The new Pacific port: beware of Colombia’s mistakes from the past

In May 2018, the Colombian Congress approved the construction of the Port of Tribugá, as part of package of improvements in connectivity linked to the four-year National Development Plan (PND) and the Multi Year Investment Plan (PPI) proposed by President Ivan Duque.

This gives the project the political legitimacy it needs in the medium term, which, along with its financial, technical and legal feasibility, could turn the port into one of the most important undertakings for infrastructure, and regional and national development, by the current government.

However, the proposal still needs approval from the National Agency for Environmental Licenses (ANLA) due to the significant impact it will have on one of the most important biodiversity “hot spots” in the world. The proposal is a concern not only because of the 3,600 meters of length and 20 meters of depth proposed for the port but also because it will require the construction of access roads that will cross more than 200km of virgin forest.

Added to this, is the lack of social legitimacy for the project, that would impact on the ancestral territories of black and indigenous communities who make up the majority of the regional population and who have special constitutional protection. “They are ignoring our right to self-determination” said Harry Mosquera, a representative of the Community Council of the region, at a public hearing where the project was discussed.

The most remote regions have historically been excluded from shaping the development of the country

The Gulf of Tribugá is located in the Chocó region of Western Colombia, in the centre of the second most biodiverse and humid region of the world. Despite having an enviable geostrategic position, with coasts facing onto both the Pacific and Atlantic, the region is virtually disconnected from the rest of the country: neither of the access roads are paved and more than half of the region’s municipalities are not connected to the capital by land.

This level of isolation has meant that social conditions are in inversely proportional to the biodiversity and resource abundance: the basic needs of 80% of the 490,000 people are not met and 50% live in extreme poverty. There are also illegal armed groups operating in the region involved in drug production and trafficking, smuggling and illegal mining. Tribuga is located in one of the key corridors with Panama and is therefore involved in the shipment of drugs to the north of the continent.

But these remote conditions are not exclusive to Chocó. In fact, half of Colombia is not accessible by road. In the Pacific regions, for example, there are only 2 roads along the 1,300 km of coastline and there is no road that links the centre of country with the Amazon. This clear abandonment by the state has created social inequalities for the population, especially when compared with the central regions of the country.

The intervention by the centre on the periphery has been vertical and violent

The state historically arrived at remote regions of Colombia in two ways. Firstly, via colonisation of poor farmers and people who have been internally displaced by the various political conflicts that have taken place since Independence. This was case with the colonization of the Antioquian region in the late 19th century and the progressive expansive from the “piedmonte llanero” to the Amazon region in the mid 20th century, for example.

Secondly, the state has arrived via development projects such as roads, ports and hydroelectricity or in conjunction with the private sector through mining, timber and oil projects. These initiatives, rather than generating regional development, have often meant the deepening of social and economic inequalities and exclusion and often brought violence as well. Examples include:

In the 1960s, the most ambitious hydroelectric in Colombia’s history began with the construction of the Guatapé dam in the West of Antioquia region, which currently generates approximately 20% of Colombia’s energy. The construction of the dam led to the flooding of the urban area of the municipality of Peñol and the displacement of thousands of families. The community was not involved in the development of the hydroelectricity project, this then led to the creation of a civic movement in Antioquia to demand fair compensation for those who were affected and the freezing of energy prices.

The movement was stigmatized by the political elite and businesses in Antioquia who supported the dam project as well as by the media that supported these elites, triggering the systematic murder of dozens of the movement’s leaders and the displacement of hundreds of its members in the mid 1980s. This created a breeding ground for the arrival of illegal armed groups in region who fought to try and take control of the territory until a decade ago, leading to the displacement of a further 20,000 inhabitants. There were 33 massacres in the municipality of San Carlos alone, where some of the most important hydroelectric generators were located.

However, the clearest case is that of the port of Buenaventura, located in the middle of the Pacific coast, the most important in the country. 60% of Colombia’s products enter and leave through Buenaventura. Of a population of nearly half a million, 66% live in poverty and 10% in extreme poverty. Unemployment exceeds 60% and 90% of the population live in areas without access to a hospital and can access drinking water for less than 10 hours a day. Despite its strategic importance, the territory is controlled by illegal armed groups, and has one of the highest rates of homicides and torture in the country.

This history means that there is a question as to whether the imposition of development projects from the centre to periphery of Colombia can actually serve as a tool for the social and economic welfare of its inhabitants. The central issue, then, with regards to the Tribugá port is including indigenous and local communities in discussions about the future of the land and how to find a balance between development and the protection of the environment and ecosystems.

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According to the government of Duque, it is important to improve the country’s port capacity to improve Colombia’s connections with the rest of world. However, some claim that, in fact, Colombia is only using 50% of its current port capacity and that even the Port of Buenaventura is only moving 28 million tons, much less than its potential of 34 million tons.

Is it necessary, therefore, to build another port or can we make use of and improve the ones that already exist? Even more important, it is absolutely necessary to include the communities who have historically lived on the land in the conversation. So far, the project has been promoted by the Archimedes society, a public-private partnership that includes actors such as governors, chambers of commerce and decentralized bodies of the coffee sector, but Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities have been left out of the conversation despite the fact that these communities view the land as an essential part of their identity.

Are we repeating the mistakes of the past?

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