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Cross-Party delegation explores Peace, Human Rights and Climate in Colombia

From 27 – 31 May 2024, a BGIPU delegation of UK Members of Parliament visited Colombia to strengthen bilateral Parliamentary links. The delegation included Tim Loughton MP, Baroness Blower, Patrick Grady MP and Baroness Northover, and was supported by Holly Sloan from the BGIPU Secretariat.

The visit started days after the General Election was called, and two MPs therefore had to withdraw.  However, the remaining group was balanced – two Commons members, two from the Lords, two men, two women, one each from different parties – Conservative, Labour, SNP and Lib Dem.

This was my first visit to Colombia, and I found the visit very instructive. Colombia’s history of conflict, of drug cartels, its custodianship of the Amazon, is well known. The Peace Agreement of 2016 between the Government and FARC rebels was an extraordinary achievement. However, what we heard was very concerning. When the FARC demobilised, having occupied a third of Colombia, the state was supposed to arrive and invest in these areas.

The state has failed to do so, and armed groups, criminal activity, extortion, illegal gold mining, and drug cultivation have filled the vacuum. The inequalities, poverty, social exclusion, lack of land rights and human rights abuses which were all to be tackled as part of the settlement have been inadequately addressed.

Attempts by the current Government to try to reach agreements with the new groupings have been limited in their effect. It is a lesson in how hard it is to implement change, security and prosperity. It was suggested to us by external agencies that what is needed now is to prioritise a few strategic areas – to show the benefits of the rule of law. But vested interests as well as corruption were part of the challenge here.

We met Government and opposition leaders, political commentators, human rights defenders, those from multilateral organisations and NGOs and many others who contributed to our understanding. Because of the ungoverned spaces, deforestation was up by 40%, cocaine production up by 14%, violence against women and girls was endemic and the recruitment of children by criminal gangs was rife.

We heard that “we are always behind the criminals” – they were always one step ahead and that there are “a lot of boiling pots in Colombia”. We were asked to promote greater transparency on beneficial ownership, and freer flowing financial information, to assist. Strong international engagement was seen as helpful. The UK’s role, as penholder at the UN, was welcomed.

Climate change was also an issue we sought to explore. Colombia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world and (in the top four, with Brazil leading). We had hoped to visit the Amazon, and to see the work that is being done to reduce deforestation, to reforest, and to find alternative livelihoods. El Nino, on top of climate change, had deprived Colombia of water, so the reservoirs were dangerously low, but La Nina had now intervened, bringing rain and fog which prevented us from getting to Florencia.  That was a disappointment, given the importance of the region, the role that Colombia will play in hosting the next Biodiversity COP in Cali in October, and the fact that Brazil is hosting the climate change COP in 2025.

We heard that relevant research was further advanced in more mature economies, so that reforestation had been designed inappropriately for example with the use of eucalyptus around Bogota, rather than with species native to the region. We had been intending to see those who were conducting Amazonian research. We heard about links with Kew, though with funding now limited on this, we also heard this might not be renewed, which seemed extremely short sighted.

The challenges of the Amazon – poverty, environmental crime, lack of land rights, lack of protection of forests – are challenges for all of us. We heard a number of times how illegal gold mining was driving deforestation: 80% of the gold is illegally extracted, driven particularly by Russia, China and Iran. We heard about the UK’s Partnership for Sustainable Growth, now having lasted 5 years, and its promotion of the protection of the Amazon, energy transition, and emphasis on Colombian biodiversity. Colombia has the potential for benefitting from carbon markets and carbon credits, and has the greatest potential in wind power in Latin America. As with other Andean countries, it has the possibility of extracting critical minerals for renewables, but that any such extraction must be done in a sustainable way.

Colombia is seeking to play its part regionally, pushing Venezuela for free and fair elections, though with little prospect of success; it is hosting many refugees, though many are of course making their way up to the Darien Gap, seeking to head north. Colombia is a NATO partner country, and it drew upon its terrible history to assist in the clearance of land mines in Ukraine. It is developing a national action plan on women, peace and security, and has been passed the lead by the UK on preventing sexual violence against women in conflict. We will have to see what action it takes in these areas. There is a chapter on women in the peace agreement, and they are finally looking at relevant cases, which are immensely difficult to bring forward, and where there are many obstacles to justice.

The UK Embassy partnered with Colombia to hold a sustainable investment conference in London recently, bringing over 50 projects forward for investment, particularly in transportation, software, public services, renewables, tourism, and agribusiness. The Colombian Ministry of Trade is seeking to make such engagement easier. Concern was raised with us about how sustainability and traceability rules will be applied by the UK and the EU. Palm oil and cocoa were cited – these substitute for illicit crops, but their traceability in certain ungoverned areas can be challenging. Colombia is the world’s 5th largest coal exporter, mostly to Asia, but also to Europe, including the UK, and they wish to diversify away from this. They are seeking to add value in Colombia – not just selling coffee beans, but processed coffee, chocolate bars, not just cocoa beans.

The British Council was also flourishing in Colombia, evidence of soft power. Besides offering English language training and exams, it was running cultural projects and coding hubs. With English seen as vital to Colombia’s economic future, the British Council has been selected to help run an 8-year programme across all schools in the coastal city, Barranquilla, to make it a bilingual city.

It was impressed on us that considerable positive change had come about in Colombia; it looks forward to the biodiversity COP, but is acutely aware that further progress will depend on the peace process being advanced.

Baroness Northover