CSU’s Marcela Velasco sheds a light on struggles in Colombia

Austria Cohn

Marcela Velasco, an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, shares the environmental and socioeconomic hardships that people in Colombia face.

Colombia, an ecologically diverse developing country, has faced many environmental problems, some related to the wealth gap. 

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“The natural environment has always been not just diverse but beautiful,” Velasco said. “It was always a beautiful country.”

Landslides and floods occur often in Colombia because it rains a lot, Velasco said. If someone builds a house near a river, it’s common for the river to fill and their house to be destroyed. 

“That’s sort of the situation across many developing countries,” Velasco said. “Coastal areas are probably going to get flooded, and the cities are going to have fewer resources to plan ahead for that.” 

“A lot of those natural areas are being destroyed for a number of reasons,” Velasco said. “Mostly driven by economic greed and globalization and increasing demand for a lot of the products Colombia has.” 

Environmental activists are trying to bring more attention to the problem, but they put their lives at risk for speaking out, according to Velasco. 

“The thing that sticks out the most to me has been the level of violence that environmental rights defenders are faced with,” Velasco said.

“(It’s a) very unequal country; like most Latin American countries, there’s a huge wealth concentration”- Marcela Velasco, associate professor of political science at Colorado State University

Sixty-five land and environmental defenders were murdered in Colombia in 2020, which is the highest number of killings for the second year in a row, according to Global Witness

“So people who have organized their communities, organized action to defend a river or defend a forest … have faced a lot of violence,” Velasco said. “They stand in the way of people who are looking for economic benefit, so that has been a growing problem.”

The people seeking economic benefit from environmental destruction have significant control over the country due to the wealth disparity. 

“(In) Colombia, like many developing countries, poor people have always been very vulnerable,” Velasco said. “(It’s a) very unequal country; like most Latin American countries, there’s a huge wealth concentration.” 

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This large wealth disparity also impacts the education system. 

Velasco went to a private school. Her first language was Spanish, but she attended a French school, where most of her classes were taught in French. She moved to the U.S. when she was 12 years old. 

“(In Colombia), there’s a lot of private schools if you can afford it,” Velasco said. “The public schools aren’t as good.” 

According to the World Education News & Reviews, data from 2018 shows most schools in Colombia are public, with only 20% of elementary school students enrolled in private schools.

“Private institutions are almost exclusively located in the cities and tend to cater to wealthier households,” according to the WENR article. “Generally, private schools are better equipped and staffed and lead to better learning outcomes than the often poorly funded public schools.” 

Velasco knows a lot about the environmental and socioeconomic problems occurring in Colombia because she visits the country and researches political science in Colorado.

“My research interests include ethnic politics … environmental justice and institutional change in Latin America in general and Colombia in particular,” according to Velasco’s CSU webpage

Recently, Velasco has hosted a seminar called “Socio-Environmental Rights in Colombia: Insights from Black and Indigenous Leaders.” This seminar brought in leaders from Colombia’s Pacific coast to discuss the impacts of climate change and the human rights violations people experience

Reach Austria Cohn at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @AustriaCohn.