Rojas spoke with Harris Public Policy about crisis-driven innovation and how her role as Vice Minister of Mines of Colombia has shifted during these uncertain times.
A headshot of Carolina Rojas, the Q&A participant, crossing her arms.
Carolina Rojas, MPP'06

In the 20 years that Carolina Rojas, MPP‘06, has spent working in the public sector, managing the COVID-19 epidemic as Vice Minister of Mines of Colombia has been the most challenging policy issue she’s ever had to face.

Mining is a main source of income and jobs in many impoverished provinces of Colombia. It represents 1.6% of the total Colombian GDP, and it accounts for 20% of the country’s exports and foreign direct investments. As with many sectors worldwide, the mining industry has had to scale back its level of production in light of the virus’s spread.

As she describes it, Rojas’s role has been to limit the growth of the pandemic while protecting the jobs and incomes that the mining sector generates.

In the midst of a busy day of working remotely (the new normal), Rojas spoke with Harris Public Policy about how her government role has shifted during these uncertain times, how limitations posed by the novel coronavirus have resulted in increased opportunities for policy innovation, and how crisis lets you see where bureaucracy needs to be circumvented and more efficient.

Can you share what your day-to-day as the Vice Minister of Mines in Colombia looks like, and how that routine has been affected by COVID-19?

The role of a Vice Minister is to support the Minister in all things related to policy formulation and coordination, which involves, among many other activities, drafting laws that go to Congress and engaging with different industry stakeholders to move our agenda forward. Since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve been almost 100 percent focused on issues related to ensuring worker and community safety, while maintaining our operations. Under normal circumstances, this requires a lot of meetings. In lockdown, it means something totally different, which is one of the lessons I would say everybody has learned. Ironically, I have more continuous and frequent communication with many of our stakeholders now because I'm available online.

How have you altered the Ministry’s structure and operations during the crisis to ensure your agenda moves forward?

The current circumstances require solutions to be put in place rapidly. Under these extreme circumstances, we’ve had to think on our feet and make decisions more quickly. Another thing that has been interesting is that we have learned the benefits of moving away from our existing internal structures. Sometimes hierarchical structure in the public sector is very rigid, and Colombia is no exception. There's the minister, the vice minister, and other team leaders, which is where decision-making power normally resides. But because there are suddenly so many priorities needing attention at the same time, we've created groups that have a lot of decision-making opportunities and are far less hierarchical. That has empowered staff that perhaps don't have the “big titles,” but who do have the skills and the innate leadership abilities to address those challenges. It’s been rewarding to see our team individually and collectively step up to address this unprecedented situation.

The mining industry plays a large role in Colombia’s economy and is a significant contributor to its GDP. What strategies have you implemented to help stymie the economic effects of the virus, and has anything been particularly successful thus far?

We made the case that the mining sector needed to continue to operate and upgrade its efforts even during lockdown for two reasons: One, because some of our mineral production is related to coal, and some of our energy generation in Colombia depends on that coal. And, two, the mining sector produces taxes and royalties that our government needs in order to purchase vital equipment and other items for the health sector, as well as to provide food for very vulnerable populations.

The situation is challenging, especially in a middle income country with a mostly informal labor force that is affected by a countrywide lockdown, Colombia’s first ever. In the end, our goal is to protect the people that work in the industry and the communities where mining takes place, while enabling companies to confront these difficult times and to contribute to economic recovery in the medium term.

If mining is considered an essential industry, I imagine that the safety of the miners is top of mind. What does that look like? What special measures are in place for the workers?

Safety is indeed an overriding priority.  It requires tremendous coordination and communication across all of the industry’s stakeholders -- including with the miners themselves -- to ensure their safety.  We have been working with the Ministry of Health to develop specific protocols for our sector—we were one of the first sectors to do so. We are also working with the mining companies to understand how they are implementing those protocols. And, we’re learning about the necessary health and biosecurity standards, and how they apply specifically to our industry.

One of the biggest challenges that we've had, however, is persuading the workers and the communities that these protocols are sufficient to minimize the risk of contagion. That has proven to be quite a formidable challenge with the lock down, since we cannot go and speak to people directly. We've had to rely on the local authorities, local media, and local leaders, which has actually strengthened our relationships with those stakeholders and bodes well for the future.

A related challenge has been that many employees are unsure whether they should be working at all. People everywhere, including here in Colombia, are understandably afraid of being infected. We've been working closely at the local level with the Ministry of Health experts to explain how these protocols work, and to demonstrate how we are taking the health of all the workers and communities into account as an urgent priority.

Have the efforts you've made to connect with the workers and their communities been successful? Do you feel like you have the trust of the workers?

One of the challenges that the extractive industries have had for a few years now—and Colombia’s mining companies are no exception—is gaining and retaining the confidence of the communities where they are conducting a project. That issue has to be worked on continuously, because you never know when a pandemic or other major disruption will come along. Those projects and private companies that have had better relationships at the local level have been able to gain the confidence of their local stakeholders and, as a result, been able to continue to operate. That may not be the case for those private companies that have had more strained relationships with their communities.

It’s where conflict arises that the national government has had to work more to engage the local authorities in an attempt to reach and influence the local community leaders. We've been making the case for the importance of stakeholder engagement for a while now. I think it's more than evident that the pandemic has brought this issue front and center. It's one of the main things that extractive industries companies, government, and civil society have to work on jointly going forward.