Susana Muhamad: ‘Emissions reduction should be the central issue, but it is not’

Colombia’s environment minister talks to Diálogo Chino on COP27 doubts and plans to combat deforestation by focusing on large corporations and mafias
<p>Colombia’s environment minister talks to Diálogo Chino on COP27 doubts and plans to combat deforestation by focusing on large corporations and mafias</p>

Colombia’s environment minister talks to Diálogo Chino on COP27 doubts and plans to combat deforestation by focusing on large corporations and mafias

“The science has spoken: the climate crisis is humanity’s biggest problem. It can end – and has the potential to end – life on the planet and the existence of the human species. Political leadership from the first COP to date has failed to stop the cause of the climate crisis.”

This was the apocalyptic tone struck by Gustavo Petro, the president of Colombia, in his address to the COP27 climate summit in Egypt.

Nicolás Maduro speaks at COP27
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Petro used his speech to present a “decalogue” of actions to confront the climate crisis, offered to the world following, as he described it, the enormous amount of time that has been wasted on “war and the geopolitics of the domination of humanity”.

The Colombian president travelled to the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh with Susana Muhamad, a noted environmentalist who has served as the country’s environment minister since Petro took office earlier this year.

A political scientist by profession, Muhamad, 45, became known for her fierce defence of a nature reserve that a former mayor of Bogotá wanted to develop. Years later, she was one of the founders of the Fracking-Free Colombia Alliance, and went on to serve as secretary of environment for Bogotá.

Ahead of her trip to COP27, Diálogo Chino interviewed Muhamad at her office in Bogotá, where she told us of her plans to counter deforestation and protect environmental defenders, and of Colombia’s energy transition and the prospects for the Egypt summit.

Diálogo Chino: Among your priorities as environment minister, is the first to fight against deforestation?

Susana Muhamad: That’s right, and the other side to the coin is the generation of economic alternatives for the communities that live in these strategic ecosystems – alternatives that really fulfil the vocation of the land, which is forestry, which is biodiversity.

This is extremely important because the social and economic inclusion of this population helps us with three objectives: to halt deforestation – which is, in short, to remove the basis of the work of illegal economies; to consolidate the social state and the rule of law; and to advance in the consolidation of peace. Currently, deforestation is closely associated with illicit economies, such as drug trafficking, illegal mining and massive land grabbing.

Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez
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DC: Previous ministers promised major actions to curb deforestation and nothing has changed. How can we believe that this time this problem will be tackled?

SM: We are now considering this as an integral state policy, not just as a problem that is only the responsibility of the environmental sector. The consequences are environmental, of course, but we need a very serious economic and social policy in these territories, and that goes far beyond the Ministry of Environment.

We must generate a new biodiversity economy, so that each deforestation hub becomes a hub for the forestry economy and ecological restoration. This implies that we have to offer campesinos credit and legal stability in terms of land ownership… and this is a joint effort by the entire state.

The other differentiating factor is the “Total Peace” policy of President Petro’s government. There is also the tool of criminal investigation. We have told the Attorney General’s office that what we are interested in are investigations into the financial flows and those who determine deforestation with political power – not the campesinos on the ground who are carrying out the operation, who cut down the tree.

We have been dealing with this issue in the same way as with coca leaf cultivation, criminalising the last link in the chain – the weakest – but that does not stop the problem. We need a comprehensive intervention and for farmers and communities to regain confidence in the state.

President Petro made a proposal to swap foreign debt in exchange for preserving the Amazon. Has there been progress on this?

Yes, it is still in place, and we are structuring it. But in addition to that, there are international mechanisms, such as a fund that the president announced at the UN General Assembly. Swaps for nature are important because in our difficult fiscal situation they help us to make a commitment on public policy.

We are going to establish synergies on all international cooperation. When I arrived at the ministry I realised that we have a lot of money coming from outside and it is scattered, fragmented, not linked to a public policy outcome. That is why one of the first things I did was to sit down with all the international donors to explain to them what our policy will be and where we need them to help the government, because we cannot continue with each one doing isolated projects without there being clarity on the environmental results, and without this being connected to a public policy.

Susana Muhamad with a microphone in her hand, sitting among a group of people.
Muhamad believes that “environmental democracy” is key: “It is the possibility of real participation and that includes the democratisation of information, to give more power to the people” (Image: Juan Fernando Betancourt / Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development)

After Mexico, Colombia is the country in with the highest number of murders of environmental defenders. When you arrived at the ministry, what strategies did you find in place to protect them?

I am going to tell you very directly: there was no strategy. Basically, for the Ministry of the Environment, this was seen as a problem for the National Protection Unit, to provide them with bodyguards, and for the Ministry of the Interior. During the transition from the previous government there were even officials who asked me what an “environmental leader” was, because they included them in a very broad category of “social leaders”. In the government’s internal protocols, the category of environmental defender did not even exist. That can’t be the case.

But we must also think about prevention, and prevention means helping to legitimise environmental defenders in their territories, recognising them as a legitimate voice that has the right to participate.

There is a stigma that was very common in my time as an environmental activist, and that I have continued to feel from the institutional level: branding environmental leaders as opponents of development and society. This isolates them and makes them more vulnerable, especially in the most violent regions of the country, which is why threats often end in assassinations. One way of prevention is for the Ministry of Environment to support these leaders, even in their right to disagree with government projects. For this we have formed a team of 35 people who will be in the territory, generating a permanent dialogue with them.

We have heard you speak several times about “environmental democracy”. What does that mean?

That the voice of the citizenry has a real weight in environmental decisions. For example, today, if a licence is going to be granted for a project, the business carries out an environmental impact study, presents it to the authorities and that is what is evaluated, but what is presented by the communities that are going to be affected is not evaluated with the same weight. It is the possibility of real participation and that includes the democratisation of information, to give more power to the people.

We are not talking enough about the vulnerabilities of the population, the risks they face, where we are going to accommodate them

The energy transition is one of President Petro’s flagship initiative. However, the government itself has sent contradictory messages on this issue…

We need to stop talking so much and draw up a roadmap for the energy transition, planned for 15 years. This should be built by the Ministry of Mines and Energy, in collaboration with all of us. What we are proposing is a planned, responsible transition, not something improvised, because the enemies of the process have wanted to caricature the issue and sell the idea that tomorrow we are going to do away with fossil fuels, and that is not the case. Colombia is one of the countries with the greatest potential for energy diversification.

Do we need to get to the point where Colombia lives and develops without hydrocarbons?

Not only Colombia – the world must do it.

And do you think this is feasible?

The world should reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030. The problem is that, even if we were to meet the voluntary commitments of the Paris Agreement, we would have 14% more emissions [to deal with]. If we believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the temperature is going to rise by more than two degrees by the end of the century, and if that happens, no one can model the consequences. That’s the gigantic risk we create by maintaining a civilisation dependent on fossil fuels.

Is this issue central to the discussion at COP27 in Egypt?

Emissions reduction should be the central issue, but it is not. More and more, it seems to me that this is not what the COP is about. There are countries like Russia, Iran, Iraq and all the OPEC countries that do not accept the IPCC reports. I feel that we are not talking enough about the vulnerabilities of the population, the risks they face, where we are going to accommodate them and how we are going to join global efforts on this issue. And nobody is exempt from the climate disaster that we are not prepared for. Not even the United States.

The problem is that there is no logic of multilateral cooperation, and the COP ends up being a meeting to mobilise financial resources. In the meantime, the population is increasingly vulnerable, food insecurity is increasing, pests are on the rise. I am quite pessimistic about this political reality, I think that what we have to do, responsibly, is to do everything we can at the micro level. To work in very practical ways with our communities in the territories.

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Brazil is looking at the possibility of offshore wind power generation. Has the government of Gustavo Petro proposed promoting this form of energy generation?

Colombia has potential in many types of energy that should be developed simultaneously, and we have to think about energy sovereignty – that they are sources of the country, for the country and that we do not depend on the international market, on oil. So, the principles of energy transition are: diversification, sovereignty, energy security and democratisation of energy production.

And for these purposes, can China be an ally in environmental issues?

China is an ally in terms of technology and large infrastructure projects, but the truth is that today our relationship with China on environmental issues does not exist. In these three months as minister, I have met with more ambassadors than with members of the communities, because international cooperation in the environmental sector is impressive – but I have not yet met with China.