Can renewables help post-war Colombia thrive?

 By Chris Dalby

Late last year, the Colombian government signed a peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group. This put an end to a 52-year war that killed more than 200,000 people, displaced 8 million and made the country an international pariah…

Today, as the FARC disarms and its members rejoin society, renewable energy could act as a catalyst for development, investment and jobs.
Prioritizing investment and development in the remote areas inhabited by the FARC is a mainstay of the peace deal. However, these pristine natural resources risk being obliterated in a rush by loggers and farmers.
Colombia has plenty of potential. “Winds in La Guajira have been classified as Class 7 (close to ten meters per second annual average), making it one of only two regions in Latin America to winds of this speed,” writes one research report. Orinoco and San Andres receive heavy sun for much of the year, making them priorities for solar plants. The biomass potential of its southern regions, where the FARC once roamed, is colossal.
Colombia is also facing the risk of rebellion flaring up again, especially if poor communities are not given opportunities for development as part of the peace process. Renewable energy can also be a major help here. As seen in Mexico, indigenous and rural communities have flourished when provided the opportunity to prepare the land, help build a wind or solar plant, and then work there. This also creates indirect jobs, helping to settle the community and reduce tensions.
A report by Norton Rose Fulbright shows to what extent rural energy development is vital to Colombia’s economic and political hopes. With 65 percent of Colombia’s energy coming from hydropower, the government has had little incentive to diversify. This is shown in its relatively unambitious renewable energy targets: “3.5 percent of on-grid and 20 percent of off-grid generation from renewable sources by 2015. This is to be increased to 6.5 percent and 30 percent respectively in 2020.”

However, prolonged drought is pushing Colombia’s water resources to the limit. Water shortages have mostly been felt in agriculture, with numerous crops going dry, but the knock-on impact on energy is strong. Energy rationing was in place in 2016, with water levels so low at certain reservoirs that power generators were damaged. So how can the FARC help this situation? Simply put, they are perfectly placed to kickstart renewable energies in Colombia’s poorer, rural areas.
For example, La Guajira, which contains Colombia’s first wind plant, has seen the FARC ask local authorities to involve them in local development plans. In a statement, the FARC wrote that “we understand peace must be built from these territories and hand in hand with local authorities.” The region has already seen a number of plans to develop local, clean energy resources, including the installation of 38 clean energy solutions at indigenous villages around La Guajira, sponsored by USAID. The region also cannot count on Colombia’s traditional abundance of water, and has been struggling to find alternate methods to store water.
Late last year, the camp of Fonseca in La Guajira became the first official “disarmament zone” in which hundreds of FARC soldiers streamed to settle and lay down their arms. That process is now complete.

Windmills at La Guajira, Colombia (Jorge Mahecha, Wikimedia)

Local resistance might be understandable, given the FARC’s legacy, but with a great number of able-bodied former guerrillas on one hand and rural zones begging for energy development on the other, there is a significant opportunity for the country.
Training programs for the FARC are already well underway. From converting to become coffee growers or baristas to becoming employed by the likes of Coca-Cola or Electrolux, the challenge of turning the guerrillas into productive members of society is progressing.
The news continues to break in this direction as both the FARC and the government have made recent strides towards a better renewable energy strategy. In June, news broke that several senior commanders had been building an ecological village in Guaviare, one of the zones with Colombia’s best solar potential. Then, in September, the government announced a $69 million investment to bring renewable energy to 60,000 people, many of them in rural areas where the FARC did roam. Integrating a peace process into a country’s long-term vision for sustainability may allow Colombia to truly prosper.

READ MORE: A renewable solution to Pakistan’s crisis? by Robin Wylie

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.