PEAKS AND TROUGHS: NAVIGATING COMMODITY CYCLES AND FINDING PATHWAYS TO GREENER AND MORE INCLUSIVE GROWTH IN THE ANDES


It was like going back home, in some ways: the familiar smell and feel of the Andean tropics at 2,500 meters above sea level, the familiar cacophony of life on the busy streets of Bogotá, swelling now with over 9 million inhabitants; and the distinct chivalry and easy camaraderie that characterizes social interactions in South America, reminding me of the years I spent in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito and the many good people I met and interacted with over those formative years spent working at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Yet much had also changed - particularly since the time when, as a young boy, I lived with my parents in Chía, then a village on the outskirts of Bogota, and now virtually part of the metropolitan hub.

Colombia, as I discovered on this trip, is now roughly 75% urban, its citizens clustered around safe zones as years of conflict in rural areas took its toll, economically, socially, psychologically.

And, like many countries in the Andes, highly socially stratified, with some of the highest levels of income inequality, the largest gini coefficients, and a legacy of unequal endowments dating back to colonial times and that still haunts and pervades an economy largely based on resource extraction.

And yet: if there is a resilient and constantly innovating culture in South America, it is to be found in the headwaters of the Andes.

This came home to me during the course of the week I spent there, first in Cartagena contributing to the PAGE Regional Academy; and then, later in the week, when I headed to Bogota for consultations with partners and government officials keen on advancing a green growth agenda.

The PAGE Academy brought together over 50 participants from more than 10 countries in Central and South America, the Academy became a hub of learning and exchange: on fiscal policies, on modeling and measuring policy impacts, and building the social dialogues and platforms that enable policy makers and practitioners to communicate across disciplines and institutions.

Opened by the Minister of Labor from Colombia, Luis Garzón, the Academy also served as a rallying point for partners supporting a "just transition" from current economic policies and practices, to a future economy based on innovation, employment, and enhanced social equity - and of course, premised on and centered on improved human and environmental health.

From colleagues who heard the Minister speak, I learned of the great anticipation surrounding the upcoming Peace Accords, and hope that this spring, in 2016, Colombia can put its history of violent conflict behind it. And of the great opportunities for increased participation and employment that could derive from increased access and better management of Colombia's vast and ecologically rich and diverse ecosystems and landscapes.

Of course, the economic context in which Colombia - and indeed all of South America - finds itself is not auspicious: commodity prices, on which more than half of Colombia's export revenues are based, have plunged in the past year, marking the end of an oil and mineral extraction boom that brought economic growth to significant heights.

Yet, meeting later that week with the Minister - who expressed interest in PAGE as a possible vehicle for generating new decent and green jobs - and others, including colleagues from GGGI and the Departamento Nacional de Planeación, I couldn't help but feeling that Colombia was turning a corner, and would be emerging from the conflicts that have assuredly weighed on its growth and economic and social performance.

And indeed, in this, I was pleased and pleasantly surprised to find an anchor in the recently approved National Development Plan, which now contains a specific chapter on enhancing green growth.

Increasing the skills base, tapping (wisely) new resources, diversifying the economy away from a very exposed primary sector, revitalizing an industrial base that was once a large contributor to GDP and creating new job opportunities for the disenfranchised: what I heard and saw, led me to believe, that though Colombia is coming down from the peaks of a commodity boom, it has the wherewithal to emerge from the social and economic challenges facing it.

Certainly, navigating the peaks and troughs will not be possible without sacrifice, a shared sense of purpose, and a commitment to social justice that equals the zeal for continued economic expansion.

But with leadership of the like on display during this past week, it bodes well for Colombia, and indeed, for the continent.

A shared agreement that social dialogue and an economic transformation that is both socially just and environmentally sustainable - reaching across unions and employer associations and associations of banks to the public sector and beyond – seems like a great first step forward.

As I left Bogotá, reflecting on the many conversations and interactions over the course of the week, I was left with the distinct feeling that the leadership, capacity and commitment is there to navigate around the peaks and troughs, reshaping an economy that is both greener and more inclusive, geared for a new century of peace and prosperity.

Blog by Steven Stone - Chief of UNEP's Economics and Trade Branch (ETB) and the Green Economy Initiative