In this interview Vanessa Torres, Deputy Director of de Ambiente y Sociedad, explains the progress and obstacles that this process has had. Although there is a willingness to open up participation with communities and civil society organizations, several recommendations from the public have yet to be included.

Vanessa Torres, deputy director of Environment and Society. / Courtesy

Behind the large infrastructure projects and the strengthening of public policies that surround Colombia, is the multilateral bank. Giants like the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) decide where and how much to invest. Measures that, at the same time, define the path of the country and the communities that are directly affected by these projects. For a couple of years, both the public branch of the IDB and the private branch (IDB Invest) have updated their social and environmental policies.

Vanessa Torres, researcher at  Ambiente y Sociedad, as well as various representatives of organizations and communities throughout the region, have been “backstage” of this process. In this interview, she speaks about the achievements and challenges to ensure that the IDB group has more sustainable policies, as well as including the affected communities in these types of decisions.

What has happened recently with IDB Invest’s environmental and social policies?

-At the end of 2018, IDB Invest announced the update of its environmental and social policy during 2019. They say that this update will be done with the participation of citizens in a virtual way, but there we saw a problem. So as civil society organizations in Latin America, we ask them for a space for dialogue in the quarters in Bogotá and we suggested that these consultations should be in person because in the region not all people, especially ethnic and peasant communities, have access to the internet. In addition, in a face-to-face process, access to information, transparency and citizen participation are guaranteed.

-And they accepted?

-Yes. And we see that as progress. The IDB Invest accepts these conversations and defines four public consultations in the region, one of them in Colombia. Here, at Ambiente y Sociedad, we promoted the participation of communities that have been affected by projects financed by the bank. And we also made the recommendation that those technical documents on environmental and social policy, with legal language, be presented in a simpler way so that the public would understand it. That was the good thing.

-And the bad?

-We solicited them to previously share the agenda to tell them which points to prioritize

-Why?

-Because that consultation lasted half a day, it was very short and we could not lose time. This recommendation was ignored and the agenda focused on a preliminary analysis of the policy, which had already been done previously in coordination with the communities in a training process around the new policy and the ongoing process. This was complex because communities from Chocó, Antioquia and Santander traveled to Bogotá to participate in this session and we hoped it would have a wider space to guarantee feedback.

-In other words, the IDB Invest did not accept any recommendation…

-As a result of the updating process, IDB Invest did not take into account the recommendations made in the face-to-face consultations and in the technical documents sent to the institution. Despite all the effort to mobilize civil society. It approved the same regulatory framework that had been proposed in the first draft.

-In summary, what was the biggest advance?

-That there was a willingness to speak, dialogue, with civil society and communities. It was not the custom of IDB Invest to generate spaces for dialogue with citizens; currently, in addition to consultations, we have been able to dialogue with the Board of Executive Directors, an important representative body of the Bank, which is open to continue strengthening dialogue with the organizations of civil society in the region.

-How was the process with the IDB from its branch of public financing?

-The first thing to say is that the IDB in charge of financing the States has stopped investing in development projects. Such as infrastructure, due to the social and environmental impacts generated. Instead, it has been more dedicated to financing public policies. For example, it is financing the institutional strengthening of the Attorney General’s Office, a fundamental control entity to guarantee human rights in an investment context. But the problem is that environmental and social policies do not include those loans that finance public sector, and that is a first criticism that we made. It only applies to specific projects. Thereby, we see a contradiction!

-How has the process of updating this policy taken place?

-In 2020, this update begins. We also had a space for dialogue with them in April of this year, where we discussed the need for public consultations. As they already had the antecedent of the process with IDB Invest, they said there was a willingness to hold these consultations, which began in February. Four face-to-face sessions were achieved in Peru, Panama, Argentina and Jamaica, before the pandemic.  We, Ambiente y Sociedad, were able to participate in those of Panama and Peru. Mainly in the Lima consultation, there was a great participation of indigenous peoples. In the case of Colombia, representatives of peasant and Afro communities participated, the latter were key to promoting the inclusion of Afro peoples within the social and environmental policy, since they had been excluded in the first draft. That was one of the achievements.

-And what was the good thing?

-One was that the process lasted two days. They listened to the recommendation that we had given them when the process with IDB Invest took place. The other was that the Human Rights framework incorporated into the policy was weak, it was necessary to recognize regional instruments such as the Escazú Agreement. Precisely in the final draft this recommendation is addressed and regarding the rights of access to information, citizen participation and environmental justice is included based on the provisions of the Escazú Agreement.

-Another important achievement is that an exclusion list was incorporated, which is basically the clarification of what activities the IDB will not finance. The mining and hydrocarbon projects in exploration and exploitation were left out. As a civil society, we insist on the exclusion of activities such as fracking or hydroelectric projects precisely because of the social and environmental impacts generated by Hidroituango in Colombia. From these advances, the need for constant articulation by civil society and how strong and powerful civil participation can be in these high-level scenarios is demonstrated. In fact, what we want to do with this process is that citizens understand the role of these institutions and approach the processes of incidence and pressure them to avoid environmental and social impacts, which directly affect the life of entire communities, and alter the flora and fauna. Fauna of strategic ecosystems. Citizens must understand that it is possible to demand from these institutions.