When I first reached Maria Laura Rojas and told her that I was looking for people in Colombia who’d been affected by climate change, she was hesitant to be interviewed. She figured I was looking for someone who’d lost everything in a flood or whose crops had failed due to drought.
“I wouldn’t be able to tell a story like that,” she said. “I live in the capital city, on the seventh floor in a building in Bogota. To be very honest.”
A few days later, though, she got back in touch. “You got me thinking, and it’s been on my mind ever since,” she said. “Like, I must have a story, because otherwise I would not be working on this.”
Her story is one about feeling the impact of the warming climate emotionally even when it didn’t touch her directly. “There is value also in reflecting on climate from privilege,” she says.
Maria Laura Rojas grew up comfortably in Bogota. But she always noticed suffering, whether it was people in pain or emaciated horses pulling carts on the street. “It gets to me very closely,” she says.
She went to law school, focused on discrimination based on ethnicity or gender, and eventually threw herself into advocacy for the rights of women. “I was focused on gender, gender, gender,” she says.
Then a friend recruited her for a job that seemed, on the face of it, completely different. She became a climate diplomat for the government of Colombia, a country that’s squarely in the path of climate-related disruption. (A report from U.S. intelligence agencies placed Colombia on a list of 11 countries that could be most severely tested by climate change.) She joined delegations to international negotiations, including a pivotal one in Paris, in 2015, that produced a landmark agreement to cut global greenhouse gas emissions.
“Going into the negotiations, what I was told was, ‘Speak with the confidence that you are speaking on behalf of 40 million Colombians,'” she says. “And I was like, ‘Am I? Really?'”
She knew, from her earlier work, that there’s enormous inequality in Colombia. Rich and poor, men and women, can live starkly different lives, and climate change hits them differently.
For instance: There’s a region in Colombia, at the country’s northern tip, called La Guajira.
Many of the people there are indigenous. The seasonal rains they depend on are becoming more erratic. Crops are failing. “There’s a lot of food insecurity, and this affects very heavily the children,” Rojas says. It’s mainly women, meanwhile, who have to fetch water for households. They’re forced to walk longer distances, through places that aren’t safe.
“It’s like a loop between the underlying causes of gender inequality and climate change impacts,” Rojas says. On top of that, these communities often don’t get the help they need from Colombia’s government. “They could definitely have better infrastructure and they should,” Rojas says. “They’ve been demanding this for many years. And unfortunately, not a lot of response from the government is available.”
She’s been on official trips to La Guajira, and on similar trips to communities in Africa that were set up to demonstrate how these countries are vulnerable to climate change. “You go there in proper buses, and you can see people really struggling,” Rojas says. And yet, after the buses leave, the communities often receive little help. “It’s always shocking when you visit. And it’s always impactful when you see that these places are used to showcase vulnerability, but they are not correspondingly supported to do anything about it,” she says.
Rojas realized that the fight against climate change is actually a fight on behalf of everyone who’s powerless or left behind. “To me, climate is about justice,” she says. “The injustice of it is what has always kept me moving and involved. It touches on everything that’s important to me.”
Rojas left Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about five years ago. It felt like the right time. The Paris Agreement, in which the nations promised to cut global greenhouse gas emissions, had been signed in 2015. She was tired of the long hours and travel.
She co-founded a group in Colombia called Transforma, focused on climate advocacy. They’ve developed proposals for protecting Colombia’s forests and produced reports on whether foreign investments are helping to make the country more climate-resilient. Now she’s back at this latest climate summit in Glasgow, but this time she’s standing outside the negotiating rooms. She’ll be pushing countries to provide more aid to communities that need help adapting to climate change, and releasing a podcast from the negotiations that’s aimed at people in Latin America.
She believes that these U.N.-sponsored meetings can actually help promote change back in Colombia, in communities like La Guajira. “You can draw a line between what happens [at international meetings] and impacts for specific communities,” she says. “When you get countries to commit at the international level to take action, you have at least a hook from which you can also make demands at the domestic level.”
For instance, at U.N meetings, Colombia’s president has agreed that aid should flow to those whom climate change is hitting the hardest. He’ll be reminded of those words back in Bogota, Rojas says. “Like, you said that! You, the president, said that!” — and maybe he’ll be forced to pay more attention to people suffering from climate change in his own country.