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Colombian investors push Pacific port project, threatening biodiversity hotspot

Beach in Nuquí municipality. Courtesy of MarViva

  • Colombian President Iván Duque has pushed the construction of Tribugá Port in the Pacific department of Chocó as an economic priority for the country’s coffee-growing heartland, to increase exports to international markets.
  • But the plan to build the port has provoked a fierce outcry from environmental and human rights activists, as well as local tourism operators, pushing 70 organizations to sign a declaration against its construction.
  • Endangered species such as hammerhead sharks, nesting sea turtles and humpback whales visit the area on an annual basis to mate, raise their young, and migrate through.

Emboldened by a right-wing president and congressional approval, a Colombian public-private partnership is working through a licensing process to build a deepwater “megaport” on the country’s northern Pacific coast.

Arquimedes S.A., the shareholder group behind the project, aims to build the country’s second major port on the Pacific coast to accommodate supertankers, an industrial park and a free-trade zone near the Darién Gap, an undeveloped, roadless region encompassing one of the world’s 24 biodiversity hotspots, breeding grounds for humpback whales, and collective Afro-Colombian and indigenous territories.

Since assuming office in 2018, President Iván Duque has pushed the construction of Tribugá Port in the Chocó department as an economic priority for the country’s central coffee-growing region, to increase exports to international markets. Duque’s 2018-2022 National Development Plan, approved by Congress, gave the green light for the construction of the deepwater port and connecting transportation infrastructure between the inland town of Las Ánimas and the coastal municipality of Nuquí, the site of the planned port.

“The Tribugá Port is one of my obsessions when it comes to infrastructure matters,” Duque said at a town hall meeting in Chocó’s capital, Quibdó, two months after his August 2018 inauguration. “I believe that we must continue advancing, the port is viable as long as the Ánimas-Nuquí transportation corridor is improved … These two projects are decisive for the entire Coffee Region.”

Construction of the megaport, estimated to cost more than $300 million, will not be paid for with public funds but rather through private investments permitted by government concession for “up to 40 years,” according to statements by the minister of transportation, Ángela María Orozco. The roadways, on the other hand, are scheduled for construction with public resources as part of a wider government initiative to connect the department of Arauca, on the border with Venezuela, to the northern Pacific coast.

Aerial view of the Gulf of Tribugá. Image courtesy of MarViva

The port project, however, still needs to be granted a permit by the National Authority of Environmental Licenses (ANLA) and a concession agreement by the National Infrastructure Agency (ANI); both regulatory agencies fall under the government’s executive branch.

The Arquimedes shareholder group emerged in 2006 during the government of right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe. The group represents governors’ offices and chambers of commerce in Chocó and the departments that make up the coffee region, as well as private construction companies. The coffee region, known as Eje Cafetero, straddles the departments of Caldas, Quindío, and Risaralda, and is the country’s fourth-largest industrial and commercial center as well as a center of power for Uribe’s right-wing political party, Centro Democrático.

Iván Marulanda, a senator from the opposition Green Alliance, representing the coffee-growing department of Risaralda, told Mongabay that discussions about Tribugá Port first arose decades ago, but regional political players are pressing Duque to realize the project.

“I’ve known this Arquimedes group for many years. This is an old pitch that appeared decades ago, maybe 30 or 40 years ago,” Marulanda said. “Even though things have changed and there is a greater level of environmental consciousness than there was before, they still haven’t let go of the idea.”

Marulanda said the deepwater port project did not make economic sense for the coffee region because the existing port in the city of Buenaventura, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) to the south, could be dredged to accommodate larger ships without causing nearly the same level of environmental impact as building a new port and roads through rainforest in the northern Pacific.

Arquimedes S.A. did not respond to request by email for comment on the proposed Tribugá Port.

Collective communities and foreign capital

Chocó department is largely inhabited by collective indigenous territories and Afro-Colombian communities, who, under the country’s 1991 Constitution, have been granted the right to autonomy in land management, political governance and cultural self-determination.

The department was one of several held by guerrillas during Colombia’s decades-long civil war, and today suffers the country’s highest rates of poverty and infant mortality. The construction of the new port therefore presents an opportunity for progress, says Carlos Felipe Mejía, a Centro Democrático senator from the neighboring department of Caldas.

According to Arquimedes president William Naranjo, the shareholder group has courted foreign investment, particularly from China and the United States. There was reported interest from Chinese port-building company China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd., and a U.S. investor, but no confirmed foreign investment in the project yet.

Threat of environmental, social impacts

The plan to build Tribugá Port in the heart of Chocó has provoked a fierce outcry from environmental and human rights activists, as well as local tourism operators, pushing 70 organizations to sign a declaration against its construction. The activists and community leaders say the port would cause irreparable destruction to coastal mangroves, tropical rainforest and marine ecosystems that serve as breeding grounds for humpback whales and sea turtles.

The Costa Rican environmental nonprofit MarViva works with the Afro-Colombian communities in the Gulf of Tribugá and other parts of Nuquí municipality to build sustainable local economies in protected mangrove areas. In December 2014, Chocó’s environmental agency, Codechocó, declared 2,408 hectares (5,950 acres) of mangrove forest in the gulf as a regionally protected area with sustainable use.

Artisanal fishermen cast nets near mangrove forest in Nuquí municipality. Image courtesy of MarViva.

But Codechocó’s director, Teófilo Cuesta Costa, has signaled support for the port project, as well as the construction of access roads. “I think the project is viable, even though it is located in a regional protected area,” he told local media Semana Sostenible.

Daniela Durán, MarViva’s local governance coordinator, said 900 hectares (2,220 acres) of Nuquí’s largest mangrove forests would be destroyed if Tribugá Port is built. She said the mangrove forests are important because they act as “natural barriers that help control natural disasters, prevent soil erosion, improve water quality, and sequester carbon that causes global warming.”

“There is also a key economic component to mangrove forests. They serve as sanctuaries where commercial marine species are able to reproduce,” Durán said.

Within the Gulf of Tribugá, MarViva identified 15 artisanal fishing grounds that local families rely on for food security. In addition, Durán pointed to the piangueras, typically women who provide sustenance for their families by collecting clams grown in the mangroves.

Waterside village in Nuquí municipality. Image courtesy of MarViva.

Local media outlet RCN Radio reported Arquimedes president Naranjo as saying the company is engaged in environmental studies, with a report expected to be filed with the environmental agency, ANLA, between March and May of next year.

Colombia’s inspector general has called on ANLA to exercise the precautionary principle when considering the environmental impacts posed by the port project, including taking account of the endangered species — hammerhead sharks, nesting sea turtles and humpback whales — that use the area to mate, raise their young, or migrate through.

The proposed port would occupy private and municipal land belonging to parties promoting the Arquimedes project. But its impact would be felt in nearby collective Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities: connecting the port to Colombia’s road network would require repairs and construction on five sections of roads, the majority crossing their territories.

At a public forum in Bogotá to debate the proposed port, Harry Samir Mosquera, president of the Afro-Colombian community council at Los Riscales, said Tribugá Port would violate the local community’s right to autonomy. With the country’s long-running armed conflict finally over, he said, his fears of multinationals and private companies flooding into the territory are becoming a reality.

About the reporter: Taran Volckhausen is Colorado-based freelance journalist who regularly reports on environmental issues in Colombia. You can find him on Twitter at @tvolckhausen.

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