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Why Colombia’s new leader will have trouble preserving country’s forests

Our research suggests that mayors who take private campaign donations are selling lax enforcement of environmental regulations

On June 20, Colombian voters elected Gustavo Petro as the country’s first leftist president. Petro ran on a platform committed to social justice and protecting the environment. His campaign promises included limiting deforestation and protecting Colombia’s rainforests.

Deforestation is a major driver of climate change. Natural forest covers more than half Colombia’s surface area, but over the past two decades, the country’s forest area has decreased by almost 6 percent. Limiting this destruction is key to reducing carbon in the atmosphere and protecting the environment. But doing so will be hard. As our new research shows, political and institutional barriers stand in Petro’s way.

How we did our research

Colombian law grants municipal mayors partial authority for enforcing the country’s environmental regulations. Mayoral election campaigns in Colombia are expensive, and most candidates rely on personal funds or private donations, or both. Our work explored whether private interests make campaign donations to mayoral candidates to encourage lax enforcement of environmental regulations — which in turn makes it easier for local elites to pursue economic activities that destroy forests.

It is difficult to show that campaign donations cause deforestation. Showing that deforestation is higher where mayors receive private donations is not enough, because this could result from many factors. For example, donors may be more likely to contribute to mayoral campaigns in places that have less ability to enforce environmental regulations to begin with.

To get around this, we use a strategy that compares deforestation in municipalities where mayoral candidates who received any private campaign donations narrowly won with those where such candidates narrowly lost. By comparing similar municipalities, we help rule out other potential explanations for any link that we find between campaign donations and deforestation.

We find a strong effect. Electing a mayor whose campaign was funded by any private donations is followed by nearly double the deforestation in that mayor’s term.

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Do campaign donations encourage mayors not to enforce environmental regulations?

The link between electing donor-funded mayors and increased destruction of local forests could conceivably result from something other than reduced enforcement of regulations. For example, research finds that campaign donors in Colombia buy access to higher value contracts. Donations could result in mayors signing contracts for bigger infrastructure projects, which could in turn destroy more forest.

We find only limited support for the idea that government contracting helps to explain how campaign donations lead to forest destruction. Instead, our research suggests that this effect results primarily from donors buying mayoral candidates’ willingness to turn a blind eye to illegal deforestation.

Although we can’t directly observe the link between individual donations and reduced regulatory enforcement, we can see other factors that suggest donor-funded mayors are selling reductions in regulatory enforcement.

First, campaign donations have less impact where other formal enforcement agencies are present. Colombian law offers extra protection for some of the country’s forest areas, including greater monitoring and regulation by the National Parks administration. In municipalities containing more extensive protected forest areas, we find that electing a donor-funded mayor is less likely to increase forest destruction. The same is true in municipalities containing offices of Colombia’s autonomous regional environmental management bodies. This suggests that tighter institutional oversight can reduce the deforestation that a donor-funded politician might otherwise allow.

Second, electing a donor-funded mayor also has less impact in areas where guerrilla groups act as informal enforcement agents. Groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have often obstructed and attacked local elites’ businesses. By blocking elites’ activities that can cause deforestation, guerrilla groups effectively enforce environmental regulations that donor-funded mayors might ignore.

Finally, because illegal forest destruction is often done by aggressively burning areas to clear the land for other activities, we find that average fire intensity is more than a third higher in municipalities that elect donor-funded mayors.

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What does this mean for Petro?

In theory, elections enable citizens to “guard the guardians” — overseeing and voting out mayors who don’t enforce regulations.

But in Colombia, the system for enforcing environmental rules — coupled with the high cost of local elections — contorts local electoral incentives. Petro will need to overcome these sorts of barriers to have any chances of significantly reducing deforestation.

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Robin Harding is an associate professor of government at the University of Oxford and author of “Rural Democracy: Elections and Development in Africa” (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Mounu Prem is an assistant professor at the Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance.

Nelson A. Ruiz (@nelson_ruizg) is a Leverhulme early career fellow at the University of Oxford and non-stipendiary research fellow at Nuffield College.

David L. Vargas (@DavidLVargasM) is a research fellow at the Inter-American Development Bank Research Department. Opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Inter-American Development Bank.