Rural Columbian CommunitiesA geographically and economically diverse country, Colombia experiences a high poverty rate, with around 39.3% of its 50 million inhabitants living in poverty as of 2021. Although the national poverty rate has declined from the 42.5% peak that it reached at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the country’s progress in reducing poverty has been limited to urban areas: according to the World Bank, poverty in rural Colombia in fact increased from 42.9% to 44.6% between 2020 and 2021. Difficulty in expanding the grid to reach the country’s remote rural communities has limited their access to electricity, among other resources, and exacerbated the rural-urban divide. However, renewable energy holds the potential to improve life and livelihoods in rural Colombian communities, foster equitable economic growth and reduce the country’s poverty rate as a whole.

Colombia’s Renewable Energy Potential

Colombia already embraces renewable energy, long relying on hydroelectric power for up to 77% of its energy needs, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Yet, changing weather patterns and climate shocks like droughts have increasingly compromised the reliability of hydroelectric power. Furthermore, the maintenance of such systems has posed a challenge.

For instance, in 2011, a school in the small rural village of San Antonio installed a micro-hydroelectric power plant in hopes of ensuring access to reliable and affordable power for students and teachers. Yet, due to insufficient servicing and installation, the plant’s efficiency fell short, providing only five hours of electricity per day. This highlights the need for proper implementation and ongoing maintenance for the sustained reliability of renewable energy sources. Moreover, diversifying energy profiles in rural Colombian communities could enhance reliability and establish long-term solutions for addressing poverty.

On the bright side, Colombia holds great potential for energy diversification, with many rural Colombian communities presenting ideal conditions for wind and solar energy generation. Since these communities are off-grid, renewable energy plants and infrastructure can be tailored to their specific strengths and needs, enabling rural Colombian communities to implement locally suitable and sustainable energy production methods, as is being done on Colombia’s Providencia Island.

Impact on Education

Implementing reliable renewable energy infrastructure could significantly help improve education in rural Colombian communities. For example, even the five-hour daily supply of electricity that the San Antonio school generated with its hydropower plant was unreliable due to ongoing work on dams in the area. Power outages frequently reduced planning time for teachers and study hours for students. Additionally, the school’s health center, a vital community resource, lacked sufficient power to refrigerate vaccines and anti-venom serum, putting the many students who boarded at the school and inhabitants of this geographically-isolated community at great risk. 

Across rural Colombian communities, a lack of reliable electricity has hindered students’ learning, teachers’ teaching capabilities and schools’ ability to provide essential medical care, safe drinking water and basic sanitation services. Consequently, USAID and organizations like Tierra Grata have prioritized the implementation of reliable renewable energy resources in Colombia’s off-grid, rural regions. Already, the combined efforts from these organizations are making a significant impact on students, teachers and entire communities.

For instance, as part of a larger initiative “to develop renewable energy projects” in rural Colombian communities, USAID stepped in to help repair San Antonio’s hydropower plant, install supplementary renewable energy infrastructure and provide solar lamps for teachers’ home use. As one teacher noted, access to a solar lamp allowed him to prepare for classes at night, leading to more interactive classroom time. He also noted that, as a result of USAID’s interventions, children did not need to spend as much time gathering wood for energy, allowing them to devote more time to their studies. Overall, USAID’s interventions aim to reach more than 13,000 inhabitants across rural Colombia.  

Impact on Local Economies 

Implementing renewable energy production methods in rural Colombian communities could also contribute to poverty reduction by improving local economies. In addition to reducing energy consumption and costs, renewable energy can help create sustainable income opportunities, ensure environmental preservation, enhance efficiency and improve the quality of life in rural, off-grid communities. 

For example, a common rice-drying practice involves laying rice out in the open, and this exposes the grains to animals who might consume it before it dries completely and is ready for sale. To address this issue, USAID is working to implement solar-powered grain dryers in communities that rely upon rice for income and sustenance. The initiative will allow for more efficient grain processing, minimizing product losses and allowing local economies to grow with increased production and sales of rice. As the rural development specialist of the USAID project summarized, this approach represents “rural development from the starting point of clean energy.”

Looking to the Future

Despite the inordinate poverty that Colombia’s rural communities face, such initiatives demonstrate how reliable access to renewable energy resources can help mitigate poverty and its many effects. Across these communities, the effective implementation and maintenance of renewable energy infrastructure could reduce energy and education-related inequality, foster growth in local economies through increased productivity and alleviate the disparities caused by geographic isolation.

– Ada Rose Wagar
Photo: Flickr

Poverty Reduction in Colombia
Colombia is a country located in Northwestern South America with a historically high poverty rate, exacerbated by the economic turmoil in the country during COVID-19. Inflation onset by the pandemic targeted Colombia’s primary industries, which included construction, mining and retail. These industries all fell by 27.7%, 15.7% and 15.1% respectively in 2020. Overall, the Colombian economy declined by a total of 6.8% in total as a result of the collective recession of major industries within the country. This resulted in Colombia’s GDP growth rate falling from 3.2% in 2019 to -7% in 2020.

With the apparent downturn in Colombia’s economy, issues such as unemployment and poverty became more prevalent in the country. This warranted concern as before the pandemic more than one-third of the population already lived below the poverty line in 2019 and Colombia ranked as one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of income. Recent changes and discussions in Colombia’s government, however, promise a future of poverty reduction in Colombia.

The 2022 Colombian Presidential Election

Colombia swore Gustavo Petro into the presidency on August 7, 2022. Regarded as one of the closest elections in Colombia’s political history, Petro outwon his running mate Rodolfo Hernández by a 50.48% majority and made history by becoming Colombia’s first left-wing president. He looks to the goal of closing all inequity gaps within Colombia, including the wealth gap. Petro is actively working toward achieving his goal of economic reform in Colombia to counter the issue within the country.

Petro’s New Legislation

Projections have indicated that Petro’s proposed legislation will raise more than $11.5 billion annually to combat poverty in Colombia through two key actions. Firstly, the plan involves taxing the top 2% of Colombia’s highest earners. Petro stated that Colombian society should not view this action “as a punishment or a sacrifice,” but rather, “a solidarity payment that someone fortunate makes to a society that has enabled them to generate wealth,” The Guardian reported.

Secondly, Petro plans to implement an additional levy on energy and mining exports, sectors that significantly contribute to Colombia’s financial revenue. He aims to “add a 10% tax on some of Colombia’s biggest exports — oil, coal and gold — after prices rise above a certain threshold,” The Guardian reported.

Petro believes that these two major changes are the key to overall poverty reduction in Colombia. The proposal has received mixed reactions. Petro’s supporters are hopeful as they are happy to see his campaign promises come to fruition, meanwhile, others are skeptical, believing that Petro is too altruistic and is targeting the wealthy.

Looking Ahead

In 2019, Colombia’s wealthiest 20% “earned more than half of all income made” in that year, says Colombia Reports. The president’s proposal of taxing the wealthy will help to reduce inequality in Colombia and ensure a more fair distribution of wealth. This proposal will not only aid Colombians living in poverty but will also significantly aid with post-pandemic economic recovery.

– Aarika Sharma
Photo: Unsplash