Resource-Rich Colombia's Green Energy Gambit

Global warming is a big problem in Latin America, but the private sector is busy developing alternative energy sources. Has the rush to innovate arrived in time?

EPM workers in Colombia
EPM workers in Colombia

BOGOTA — Colombia is one of the richest nations in natural resources, with 10% of the world’s biodiversity, and ecosystems that spread across 68.7% of the country. But climate change is wreaking havoc here, seriously threatening the availability of these precious resources.

The good news is that a thriving environmental business sector is working to innovate its way out of the problem. The most recent figures from the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) show that the country emits a very moderate amount of greenhouse gases — 180 million tons in 2004, just 0.37% of the global total. And yet, periods of drought in Colombia are becoming increasingly severe. This year, for example, IDEAM was forced to send warnings about water shortages in several regions when the levels of the Madgalena and Cauca rivers and their tributaries dropped precipitously.

These periods of drought present major challenges for Colombia's energy sector, according to Manuel Antonio Camacho, executive director of Sistema B, a community of companies that sell products looking to solve environmental and social problems.

First, in accordance with regulatory requirements, 77% of the electricity generated during an average year in Colombia comes from hydroelectric power stations. So essentially, the country’s energy security depends in large part on a normal rain cycle and the resulting rainwater being available to produce power.

Second, indiscriminate clear cutting and other factors reduce vegetation, which leads to soil erosion and river sedimentation, which can in turn block water to the electricity plants. Lack of vegetation also reduces the amount of available water, as plants store it during winter for use in summer.

Capitalism to the rescue

But Camacho believes that his companies have one serious advantage, in that the energy sector is constantly innovating to respond to new challenges just like those posed by climate change. The energy companies will always have to be “diversifying energy sources in order to access the furthest outlying regions and have less of an impact on the environment.” He says that they simultaneously must work toward greater sustainability. “This is the leap forward that Colombia needs for the 21st century.”

For example, Codensa and Emgesa, two of Colombia’s biggest energy companies, place significant emphasis on environmental preservation in their sustainable development policy, not least because water and light are their primary materials. Both companies see clear benefits to supporting sustainability. “Protecting ecosystems guarantees the water supply required to generate hydroelectricity and distribute it,” one company statement says. Another of their objectives is to decrease all forms of pollution, including CO2 emissions and sound.

In terms of promoting zero emissions, both Codensa and Emgesa plan to incorporate electric vehicles into their work fleets. So far, they have 16 electric vehicles, close to 30 electric motorbikes and 100 electric bicycles as part of a program called E-bike to Work.

The program’s participants have already completed almost 8,000 trips — 63,000 kilometers cycled, 3,000 hours saved in transport time (118 days) and a reduction of 2.8 tons in carbon emissions. In a city like Bogotà, where transport is responsible for almost 40% of the greenhouse gases generated, the initiative is not just interesting but also crucial.

Codensa and Emgesa are also working on a project called Bosque Endesa, which aims to protect and restore 690 hectares (1,500 acres) of woodland in the Bogotá river basin by substituting non-native species like eucalyptus with their native counterparts. This will help the soil and rivers recover and usher in the return of wild flora and fauna. There are now no fewer than 50 species of trees and bushes, 70 types of birds and 12 types of mammals, including sloths, in the program’s zones.

Protect and preserve

Alongside these innovating sustainability projects, the two companies are also running an education campaign about the environment and efficient energy consumption. Since the companies were founded in 1997, clients, employees and partners have all benefitted.

Other energy-sector businesses are also embracing renewable practices. Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), which provides electricity and water, says that “protecting woodland, conserving water and maintaining water quality, and committing to fight climate change” are among its key strategic sustainability objectives.

EPM’s established a climate change policy in 2012 and committed to institute further strategies to tackle the causes and minimize the consequences of this problem.

The results are already visible. The company protects almost 37,000 hectares (91,000 acres) of vegetation and woodland in reservoir basins and leading projects such as the Jepírachi wind farm (the only one in operation in Colombia), which reduces carbon emissions by 20,000 tons a year. And it is implementing others, such as mini hydroelectric plants that can reduce CO2 emissions by 50,000 tons per year.

In the same way, EPM has thrown itself, very successfully, into research on sustainable development. A percentage of operating income is invested in innovative projects linked to issues such as energy efficiency, renewable energies, climate change and water availability. The result of this work is that 85.5% of the energy it provides now comes from renewable sources.

Isagen is on the same path. The company recognizes that each time an area of land is chosen for a project, the natural balance will be altered and environmental changes will ensue. So it has an environmental management policy allowing it to identify and evaluate potential issues, assess the risks and implement mitigation and compensation strategies for the impact of its operations in that area. Its environment policy has two components: biophysical issues, whereby they aim to protect, conserve and improve the natural heritage of the project zones; and social issues, whereby they aim to identify the impact on local populations and resolve any problems.

In its chairman’s report last year, the company acknowledged that hydroelectric production decreased approximately 14% compared with 2011. This drop was essentially due to changes in the hydrology of the source basins, and therefore it establishes a number of objectives to help mitigate the effects of climate change, among them wind and geothermal projects.

Colombia is advancing quickly at a regional level in its search for alternative energies, and the government is intensifying its efforts, says Yessica Jacob, director of social responsibility for Findeter (a development bank linked to the Colombian government that provides credit for sustainable projects). She says regulations and clear incentives are needed to promote the initiative. Also, the technical transition required in any switch to renewable energies involves a certain amount of risk, so tax support may encourage businesses to take the leap.

Findeter is currently assessing cities such as Barranquilla, Bucaramanga and Montería, which hope to become sustainable cities. These communities are learning, for example, how to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions, how to identify and map environmental vulnerabilities, and how to take steps forward in assuring a dependable water supply. A true example for the rest of the country.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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