Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ministry of the Environment or Ministry of Sales?

Environmental protector or salesman? Gabriel Vallejo, left, being sworn in by Pres. Santos in August.
The present one's an expert in customer service. The previous one was a geologist who came from the Amoco and Ecopetrol oil companies. Her predecessor was a journalist, lawyer and ex-peace negotiator. And his predecessor had been Colombia's peace commissioner. Before him came an economist who had headed the chamber of commerce of construction companies.

Mining rights and 
No, I'm not talking about CEOs of some big company, but of Colombia's last several ministers of the environment.

Can't Colombia find even one environmentalist to put in charge of protecting the environment?

Environment ministers have been changing at a rate of one per year - or even faster recently. It looks like the president's using the environment ministry as a sort of a placeholder. Got an official who's in favor, but no appropriate place for him or her? 'Well, just stick 'em in the environment ministry - the pay and benefits are good, and they can't do any harm.'

The current minister, Gabriel Vallejo, was appointed in August to protect Colombia's great biodiversity after a career in insurance, at a cookie company and running a television station. If Vallejo got his job at the behest of big business, he's not disappointing them. He's already angered environmentalists by issuing a decree this week aimed at speeding up the issuance of licenses to miners, oil drillers and other companies, who have been complaining about Colombia's supposed slowness at green-lighting resource extraction. Vallejo says the new, more efficient licensing process will also be more rigorous and demanding of the companies. Let's wait and see.
Dropping and dropping.The environment agencies'
budget as a percentage of total Colombian
government budget.
(Chart: Semana/Guillermo Rudas Lleras.)

Manuel Rodríguez was an academic who served as Colombia's first environmental minister from
1993-96. A true environmentalist, Rodríguez had worked to create the ministry in the first place. After leaving the ministry, he worked for international forest protection organizations and helped create Colombia's National Environmental Forum.

In an interview with BluRadio, Rodríguez predicted the new licensing decree would "aggravate already existing deficiencies" in the environmental licensing system. The environmental ministry lacks the technical capacity to evaluate complex projects, Rodríguez added.
The Ministry of the Environment
 - a sales unit?

Colombia's previous president, the arch-conservative Alvaro Uribe, actually eliminated environment as a stand-alone ministry and combined it with housing - of all things. In 2011 Pres. Santos (under pressure from Washington, which wanted to get a free trade agreement passed) gave the environment its own ministry again. But if environmentalists believed that would give green issues real priority in one of the world's most biodiverse nations, they've been disappointed.

Ex-minister and environmentalist Manuel Rodriguez.
According to a recent commentary by environmental economist Guillermo Rudas Lleras, in 1998, Colombia dedicated 0.72% of the government's general budget to environmental agencies, equivalent to 0.18% of the gross domestic product. Since then, those numbers have plummeted to 0.24% and 0.06% respectively.

I have the sensation that I've written this column before - because I have,, about previous environmental ministers. And I have the dreadful feeling that I'll write it again, next year, when Vallejo's been switched out for another salesman or businessman.

I'm waiting for the day that they put an environmentalist in charge of the ministry of mines. Imagine the protests about Colombia being hostile to business - as tho taking protecting the environment didn't also benefit the economy.

There's no doubt that Vallejo, the current minister, is a talented guy. In fact, he's written two successful books about marketing and customer service. Unfortunately, it looks as tho as minister his clients are big industries, not Colombia's endangered species.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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