in Canada, Colombia, USA

How free trade agreements threaten to undermine conservation in Colombia

Colombia FTA and REDD“What we need is a new model of development for countries with tropical forests,” says Maria Claudia García, National Director of Forestry, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services at the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development in Colombia. According to Garcia, REDD is a “new vision”.

REDD is certainly well funded in Colombia.

In 2013, the UN-REDD programme agreed to give Colombia US$4 million for the country’s REDD National Programme. Colombia has received US$3.5 million through the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and more than US$26 million from other sources for REDD readiness activities. In addition, USAID has handed over US$14 million through its BioREDD programme.

In 2015, Germany’s development bank KfW, and the governments of Norway and the UK agreed to pay a total of US$100 million if Colombia reduces emissions from deforestation.

None of this funding, however, represents anything like “a new model of development”, as two recent free trade disputes reveal.

Mining versus conservation

In February 2016, Cosigo Resources (Canada), Cosigo Resources Sucursal Colombia (Colombia) and Tobie Mining and Energy Inc (USA) filed a notice of arbitration under the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The dispute is about a gold mining concession in the Taraira region near Colombia’s border with Brazil.

In October 2009, Colombia established the Yaigoji Apaporis national park, which covers the area of the mining concession. The mining concession was signed on the same day that the government published its resolution to set up the national park.

Indigenous peoples organisations supported the national park. But one indigenous organisation, the Association of Indigenous Communities of Tairara and Vaupés (ACITAVA), filed legal challenges against the park, claiming that they had not been properly consulted. The reality was that Cosigo had organised and paid for ACITAVA’s opposition to the park. Indigenous members of ACITAVA made a public apology saying that they had been misled. They also declared their support for the creation of the national park.

In 2015, Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld the decision to create the national park.

The three mining companies are hoping for either the return of the mining concession, or US$16.5 billion compensation. That’s the market value of the project, although the mining companies don’t explain how they arrived at this sum.

Mining versus conservation, again

In March 2016, Eco Oro Mineral Corp, a Canadian mining company, filed a Notice of Intent to arbitrate under the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Since 1994, Eco Oro has been carrying out mining exploration in the Páramo de Santurbán. Colombia’s páramos are unique high-altitude wetland ecosystems, high in biodiversity, and important sources of fresh water.

The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation backed the project in 2009 by buying US$11 million in shares of Eco Oro. In 2012, the Committee in Defense of the Water and Páramo of Santurbán filed a complaint with the IFC’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman about IFC’s investment in Eco Oro.

Of course, that is the same World Bank that is supposedly helping to protect Colombia’s environment through its Forest Carbon Partnership Facility.

In January 2013, part of the Santurbán was declared a national park and in February 2016, Colombia’s Constitutional Court decided that the part of the country’s National Development Plan that permitted mining in páramos was unconstitutional.

On its website, Eco Oro complains about,

[T]he Government’s unreasonable delay in clarifying the limits of the Santurbán Páramo and whether it overlapped with the Angostura Project and its persistent failure to provide clarity as to Eco Oro’s right to continue developing its mining project in light of further undefined requirements and later as a consequence of the Constitutional Court’s decision of February 8, 2016, which has broadened the prohibition of mining activities in páramo areas.

Free trade versus REDD?

The mining companies can bring these claims against the Colombian government because of laws in the free trade agreements for investor-state dispute settlement.

Here’s how the Economist describes the investor-state dispute settlement parts of free trade agreements:

If you wanted to convince the public that international trade agreements are a way to let multinational companies get rich at the expense of ordinary people, this is what you would do: give foreign firms a special right to apply to a secretive tribunal of highly paid corporate lawyers for compensation whenever a government passes a law to, say, discourage smoking, protect the environment or prevent a nuclear catastrophe. Yet that is precisely what thousands of trade and investment treaties over the past half century have done, through a process known as “investor-state dispute settlement”, or ISDS.

On average there have been 40 investor-state dispute settlement cases each year since 2004. (There were more in 2012 and 2013 – 59 and 54 respectively.) The biggest award to a company so far is US$2.3 billion to US oil company Occidental against the government of Ecuador.

Colombia has signed free trade agreements with several countries including the USA, Canada, China, Chile, India, and the EU. It is in FTA negotiations with Brazil, Israel, Korea, and Costa Rica.

A USAID-funded video apparently aimed at encouraging investment in REDD in Colombia, explains that,

“REDD+ is an internationally verified and monitored mechanism that rewards communities for maintaining or enhancing the carbon stored in their forests.”

Which all sounds very nice, but there is nothing in the video about how REDD might address deforestation from mining, illegal logging, coca cultivation, industrial plantations, or any other drivers of deforestation.

It will be interesting to see how Colombia’s US-supported REDD programme addresses the contradictions between REDD and the US-Colombia free trade agreement. My guess is that it won’t.

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  1. What have been the accomplishments with REDD in Colombia since funding began in 2013?

  2. The greed of these corporations has no limit and will drive us all to the end.