Climate Change Poses Threat To Colombian Coast Climate scientists say Colombia's glaciers could disappear within 15 years. Wet highland areas that provide much of the country's fresh water are getting warmer and drier. And each year, flooding becomes more severe. The coastal area of Tumaco has become an example of how environmental and security pressures are undermining previously stable communities.
NPR logo

Climate Change Poses Threat To Colombian Coast

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Climate Change Poses Threat To Colombian Coast

Climate Change Poses Threat To Colombian Coast

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

When we hear about the dangers of climate change, more and more we hear how climate is tied to security. The argument is that global warming will make the world a more dangerous place by causing mass movements of people, food and water shortages and wars over resources. To explore this issue, we begin this hour in Colombia.

As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, it's a country where climate change and security problems are linked.

TOM GJELTEN: Colombia has all kinds of environments: mountains and Amazon rain forests, lowland plains, numerous rivers and coastlines on both the Caribbean and the Pacific. Scientists say its glaciers could disappear completely in as little as 15 years. Wet highland areas that provide much of the country's freshwater are getting warmer and drier. And each year, the flooding becomes more severe. All this in a country burdened by a violent drug trade and a 40-year civil war.

To explore the connections between security and climate, I decided to visit Tumaco on the Pacific Coast. The surrounding rain forest is biologically diverse. It's also the new center of drug traffic in Colombia.

Mr. SERGIO JARAMILLO (Vice Minister of Defense, Bogota): Tumaco, where you're going, is probably the most difficult bit we have of the country.

GJELTEN: Sergio Jaramillo, a vice minister of defense in Bogota, briefed me on Tumaco before I headed out. The city has a high murder rate, he said. As a Pacific port town and close to Ecuador, it's on the main exit route for drugs leaving Colombia. It's isolated, and it's poor.

Mr. JARAMILLO: By Colombian standards, we're talking about one of the poorest parts of the country. And you suddenly get this sort of massive amounts of drugs, cocaine being moved through there. Then there's an exclusive cocktail and it is not easy to control.

(Soundbite of horn)

GJELTEN: For hundreds of years, the mostly Afro-Colombian people in the Tumaco area were left alone to raise bananas and cacao. But as the government pursued cocaine traffickers in other parts of the country, the drug trade shifted toward Tumaco. Heavily armed drug gangs took over the countryside.

Mr. LUIS ALBERTO GUTIERREZ (Afro-Colombian Community Leader): (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: Luis Alberto Gutierrez is a leader of the Afro-Columbian community in the Tumaco area. People here found themselves surrounded by armed gangs, he says. They knew the groups were processing illegal drugs, but what could they do? Either they went along or they were pushed out or killed.

Mr. GUTIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: Over the last few years, tens of thousands of Afro-Colombians have been forced to take refuge here in Tumaco, now an overcrowded and crime-infested city. That's one reality and then there are the floods, like the one that wiped out 62 villages in the Tumaco area in February and left 30,000 people homeless.

(Soundbite of motorboat)

GJELTEN: The villages up river from Tumaco were the worst hit.

(Soundbite of motorboat)

GJELTEN: We're just now approaching the village of El Guabo just situated on the banks of the River Mira. The only way to approach the village is on one of these canoes, this is basically a long wooden canoe with an outward motor on it. That's the only form of transport to this village.

(Soundbite of motorboat)

GJELTEN: Actually, there's not much reason to go to El Guabo anymore. The village was essentially carried away when the Mira River flooded.

Mr. EINER TOBSA: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: Everyone who was living in this village when it flooded has a sad story.

Mr. TOBSA: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: Einer Tobsa lost his chickens. He lost his horse. He lost his pig. I lost everything I'd planted, he says. The river took it all away. Of the 50 houses in El Guabo before the February flood, only a dozen are still standing. People don't even say it was a flood. What hit them, they say, was a water avalanche. The village has been here for 100 years or more. But no one knows or remembers anything like this before.

Ms. MARIA LOURDES CASTILLO: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: Never ever, says Maria Lourdes Castillo, who's 74 years old and has lived here all her life. Hers was one of the houses swept away. She's come back to stay for a visit to the site of her old house.

Ms. CASTILLO: (Foreign Language spoken)

GJELTEN: She's pointing to a couple of broken down chairs that are lying in the ground here along with debris from what she says was her dining room table. She said this was my dining room. To the extent floods like this happen more often because of climate change, they'll show how destabilizing the process can be for the people affected. The villages of El Guabo owe their existence to this river. It was their connection to the world outside. It was the source of their water and it irrigated their crops. Now, for the first time in their lives, they longer trust the river.

Ms. CASTILLO: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: It scares me, says Maria Lourdes. Even before the flood, their peace had been disturbed by the drug groups that showed up around here to plant coca and produce cocaine. In response, the Colombian authorities launched an aggressive aerial fumigation program, but the herbicide spray has since destroyed even legal crops.

Mr. ROBERTO SOLORZANO (El Guabo Leader): (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: We're hit from all sides, says Roberto Solorzano, a village leader. The fumigation, the government, the flood, we've been beat up by the environment itself.

Mr. SOLORZANO: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: The concern is that villages here, beat up by the environment, will simply surrender to the pressures from the drug traffickers. The United Nations' top climate change officer in Colombia, Piedad Martin, says this year's Mira River flood was not an isolated incident.

Ms. PIEDAD MARTIN (Climate Change Officer, Colombia): We have an increasing number of natural disaster events and an increasing number of people affected by natural disasters. And the peak was last year in 2008.

GJELTEN: And in Colombia, she says, when people are forced out of their homes, whether by violence or by flooding, it becomes a security problem.

Ms. MARTIN: These people are highly vulnerable to any situation related to health, to be in trapped in some other social networks that are illegal or to have abuse.

GJELTEN: The Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington think tank, recently highlighted Colombia as a country where climate change is likely to aggravate pre-existing security threats. CNA researchers found that natural disasters can set the stage for more illegal activity. Colombian authorities could be overstretched in responding. Still, causes and effects here are not yet clear. Some Colombian officials have distanced themselves from the CNA report.

Government scientists are not entirely convinced the flooding around Tumaco this year was a product of climate change. Sergio Jaramillo, the vice minister of defense, wonders whether deforestation was to blame - coca growers cutting down trees to make way for new crops.

Mr. JARAMILLO: I would like to emphasize how surprised we are in many ways that on the one hand the issue of climate change is being taken so seriously. But on the other hand, people are so slow to make the link between drug consumption and destruction of the environment.

GJELTEN: It may be simplistic to use the Colombia example to show that a changing climate leads on its own to violence. But no one disputes that environmental and security issues are linked here and will need to be managed together.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

BLOCK: As climate talks in Copenhagen enter their second week, we want to know what questions you have. Maybe you need a better sense of who's who in the negotiations or what's at stake.

SIEGEL: Well, go to and click on Contact Us and please put the word climate in the subject line. Later this week, we'll get you some answers from our science reporters in Copenhagen.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.