The plan has stalled for various reasons over the years, but under the current government of President Iván Duque, this project looks closer than ever to becoming a reality. In 2019, the government approved the 2018-2022 National Development Plan, which promotes the construction of a new deepwater port and all “complementary infrastructure,” including roads and railways. Discussions for the project have continued even throughout the COVID-19 crisis, according to media reports.

Many locals and environmentalists have long said this is not the kind of development this pristine region of the Chocó rainforest needs, and violates the sovereignty of the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that live here. Harry Samir Mosquera, president of the Afro-Colombian community council Los Riscales, says there’s no way this project fits with the locals’ way of life, economy, and conservation plans.

“This port does not offer a better guarantee of well-being and development for the local communities,” Mosquera says, adding, “This is development well thought out for foreigners and for investors who will live off their business of moving cargo.”

A map of the Chocó rainforest along the pacific coast of Colombia, with the green indicating protected forest reserves, which circle Tribugá and would be affected by new highways. Map Credit, WWF Colombia.

‘Necessary for Colombia’s development’

William Naranjo Quintero, president of the port shareholder group Arquimedes Society for the past four years, says he is hopeful that construction will begin by 2021. But that all depends on when, and if, the government environmental agency, ANLA, approves the environmental studies Arquimedes submitted earlier this year.

Arquimedes is an assemblage of private and public investors created in 2006 to promote the port project and seek funding for it both domestically and internationally. Naranjo tells Mongabay that large international investors from the United States and China have confirmed their interest in the port; he declines to name them as no final contracts have yet been signed.

Naranjo says the project is essential for Colombia’s future, as it would give the country more direct access to China and the growing East Asian markets necessary for its economic growth.

According to the two largest trade blocks in the region, the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) and the Pacific Alliance (AP), both of which Colombia is a part, Asia is an important market for Latin America’s export industries, particularly the large populations of China and India. The AP emphasizes this in its 2030 Strategic Vision plan that promotes greater growth, development and competitiveness, looking particularly at the Asia-Pacific region.

“The country needs it. By 2030, the first international partner of the Pacific Basin will be Latin America,” Naranjo says, adding Colombia will be at an economic disadvantage since “we are the only country [in Latin America] that does not have a deep water port in the Pacific.”

Today, Buenaventura is Colombia’s only Pacific coast port that serves North America and Southeast Asia. But it’s not a deepwater port. This means large ships with heavy cargo have to wait for high tide to be able to enter the harbor, and only have a four–hour window to unload and load their cargo before the tide goes out again.

This creates long waiting times for ships if they arrive at the wrong moment, says Gordon Wilmsmeier, a port specialist who holds the Kühne Professorial Chair in Logistics at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. It’s also dissuaded some ships from entering Buenaventura, causing it to lose nearly 300,000 containers in the second half of 2019, he says.

Wilmsmeier says there has been global pressure to develop deepwater ports since 2008, after the shipping industry started building extra-large cargo vessels to account for a boom in trade, forcing ports to adapt and deepen. When the financial crisis hit that same year, trade volume declined, but shipping firms continued to use these new massive vessels that were now half-empty — a trend that continues today, Wilmsmeier says.

As Latin America has seen a significant trade shift toward Asia, mainly China, over the past two decades, Colombia, with its port of Buenaventura, is definitely the weakest along South America’s coast, says Wilmsmeier, who is also the former economic affairs officer for the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC). Neighboring Ecuador and Peru each have one dominant deepwater port on the Pacific, while Chile has two.

The answer isn’t to build an entirely new port, he says, but rather to adapt the one at Buenaventura, which only operates at 40% capacity as it is. The only problem with the port is its marine accessibility, and the highway that leads from Buenaventura to the nearest city of Cali, which was never fully converted to a two-lane highway. But otherwise, he says “it’s not a bad port at all.” It would be a lot cheaper to dredge 15 or 16 meters (about 50 feet) into the harbor here, rather than build a new port from nothing.

“I have until today not understood why to build a port [in Tribugá], particularly if you have port capacity in an existing port system,” Wilmsmeier says.

Catalina Ortiz, a Green Party congresswoman representing the department of Valle del Cauca, where Buenaventura is located, has been an outspoken opponent of the idea of building a new port in Tribugá, in the neighboring department of Chocó. Not only would a new port be expensive, it would also cause massive environmental damage, which in this case isn’t justified since it’s not necessary, Ortiz tells Mongabay. She says she is confident ANLA will never approve the environmental studies for the project.

Naranjo says the plan for Tribugá is for it to be the first “green port city,” and that the project will have little environmental impact. The design includes areas for public services, tourist areas, and urban dispatch areas, in addition to the docks.

Potential construction plans for Tribugá include docks that run 3.6 km (2.2 mi) long and 15 to 20 m (49-66 ft) deep, according to an Arquimedes presentation. These docks would have the capacity to receive ships carrying up to 200,000 tons, like the Panamax and Post-Panamax class of freight ships, both of which are roughly the length of three football fields and have a draft, or portion of the ship that sits underwater, of 12 to 15 m (39-49 ft).

Aerial view of the Gulf of Tribugá. Courtesy of MarViva.

‘No guarantees for local communities’

While the port is proposed for Tribugá, it is only one town in the wider municipality of Nuquí, which includes eight Afro-Colombian townships and 13 indigenous communities that could also be affected.

According to both national and international law, these populations must be consulted prior to any project planned on or near their territory, and have the right to refuse it.

Mosquera, who is based in the municipal seat of Nuquí, says neither he nor other authorities from Los Riscales have been consulted about the port yet. He says he can’t support a project that threatens community autonomy and food security. More than 600 families here live from daily fishing or collecting shellfish like the crabs and mussels that reproduce in the roots of the mangroves, he says, which would all be at risk from this massive marine infrastructure project.

The region’s nearly 5,000 hectares (12,300 acres) of mangroves are one of its unique features, according to the international marine conservation organization Marviva. These are important ecosystems where fish, invertebrates and reptiles gather to both feed and breed, which also makes them an important sources of marine protein for families in the region.

But the potential traffic of massive ships entering and leaving the coast on a daily basis will destroy the mangrove ecosytems and push fish farther out to sea or displace them altogether, making it harder for local families to survive, according to Marviva.

The communities have long had their own development and conservation initiatives to maintain this harmonious relationship with the environment they depend on, Mosquera says. This includes practicing responsible fishing, protecting the mangroves, and carrying out small-scale community agriculture, where they plant plantains, yucca or rice for local consumption, he says.

But not everyone in the town is against the port construction. The mayor of Nuquí, Yefer Gamboa, says the municipality is split over the project, with many here seeing it as a good opportunity for jobs, infrastructure like schools and hospitals, and connectivity to the rest of the country.

According to state data from 2005, 60% of the population of Nuquí don’t have their basic needs met. Problems include lack of access to water, consistent electricity supply and health care. Gamboa says some of these problems are exacerbated by the municipality’s remote location on the coast, surrounded entirely by thick rainforest. No roads connect the municipality to the interior, and the only way in is by small passenger plane to the municipal center of Nuquí, which is expensive for locals, Gamboa says, or some five hours by boat from Buenaventura.

Gamboa says he will support the construction of the deepwater port, if that’s what the majority of residents decide they want. But if the community rejects it, he says he expects the government to respect that decision, and work with locals on other development plans that address their ongoing needs.

“We have to sit down and develop our own route for development,” Gamboa says, adding the solution doesn’t need to come from Bogotá or commercial sectors in the interior.

Living off conservation

One of the ways this is already happening is through ecotourism, which is the second most important part of the local economy, after fishing, says Mayor Gamboa. And it’s growing.

Today, up to 10,000 people visit Nuquí per year, according to municipality figures. The vast majority of these visitors arrive between July and November to watch the migration of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), which migrate every year from the colder waters of southern Chile to Colombia’s Pacific coast to breed, and return the next year to give birth.

Guide books call Nuquí one of the best places for whale-watching on the coast, precisely because of the tranquility that stems from its isolation. White sandy beaches line the shores and are virtually empty, while the lush Chocó rainforest reaches right up to the water providing hiking opportunities through narrow jungle trails to natural hot springs and waterfalls. Local tour guides also bring people on excursions to see a variety of fauna, from birds, sharks, dolphins and turtles, to the occasional jaguar sighting.

Mosquera says some 40% of the population of Nuquí work in ecotourism, either as guides, cooks or lodge owners. The lodges are for the most part locally owned.

A resident of Tribuga, after finishing a town meeting to discuss a new ecotourism project. Photo by Kimberley J. Brown.

Kelly Rojas, communications manager with Marviva, says the port project puts these local ecosystems and the ecotourism economy that the communities rely on at risk.

Marviva has been working in Nuquí since 2006, predominantly with local communities to develop protected marine areas, responsible fishing practices and markets, ecotourism projects, as well as to document marine species in the area. The organization has been able to identify a wide range of unique marine life in the Gulf of Tribugá, including turtles, piangua cockles (Anadara tuberculosa), humpback whales, sharks, dolphins, a variety of fish, important coral formations, and seven different species of mangroves.

Rojas says the vibrations and contamination that would be released by the port activity and ship traffic will destroy local ecosystems and displace marine populations.It would also displace popular breeding grounds of sharks and humpback whales, he says.

“[The port] goes against everything they have. You saw that their development is very focused on conservation issues, it is very focused on fisheries, it is very focused on community tourism issues, and these are all things this port construction would directly affect,” Rojas says.

Connecting Nuquí to the rest of Colombia

Deforestation in the Chocó rainforest is another major concern, as publicly funded highways will have to be built or expanded to connect the port to the rest of the country.

Only two highways exist in the department of Chocó, which is otherwise pristine rainforest with little development. These roads connect the departmental capital, Quibdó, to the cities of Medellín and Pereira in respective neighboring departments of Antioquia and Risaralda. But both are single-lane highways that travel through winding mountain paths, and are unfit for large cargo trucks, so would have to be expanded, says Mauricio Cabrera, policy coordinator for mining with WWF. The group is part of a network called Tribugá Alliance made up of environmental organizations, researchers and local community councils that are against the port project.

The proposed highway that would connect Nuquí to the interior would leave from Las Animas, some 57 km (35 mi) south of Quibdó on the road to Pereira. So far, some 55 km (34 mi) has been built, but it resembles more of a narrow trail than a road, Cabrera says.

These road expansions would be expensive, but the expansion of a highway to Nuquí would also cross through pristine rainforest. The region from the Baudó River to the Pacific coast all the way up to the border with Panama is a known as the Baudó mountain range. It’s considered one of the most biodiverse places on the planet due to its high precipitation, receiving between 9,000 and 10,000 millimeters (354-394 inches) of rain per year, and because it’s completely untouched by human development, Cabrera says.

This area is also home to the indigenous Embera community, already considered in danger of cultural and physical extinction, according to the Constitutional Court, he says. The proposed Las Animas-Nunquí road is meant to cross directly through an Embera reserve, where 18 communities live.

“If you build a port through these territories, you’re going against the Constitutional Court, you’re going through a zone of immense biodiversity. It’s a disaster,” Cabrera says.

The region is home to endemic plants and wildlife as well as unique migratory species, including several species of birds, says Geovanny Ramirez Moreno, science director with the Pacific Environmental Research Institute (IIAP) in Chocó, part of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development charged with investigating biodiversity and communities in the Chocó rainforest. Any infrastructure development threatens these ecosystems, but the creation of roads also makes it easier for illegal loggers and miners to move deeper into the rainforest and cause even further destruction, he tells Mongabay.

These activities are already a major problem and source of violence in the state as armed groups fight over control of territory, Ramirez says. That’s also one reason why Chocó has some of Colombia’s highest rates of displaced peoples. The violence in the Chocó has continued even during the COVID-19 lockdown, implemented since March 24, with numerous reports of armed groups threatening communities, documented by the Washington Office on Latin America.

A map showing the outline of the potential size and location of the Tribugá port, which was put together by MarViva using the dimensions and information listed by Arquimedes in an online report. Map credit, Marviva.

Avoiding Buenaventura’s fate

Historically this violence has also circled Nuquí. Residents of Tribugá have been displaced twice, in 2001 and 2013, when armed groups entered the community. Most of the locals returned to their childhood homes and community gardens years later, when it was safe, but many have stayed away. Today, the houses that line the three streets in town are interspersed with abandoned homes, overgrown with trees and shrubs.

In January 2020, these houses came to life again when an indigenous Embera community from upriver in the Chocó rainforest sought shelter there. The group of 128 people had been forced to flee from armed groups that entered their territory and assassinated one of their community leaders.

Many of the locals Mongabay spoke with say they are concerned this violence could increase with a new port, which would open up access for traffickers to international trade routes.

This has been the case in Buenaventura, which has some of the highest rates of poverty, unemployment and unmet basic needs in Colombia. It’s also long been known as one of the most violent cities in Colombia, largely controlled by paramilitaries known for dismembering their victims in special “chop-up houses.”

Aida Palacios, the Tribugá community organizer, says she’s never traveled to Buenaventura, she belongs to a local media collective that creates videos about life in Tribugá and trades them with collectives in Buenaventura who do the same. The exchange, a project titled Postcards of the Future (Postales del Futuro), was designed to show communities around Nuquí what life with a port is actually like for locals on a daily basis.

In the videos Palacios has seen so far, she says people in Buenaventura are always asking for better access to hospitals, water, education and other basic services, and talking about violence.

“We see that Buenaventura has had the port for so many years and still suffers from these things … it’s kind of outrageous,” Palacios says. “I do not want to live like that.”

William Naranjo says this fear that Tribugá will turn into Buenaventura is unjustified. Arquimedes, the investor coalition he leads that’s pushing for the port, has designed the project in Tribugá to be distinct, he says. One of the problems in Buenaventura, he says, has been bad city planning and the lack of separation between the port and the city that goes right up to the harbor, which has allowed things like trafficking of goods to penetrate the whole urban area.

In the Tribugá design, workers’ residences and the port will be separate from the communities, and will also be equipped with security cameras and other monitoring devices, he says.

But Palacios is skeptical, saying violence already exists in the region and no one is doing anything about it.

Like many people Mongabay spoke to, Palacios says she is worried she will lose the tranquility and the few guarantees that locals have right now, including consistent access to food and decent homes.

“Development is more than just cement,” she says, adding, “I’m not prepared for this port, and I never will be.”

Banner image: A pristine beach in Nuqui, on the outskirts of the Chocó rainforest, is empty due to the region’s remote location. Photo by Kimberley J. Brown. 

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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