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Energy Futures in Transitional Colombia

Written by Pablo Jaramillo |

Energy Futures in Transitional Colombia

Fifteen years ago, I was drawn to the research on climate politics in Colombia by a Wayúu leader denouncing Co2lonialism in a United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues. At the event, she criticised the compensation strategies used by the first efforts to set up renewable energies and some of the first carbon offset projects in the country. According to her, all dealings with individual communities of the Wayúu people were spurious because the wind that moves turbines is the same that carries the souls of dead people to the underworld, which they located off the coast, not far from a then-new experimental wind farm. How can we understand these and other claims emerging from communities in the context of new relations around energy generation and distribution triggered by the current climatic regimes? The question has been in the back of my mind ever since.

The current government of Colombia has become a leading figure in efforts to fight climate change. Its recently passed Development Plan is called "Colombia, world power of life" (Colombia, potencia mundial de la vida). Central to this plan is the full embrace of the discourse on "energy transition", which has been translated into many controversial plans to stop fossil fuel exploration and a broad consensus that the future includes a robust renewable energy sector. In many ways, this emphasis on renewable energies in the country's future is a continuation of previous governments. 

The centrality of renewable energies in the current national imagination is clearly apparent in frequent debates about setbacks and obstacles. The last one was the news that ENEL, an energy company, decided to stop Windpeshi, one of the most advanced and significant wind energy developments. This is just one of more than 50 projects in the department of La Guajira, in the country's new energy frontier. 

Energy Futures in Transitional Colombia

Windpeshi, like most of these projects, is located in the ancestral land of the Wayúu indigenous people. They asserted that a stalemate with communities and their leaders was the main reason behind the decision. The news from ENEL sparked the usual indigenous-in-the-way-of-development type of accusation. Across the political spectrum, calls about the "absence of the state" also ensued. This example is just a signal of a broader question about how making and unmaking the new renewable energy frontier has become the latest instance of more encompassing and durable narratives and practices of nation-making in Colombia. 

Despite being wrapped in the universalistic mandate of the planetary politics of climate change, energy transitions are emerging as an incredibly heterogeneous phenomenon. In this patchy landscape, the role of "transitional" thinking in Colombia, the permanent effort to overcome a violent and unequal past and present, and the yearning for a peaceful future seems to be an ideal stance to question broader assumptions about the future and social ordering of current climatic regimes. 

Energy transitions refashion questions about the place of nature in nation-making in Latin America. Carolina Angel asserts that the "natural expeditions" that followed the 2018 peace process with FARC-EP represent a new instance in the search for the "nature" of the nation. Likewise, energy transitions imply revisiting questions about the work of more-than-human elements in body politics. The infrastructure of the energy transition plays a central role in dreams of bringing about material connections in a divided country. As it turns out, the planned infrastructure also works because of colonial and extractive legacies that strategically disconnect specific populations, and make certain people, animals, and plants discardable. More importantly, it works in a delayed temporality rather that is central to the workings of the Colombian state, which Valentina Pellegrino called "incumplir cumpliendo" (complying incompliantly). Energy transitions also open questions about the local forms of intermediation and elites, both profoundly shaped by extractive industries.

Energy Futures in Transitional Colombia

Energy transitions risk becoming the playground of what J.T. Rowan (personal communication) calls plantations 3.0. He refers to the ever-changing capacity of this extractive organisation of nature and labour to reemerge, especially when it is deemed finished – like the proliferation of plantations after the abolition of slavery. In this light, it makes sense that solar and wind farms resemble reincarnations of past extractive regimes for many indigenous peoples and peasant communities. Ancestors' souls flying through wind turbines must have something to say about the future.

For decolonial ecologies to grapple with everyday transformative practices, it makes sense to include electrification as a site of trial and tinkering on questions of work and provision (that is, energy in its broader sense), alongside denunciation of toxic infrastructures, struggles against the stigma of certain populations as ecologically damaging, and the racialised landscapes of climate change. So before falling back into the inertia of transitional thinking in Colombia, to welcome these subjects as damaged victims or non-humans worthy because of their place in bioeconomy, anthropological research must open other avenues of thinking, critique, and practice. 

The project Energy Futures in Colombia (Uniandes and SAS) reframes renewable energy frontiers as sites of political experimentation. Away from the attention of "smart grids", emission reduction targets, efficiency, and security, this project shifts attention to the palimpsest of relations between people and renewable energy projects in the country. It explores new forms of technical and political intermediation, repair, and retrofitting for territories, houses, organisations, and electric networks. It explores the relationships that contain new alternatives for imagining futures in Colombia and elsewhere.  

Pablo Jaramillo is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of the Andes (Bogotá) and a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, ILCS. His work focuses on the anthropology of natural resources and energy futures in Colombia and Latin America. He has conducted extensive ethnographic research on renewable energy projects, controversies surrounding the expansion of coal mines and the livelihoods of small-scale gold miners in Colombia's Caribbean and Andean regions. He holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Manchester. He has been Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Visiting Professor at the Institute of Development Studies (Paris 1 - French Institute for Development, France) and the University of Campinas (Brazil).

Images by Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo
"Tesoro Yuche / Yuche Treasure". Amazonas, Colombia. (Colombia, Tierra de Luz / Colombia, Land of Light)*
*"Colombia, Land of Light" is a project by Colombian photographer Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo that reflects on violence and compassion, shadows and brightness among people whose lives have been disrupted by the armed conflict. Light and energy are key motifs in the project that unintentionally reveal the past and present of the country.

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This blog contribution has been published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0). The article may be distributed and republished, online or in print, provided the author and original publication are appropriately credited. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of CLACS, ILCS or the School of Advanced Study, University of London.