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Colombia racing to commit to Just Energy Transition in La Guajira?

Colombian government aims to accelerate energy transition in La Guajira by reducing environmental licence processing time, which could put local communities and the environment at risk


The Mining and Energy Ministry has proposed a bill to Congress aimed at reducing the environmental licence processing time for renewable energy projects in La Guajira – poised to become the Colombian department with the strongest potential for generating renewable energy – from 120 to 90 days. Specialists in the field show their opposition and question whether the local poverty-stricken population will reap any of the benefits. This article by Andrés Díaz Paez was produced with the support of Climate Tracker América Latina. It was translated for LAB by Valentina Hernández Gómez.

On February 21, energy provider Celsia (of parent company Grupo Argos Colombia) announced its plans to sell its wind energy project in Acacia and Camelia in the La Guajira peninsula in the north-east of Colombia. This move came in response to the prolonged processes of community consultation and environmental permit approval or modification. This is not the first time an energy stakeholder has complained about the system; in May 2023, Enel suspended its activities at Windepshi wind park, also in La Guajira. 

There are a total of 17 renewable energy projects in La Guajira department, and according to the Mining and Energy Ministry (MinMinas), only two are running on schedule. As for the rest, their progress has fallen to less than 30 percent, which means they have exceeded the deadline set to start operations. This list of delays will also include projects set to be licenced and commenced in the coming years, which according to the Department of Mining and Energetic Planning, sum up to 60. 

MinMinas recognises that the delays companies are complaining about are endangering one of the key aims of the current Petro government: the Just Energy Transition. Therefore, at the end of 2023, the ministry presented a draft bill to the Chamber of Representatives, which seeks to take measures around ‘energy poverty and the Just Energy Transition in La Guajira’. The Bill (343) will be debated in the coming weeks.

However, the project has already sparked mixed reactions from different sectors, with some believing that reducing the time for the environmental permits to be approved would be inconvenient, and would not solve any of the chronic issues that delay the projects’ entry into operations. They even claim that this move ignores a statement sent to several entities back in 2020 by the Attorney General’s Office. This statement, addressed to various national and local authorities, requested corrections to errors in the environmental licensing processes for renewable energy projects in La Guajira.

Why are renewable energy projects getting delayed in La Guajira? 

Dating back a few years now, La Guajira has positioned itself as the Colombian department with the most potential for generating renewable energy. Its geographical location favours it for these projects in terms of the strong wind it receives from the north coast, as well as high levels of solar radiation. 

Despite this potential, just 14.4 percent of the rural population of La Guajira (who make up half of the department’s total population) has access to electricity, there’s a deficit in the quality and quantity of housing available to them and, on top of this, 30 percent of the population doesn’t have access to clean water, as per the National Planning Department’s numbers. 

It is also important to mention that most of La Guajira is considered Indigenous territory, which means that communities must be consulted about any future project development processes. 

Joanna Barney, director of energy, environment and communities at the Institute for the Studies of Peace and Development (Indepaz), believes that because of communities’ vulnerability and the absence of the State, they ask companies seeking to develop their territories to provide them with ‘water, electricity and education’ as compensation. ‘All of these are rights, for which the State should be responsible,’ she said. 

Additionally, the Wayuu Indigenous communities are divided into more than 30 clans, and these are divided by families, which means they lack a ‘unified leadership’ when it comes to negotiating in prior consultations. A report by the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) published in November 2023 shows that neither the Ministry of Internal Affairs nor the Secretaries for Indigenous Matters have a clear sense of who the representatives of the Indigenous communities are. 

Luis Guillermo Baquero, manager for the ‘Mesa Más La Guajira’ at the National Industries Association [a board of companies interested in sustainable development in La Guajira], affirms that when companies come to negotiate with the communities, there are ‘up to five people certified by the communities for negotiations’, and that ‘there are private advisors present in the negotiations who do not defend the interests of the communities’. 

Regarding these issues, the draft bill proposes capacity building for members of these communities so that they can take part in negotiations as advisors. Christian Moreno, Master in Energetic Efficiency and Renewable Energies from La Costa University in Barranquilla, warns that for this to become a reality it is necessary to ‘directly approach the communities, listen to them, and understand who they actually want to be there to represent them.’ 

Moreno, who published a study in 2023 about the obstacles to developing energy projects in La Guajira, adds that the cultural and leadership issues are one problem, but they are not the most serious; ‘the biggest obstacle is the lack of transparency in policy and decision-making processes.’ 

To speed up these processes, the bill proposes to reduce the period of time that environmental authorities are given to approve or reject an environmental licence, from 120 to 90 days. This change would be expected to speed up the start of operations. However, some of the sources we consulted spot some important issues. 

Express environmental permits? 

In La Guajira, there are two environmental authorities in charge of the licensing process for renewable energy projects. The National Agency for Environmental Permits (ANLA) currently oversees projects seeking to generate over 100 megawatts (MW). The other authority is the Autonomous Corporation of La Guajira (Corpoguajira), which oversees projects between 10 and 100 MW. 

The delays in the environmental permit processes mentioned by Celsia on February 21 come under Corpoguajira’s remit. In 2023, EDP Renewables also reported delays in the licensing process with ANLA while seeking to build two of the biggest wind farms in the country. 

Reducing the time limit to 90 days, adds Rosa Peña, senior lawyer at the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defence, ignores the fact that neither entity has the administrative capacity to process licences in such a short period of time. ‘This could provoke risky decisions being made without sufficient technical grounding,’ said Peña. 

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The ANLA declined to give an interview, but replied in writing to our questions. The entity states that during 2023, ‘it gave timely responses to 98.68 percent of environmental permit applications’ and states that it has 43 officers in charge of responding to nationwide environmental permit requests for projects including energy, mining, hydrocarbons, insecticide production, and building of infrastructure for the agroindustry, amongst others. 

Wayuú families suffer the inconveniences that the wind farms have brought to the region. The noise from the wind turbines makes it hard to sleep, according to Elba Velázquez, a 54-year-old Wayuu woman who lives in one of the communities where the park was built. Photo: Sebastian di Domenico.

Read also: ‘Wind droughts stir fresh climate concerns’ by Santiago Wills from Sumaúma. Movements of air are essential to our planet’s vitality. But the winds are slowing just when we need them more than ever to turn our turbines, fertilise our crops and cool our cities.

The authority argues that if the time limit were changed, ‘necessary adjustments would be put in place so that officers keep exercising their duties with technical rigour, in a timely and transparent manner.’ 

Barney, from Indepaz, believes that time is not only an issue due to the small workforce in these institutions but also because of the lack of actual capacity for authorities to evaluate the environmental impact assessments that companies submit. ‘In the past, there have been projects approved that, for example, are installed on top of goat feeding stations, which represent a significant part of the community’s income. If an officer from Corpoguajira or ANLA doesn’t reach out to the communities to find this out, reducing the time limit will make everything more complex,’ she added. 

For Baquero, reducing Corpoguajira’s turnaround times should be accompanied by measures like ‘strengthening the environmental authority’s administrative and technical capacities.’ Without this, he says, reducing the time limits to 90 days would be ‘useless.’ 

But this would not be the only inconvenience. The draft bill also includes a proposal for permits for projects that would affect ‘a significant portion’ of the territory – such as Colectora 1 line, which would carry power generated in these wind parks across the rest of the country – to be accepted in instalments. 

In 2020, following an Indepaz investigation titled ‘The East Wind Comes with Revolutions: Multinationals and the transition to wind energy in the Wayuu territory,’ the Attorney General sent a request to several entities, including Minminas, ANLA and Corpoguajira, in which it pointed out a series of issues with the renewable energy projects in La Guajira. 

One of these is the fragmentation of the projects into different building phases. This works as a mechanism ‘that not only disaggregates the community’s right to have a say but also means developers dodge the jurisdiction of the national environmental authority.’ 

For Barney, this would increase disagreements with communities and ‘it might be that the environmental permit is granted, but if there is no social acceptance, the project would begin construction, only to be stalled.’ Baquero, from ANDI, adds that this would make the processes ‘more cumbersome’ for companies and that it would be more beneficial to conceive of ‘an all-encompassing environmental permit [not one given in separate phases].’ 

The General Attorney’s office asked the pertinent entities to establish which projects were being fragmented in order to avoid prior consultation processes. However, MinMinas themselves are now evaluating the possibility of fragmenting prior consultations to speed up the construction of big projects. 

For the purposes of this article, a questionnaire was sent on 14 February to find out Corpoguajira’s stance on the draft bill. We also tried to reach out again to MinMinas. However, at the time of publishing, no response had been given. 

Further questions arising from the draft bill 

One of the aims of the draft bill presented by MinMinas is ‘to overcome energy poverty’ in La Guajira, taking into account the population’s low levels of access to electricity. 

Geraldine Izaguirre, senior lawyer at AIDA, points out that no mechanism –not the draft bill nor the planning of energy generation farms– will guarantee that part of the energy generated will guarantee ‘the rights of La Guajira’s population.’ Companies are committing to supply energy to the national system, but, without the infrastructure that’s needed in La Guajira department, this energy will end up somewhere else. 

This is the second time that MinMinas has insisted on these kinds of measures: differential energy prices for the department, the financing of energy communities, and allowing Ecopetrol to build projects in the region. 

The first time was with decree 1276 of 2023, part of a group of measures adopted by the government within the economic, social and ecological emergency in La Guajira. Later that year, the Constitutional Court ruled against it as unconstitutional. ‘This draft bill is in most part, a copy of that decree,’ affirms Peña. 

This article was produced with the support of Climate Tracker América Latina. It was translated for LAB by Valentina Hernández Gómez.

Header image: Indepaz