Luis Gilberto Murrillo-Urrutia discusses environmental lessons from Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities

Luis Gilberto Murillo-Urrutia, former Colombian minister of environment and sustainable development, spoke on Oct. 6 via Zoom with Dayna Cunningham, dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, about his work including marginalized ethnic and social groups in environmental policymaking.

MurilloUrrutia, who previously served as the governor of the predominantly Afro-Colombian state of Chocó, drew his leadership from Indigenous communities, particularly focusing on how they relate to nature with respect. Concurrently, during his term as the first Afro-Colombian minister from 2016 to 2018, Colombia suffered major environmental disasters, including the 2017 Mocoa landslide which left more than 400 people dead or missing, most of whom were from Indigenous communities.

When asked about resource management during such times of crisis, Murillo-Urrutia said the focus should be on the people most impacted by the tragedy.

“You have to first make [the] emphasis on saving lives,” Murillo-Urrutia said. “The president declared a state of emergency. That was very painful for the country, but he also was clear in the recommendations that he needed to send a strong message to the Colombian society [and] a strong message to the international community that these extreme events are the worst we had … that these are the threats of not taking the necessary measures to fight climate change.” 

MurilloUrrutia used Mocoa, which was battered by approximately three months’ worth of precipitation in three hours, as a cautionary tale about the threat of not taking the necessary measures to fight climate change and adapt Colombian communities for extreme weather events. 

Even though the South American nation only represents 0.4% of global emissions, Murillo-Urrutia said Columbia must do its part to protect the climate. 

The consequences of this event are enormous without the necessary resources and funding to respond to these challenges,Murillo-Urrutia said.

Murillo-Urrutia mobilized the government to allocate resources toward the provision of basic needs like food and water in the case of a natural disaster. He was in charge of providing evidence-based solutions and creating technical working groups to provide up-to-date information about climate trends.

Murillo-Urrutia noted that Indigenous and Afro-descendant groups, two of Colombia’s ethnic minorities, have been innovative in climate resilience. These communities have implemented natural solutions, such as planting hectares of forests, to protect a region that is home to over 50% of the world’s biodiversity.

Unfortunately, the same communities continue to face injustice, as they provide such solutions without compensation and remain invisible in environmental policymaking.

“Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities need to play a central role, not an ‘add-on’ role, in any climate or biodiversity-loss solution,” Murillo-Urrutia said.These communities are key [and] the challenge is that there is not an appropriate narrative. The role of these communities is invisible in the public policy debate. We are not learning from the models of stewardship of nature of our communities.”

In response to these injustices, Murillo-Urrutia collaborated with the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative as a Martin Luther King fellow.

We are working on a project, side-by-side with communities, to understand this model of the communities and to co-produce new models based on that knowledge of these communities [and] empower these communities with appropriate technology,” Murillo-Urrutia said. “[We will] tak[e] those innovations to the public policy debate to scale up that innovation by looking at these communities from a different perspective.”

In Latin America and the Caribbean, areas that have been titled collectively to Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities have between 2.5 and 10 times less deforestation than other places not managed by these communities. These findings, Murillo-Urrutia said, do not often make it into conversation with policymakers about environmental legislation.

From 2016 to 2018, the ministry succeeded in tripling the size of Colombia’s environmentally protected areas, enacting the National Climate Change Management law — which included a carbon tax — and promoting the rights of Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities.

Murillo-Urrutia is less optimistic about the Duque administration and its current direction in environmental activism and minority inclusion, especially in straining positive relationships between the government and minority groups that Murillo-Urrutia worked hard to foster. 

Today Colombia is the country where it is most dangerous for environmental leaders and social leaders to do his or her work,” Murillo-Urrutia said.Colombia maintains some of the policies, but there is not a political will. … When you don’t have trust between the communities and institutions, it is very difficult to have effective solutions on the ground.”

Even so, women and youth are finding more significant roles in the fight for environmental protection, especially after the United Nations Development Programme’s Climate Promise launched in Colombia in 2020.

In our communities, the real leadership is done by women — they are the ones that know better … how to protect the nature,” he said.

Murillo-Urrutia believes that youth are making the government fulfill the mandate because they are the group that will be most affected in the future. 

“[Youth] are taking the leadership in this implementation because this is about their lives. This is about their existence,” Murillo-Urrutia said. “They are the ones who will inherit from us a tremendous crisis.”

Murillo-Urrutia’s talk concluded with advice for young people looking to become involved in environmental justice.

“My recommendation for young people now is that, first, they need to never, never, never lose hope,” Murillo-Urrutia said. “Maintain those firm beliefs that change really is possible and that you are the one, in a collective way, to make the difference. Look for those who share your vision and share your values to work together and to create a support network of collaboration.”

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