Unlike most other Latin American countries, Colombia began establishing environmental programs and regulations decades ago. Between 1968 and 1993, the National Institute of Renewable Natural Resources (Instituto Nacional de los Recursos Naturales Renovables, INDERENA) was the federal agency responsible for environmental protection. At the time of its creation it was under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1976, 18 local bodies, referred to as corporaciones autonomas regionales (CARs), were given responsibilities in assisting INDERENA at the regional level.
In 1974 the National Renewable Resources and Environmental Protection Code - one of the world's first environmental protection acts - was issued. Under it, and until 1993, environmental responsibilities were shared by INDERENA; the Ministries of Health, Public Works, Defense, and Energy; the National Planning Department; the departmental governments; and municipal authorities.
During 1991 to 1995, the National Constitutive Assembly and the National Congress restructured environmental policies. Colombia's 1991 Constitution contains 23 articles relating to environmental protection and is one of the most advanced in South America in this regard.
One goal of the new constitution was to create a solid structure for regional and local participation in environmental management. This was accomplished by decentralizing some administrative, political, and planning functions. According to the Constitution, the attorney general's office, local mayors, and health officials all have the power to fine or even close down facilities that violate environmental regulations. For example, in 1997 Bogotá’s Department of Health temporarily closed 12 factories for air pollution violations.
The Constitution of 1991 also encouraged public participation in the environmental planning process. It granted collective citizens’ rights in this regard and affirmed the right of the state to prevent environmental damage if necessary by seizing private property or otherwise acting to protect Colombia's natural resources.
In 1993, Congress passed Law 99 of 1993 which established the Ministry of Environment, created 16 new CARs wholly dedicated to environmental matters, and transformed 18 older ones into broad environmental agencies. (The CARs had originally been designed to promote economic growth and social well-being through the construction of water resources engineering works. For example, the Cauca Valley CAR initiated its water pollution control program in 1976.) Special environmental protection agencies (EPAs) were eventually created in Bogotá (Departamento Administrativo de Medio Ambiente de Bogotá, DAMA), Cali, Medellín, and Barranquilla (DADIMA).
Law 99 of 1993 also established a National Environmental Council (Consejo Ambiental Nacional) to coordinate environmental programs among the various ministries that form the government.
Colombia's environmental protection system is most highly developed in the water and wastewater sectors, and over the past several years, the government has made some important changes in its oversight of water and wastewater treatment. First, the Ministry of Development established the Vice Ministry of Water, Housing, and Urban Development Office. This office took over responsibility for the water and wastewater sectors from the Ministry of Public Works. In addition, a Potable Water and Sanitation Directorate (DAPS) and a Water and Sanitation Regulatory Commission (CRAS) were created under the Ministry of Development.
The CRAS oversees wastewater, sewerage, and sanitation services, with tasks including the definition of efficiency criteria and quality standards, setting tariffs for regulated public services, and promoting competition for services management. Even though the DAPS and CRAS are regulatory offices, they do not incorporate any environmental costs or considerations into their estimates of marginal costs, which they use to set rates. The definitions of efficiency criteria tariffs for regulated public services related to wastewater have no regulatory basis. At present, CRAS does not have any plan to regulate wastewater.
Finally, Public Services Law of 1994 established a Superintendency of Domestic Public Services (SSPD). The SSPD is set up as a powerful entity with responsibilities for the general administration and control of policies, including establishing uniform accounting systems, supervising the proper administration of subsidies, and enforcing regulations. Potable water and sewerage services are currently provided by public utilities or municipalities.
The decentralization of Colombia's pollution control responsibilities is most clear in the case of water and wastewater control, but it exists in all the sectors. It emphasizes local environmental conditions, community interests and priorities, and overall regional adaptability. This decentralization - especially in the case of the polluter-pays law - has been praised as “innovative and very progressive” by David Wheeler, principal economist at the Environmental Policy Group of the World Bank.
Equally progressive has been Colombia's encouragement of private-sector involvement, particularly as embraced in the 1994 Public Services Law. For example, a $700 million program for cleaning up the Bogotá River involves building three new treatment plants for industrial, agricultural, and domestic waste discharges. A contract for the construction and operation (30-year concession) of the first of these facilities was awarded to Degremont-Lyonnaise des Eaux, which will charge the city a tariff per cubic meter. National Development Plans
The 1991 Constitution requires each newly elected government to draft a development plan for its term of office. Following its acceptance by Congress, this plan then becomes Law of the Republic.
For example, the national development plan of President Samper’s government set policy for the 1994-1998 term and was adopted by Congress as Law 88 of 1995. The environmental element of this plan is entitled Towards Sustainable Human Development and sets goals for (1) promoting a new culture of development, (2) improving the quality of life, (3) promoting clean production, (4) developing sustainable environmental management, and (5) guiding population behaviors.
One objective of the 1994-1998 plan was to improve environmental compliance and management through the institution of a National Sustainable Development Policy (Política Nacional de Desarrollo Sostenible, PNDS). The PNDS included educational efforts; the establishment of a partnership for increasing social capital, graduality, national policies, and decentralized management; citizen participation; and scientific and technical support. It defined seven “priority action” programs for improving environmental management:
strategic ecosystem protection,
clean seas and coasts,
better cities and villages,
population policy, and
A key component of the PNDS is its goal of getting the productive sectors to obtain and use environmentally safe technologies. One mechanism for accomplishing this was the establishment of an incentive program promoting clean production. The Clean Production Program has been strengthened through several bilateral agreements; international technical cooperation, particularly with Canada, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, has been especially effective in the air- and water-quality sectors and the solid-waste sector.
Regional and local authorities also have planning responsibilities. For example, DAMA, the EPA for the city of Bogotá, has put forth an Environmental Management Program that offers plans for the control of air and water pollution, the handling and disposal of solid wastes, dealing with industrial pollution, and protecting or improving the environment in Bogotá’s public spaces.
The National Development Plan of President Pastrana’s government is not yet available at the time of writing.
Colombia's long process of developing national environmental protection policies has led to a complex system of responsibility. The National Planning Department (Departmento Nacional de Planeación, DNP) coordinates planning offices in the federal ministries, departmental assemblies, regional corporations, and municipal planning secretariats. The DNP and the Ministry of Environment both have responsibilities relating to the drafting of overall national environmental policy. However, the CARs and municipal agencies have some authority in defining local regulations and policies.
The entire system is therefore fragmented, convoluted, and ambiguous. Such disorganization benefits the industry associations, and the effects of their active participation in the drafting of every piece of environmental legislation are evidenced here. The slow pace of promulgation in recent years - Colombia still lacks effective legislation in some areas despite its pioneering activities of the 60s and its environmentally conscientious constitution - similarly demonstrates the power and effectiveness of the associations and lobbyists.
There are also environmental authorities at the department level. They are generally established as environmental secretariats, with responsibilities in the following areas:
conservation of parks and natural areas,
the definition of environmental improvement programs for certain industrial sectors,
the definitions of some environmental regulations, and
possibly some research.
Current Federal Regulations
Under the current structure, the Ministry of Environment retains responsibility for designing water pollution control and air pollution control regulations, which are then enforced through the CARs. Decree 1594 of 1984 established water-quality standards for receiving water bodies. Those standards cover biological oxygen demand (BOD), total suspended solids (TSS), oil and greases, heavy metals, and some pesticides. Law 99 of 1993 and Resolution 273 of 1997 established BOD and TSS pollution taxes.
Colombia's air pollution control regulations were poorly designed and cannot be enforced. Nevertheless, Decree 02 of 1982 set maximum permissible levels of sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide, and other air pollutants from stationary sources. Decree 948 of 1994 and Resolution 898 of 1995 established emission standards for mobile sources. In 1996, the Ministry of Environment issued regulations that require, by 1999, new vehicles to have catalytic converters and evaporative emission canisters. The regulations also require older cars to control their exhaust emissions according to a sliding scale of permissible emission levels.
Despite federal laws, some local governments have tried to exercise some control over air pollution. For example, Bogotá’s Department of Health temporarily closed 12 factories in 1997 and ordered them to install improved stacks, furnaces, boilers, and filters and to use cleaner fuels. Interestingly, Bogotá’s municipal asphalt plant, owned and run by the city's Department of Public Works, was one of the facilities shut down. It had been releasing high amounts of lead and sulfur.
Colombia lacks national legislation pertaining to the management and disposal of municipal solid wastes. In August 1997, the National Environmental Council approved an Integrated Policy for Solid Waste Management, but it has not yet been implemented. Although municipal programs exist, they are, in the words of the Ministry of Environment, “largely inefficient and poorly managed.” Overall, the handling of municipal solid wastes is deficient.
The situation with industrial and hazardous wastes is also deficient. Not only is federal legislation lacking, but the generators of hazardous wastes, the locations of dumping sites, the composition of wastes, and the particular handling practices are largely unknown.
Law 99 of 1993 gives the president and his Minister of Environment the power to implement environmental regulations and ensure compliance. The Attorney General for Environmental Affairs is responsible for formally charging and penalizing organizations or individuals who violate the Natural Resources Code (Decree 2811 of 1974). Law 99 of 1993 also established the National Environmental Fund (Fondo Ambiental Nacional), which is used to finance the government's environmental protection activities. The fund itself was designed under a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to the Colombian Government in 1994.
The CARs have primary responsibility for executing environmental regulations. Some of these corporations are financed by the central government from the national budget. Cauca Valley CAR has been particularly active and effective.
The national government's budget for environmental regulatory agencies in 1996 was approximately $100 million; budgets for the CARs vary, depending on location and actual funding sources but they can be quite high. For example, in 1996 the Cundinamarca CAR procured more than $60 million in resources.
Beginning in 1994, under the Initiative for the Americas program, the Colombian and United States governments jointly funded some natural resource conservation projects developed by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The intermediary for this funding has been ECOFONDO, which finances resource conservation projects carried out by NGOs. (The National Environmental Fund, on the other hand, finances government conservation projects.)
It should be noted, however, that only small fractions of these budgets go toward the design and enforcement of regulations. For example, the federal Ministry of Environment allocates only 3 percent of its budget to enforcement. Both the Ministry and the CARs invest large percentages of their budgets in conservation projects, particularly in establishing and operating national parks, reforesting, and managing watersheds.
A good level of enforcement seems ensured in the area of BOD and TSS pollution charges as stipulated in the polluter-pays law.
It is a matter of constitutional law that the attorney general's office, local mayors, and health officials all have the power to fine or even close down facilities that violate environmental regulations. For example, in 1997 Bogotá’s Department of Health temporarily closed 12 factories for air pollution violations.
At best, enforcement is difficult when regulations are ambiguous or contradictory. Enforcement has been a particular problem in solid wastes: Colombia's only law was retracted in 1996 on the ground that it was ambiguous, technically deficient, and unenforceable.
Finally, in many areas, regulations are lacking completely and enforcement is therefore not possible. The most egregious example is hazardous wastes, where the waste stream has not even been characterized, and where current and past practices (and dumping sites) are largely unknown.
Colombia is party to a number of international environmental agreements, including the following:
Nuclear Test Ban,
Ozone Layer Protection,
Tropical Timber 83, and
Tropical Timber 94.
Colombia has also signed, but not ratified, the following: