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Colombia Election Highlights Unclear Natural Resource Policy from Political Parties

Throughout Colombia’s presidential campaign—which saw Iván Duque, the right-wing Centro Democrático Party’s candidate, sworn in this week—extractive industries-related issues received unprecedented attention from the public and the candidates.

The campaign touched on the possibility of using fracking as a strategy for oil exploration and extraction; the need for and characteristics of popular consultations with citizens regarding licensing and exploitation; and the possibility of reforming the royalties system.

Colombia is one of the 30 largest producers of crude oil in the world and in 2016 received USD 3.1 billion in revenues from the extractive industry. Although natural resources have played a crucial role in the country’s economic growth in the last decade, uncertainty remains on the next government’s real position toward complex natural resource governance issues.

Discouragingly, neither the candidates for president nor their parties seemed to voice informed and technically sound positions.

There was an acute lack of clarity on where candidates stood on fracking, for example. Candidates went from supporting the technology to cautioning research and a broader debate were still needed. Some of them supported the idea of not issuing any further permits that would allow this technology to be used. In some campaign speeches, fracking went from being an “attractive alternative” to completely off limits.

Shifting stances on fracking and other issues point to an urgent need to rethink and define long-term party positions on extractives that will give potential candidates and voters a clear idea of where political organizations stand. The royalties’ system reform that took place in Colombia in 2011 showed how complex these discussions are for political parties and politicians, with legislators’ regional interests clashing with party lines. 

In April, International IDEA and NRGI published a report on political parties and resource governance to guide political parties through building programmatic policy positions on very polarizing, very technical issues. With evidence from case studies, the report shows that solid policy positions can help minimize authoritarian tendencies, reduce conflict and strengthen institutions.

Political parties can also play a positive role in closing an implementation gap and contribute to the fight against real and perceived corruption. More specifically, in terms of resource wealth challenges, parties that develop programmatic positions can help countries get a good deal, support long-term projects, adapt to sector volatility and manage citizens’ expectations.

Next year, Colombia will hold local and regional elections. Hopefully, there will be a deeper debate around oil and gas and complexity of the mining sector, which so directly affects local communities. Usually there is a higher turnout in subnational elections than in national ones. Issues such as popular consultations, the use of fracking, and the review of certain contracts will be key for certain regions.

NRGI’s report on political parties and natural resource governance indicates developing an extractives platform requires a clear objective and scope, serious commitment from the different levels of the organization, proper planning and detailed analysis of different issue areas. This process should be supported by sector experts and informed by wide consultations. In the lead-up to subnational elections in Colombia, politicians and political parties should take note of this guidance.

Margarita Batlle is a capacity development officer with the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).

Latin America