in greater efficiencies and social spending, but it also created openings for organised crime groups. ‘Following the 2015 local elections, nearly one in three governors’ offices and nearly one in seven mayors’ offices came under investigation for various suspected crimes, including ties to paramilitaries, drug traffickers and other criminal groups’ (Yagoub 2016).

Colombia is also highly vulnerable to the slow and sudden impacts of climate change, and, given its varied geography, the country will have to cope with a variety of adaptation challenges (see also Figure 5.2). Projections show that rainfall may decrease by nearly a third in some areas, with the Andean region shifting from a semi-humid to a semi-arid climate (OECD 2014). Sea-level rise will impact coastal and marine ecosystems and fisheries as well as Colombia’s coastal infrastructure and cities (US AID 2017). Extreme weather events and disasters such as landslides also represent major climate change threats. Like the rest of Latin America, Colombia is experiencing more frequent and severe La Niña and El Niño phenomena, which are characterised by intense periods of drought followed by heavy rain and flooding (FAO 2018). It has been estimated that 85 percent of the Colombian population and 87 percent of the country’s GDP are ‘at risk’ from natural disasters (OECD 2014). The 2010–2011 La Niña led to estimated economic losses of approximately US$6 billion (NDC Partnership 2017).

Higher temperatures and increased water scarcity are of particular concern in the Andean region, home to 75 percent of the population. There, the run-off from the mountains is the main water source for domestic and industrial users, farming and irrigation, and electricity generation (OECD 2014). Indeed, 80 percent of Colombia’s GDP is generated in the basin of the two largest rivers running through the Colombian Andes, the Magdalena, and the Cauca. The large-scale dams in the watershed hold 84 percent of the Colombia’s hydroelectric power (Baptiste et al. 2017). Their vulnerability to climate change became evident during the 1992 and 2015–2016 El Niños. Droughts combined with forest loss reduced water levels to record lows and increased sedimentation. These conditions triggered major electricity crises and a sharp increase in the use of thermal plants (Semana 2015).

In the agricultural sector, farmers may have to move high-value agricultural crops such as coffee to higher altitudes to achieve the same yields, and other important crops, such as tropical fruit, cocoa, and bananas are also at risk (US AID 2017). The impact of climate change on livelihoods in these areas will be shaped by the socioeconomic struggles that influence activities like illegal land acquisition and conversion of forests to agricultural farms or cattle breeding grounds and pasture lands. For example, communities’ vulnerability to extreme weather events is ‘strongly influenced by deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture, artificial drainage of wetlands, changes of natural river courses and the building of human settlements in areas at risk of floods or landslides’ (OECD 2014).

Continue reading


This chapter was originally published on taylorfrancis.comCreative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND.