The General in His Labyrinth

Magdalena River Concession

Perhaps the only infrastructural vision in Colombia that is older than that of the Bogotá Metro, is the idea of making the river Magdalena the nation’s principal trading artery. The […]

Perhaps the only infrastructural vision in Colombia that is older than that of the Bogotá Metro, is the idea of making the river Magdalena the nation’s principal trading artery. The idea was first envisioned by none other than Colombia’s founder, and the Latin American Liberator, Simon Bolí­var, who in 1823 tasked German Engineer Juan Bernardo Elbers with the initial phases of its design. Other political priorities and tensions about how the river should be managed gradually let its prospects slip.

Laureano Gómez revitalized the process during his time as transport and public works minister in 1924, right up until the Colombian recession and debt crisis of 1929 paralyzed all public works and indefinitely suspended regeneration of the river, and again, the project blew over.

The most definitive and game changing awarding of any contract to revitalize the river came in August 2014, when Brazilian firm Odebrecht was awarded the tender to do this as part of the fourth generation (4G) of concessionary infrastructure projects, under the PPI framework. The megaproject to restore the navigability of the River Magdalena is possibly the most important of all; the sole infrastructural Project that will not only change the entire dynamic of trade domestically in Colombia, but also how the country trades with the rest of the world. The river will effectively serve as a giant highway, which will reduce Colombia’s notoriously high inland transportation bills by up to 30%, reducing the price of a barrel of petrol to approximately $13 less, a timely saving given the falling price internationally.

The river will be able to reduce congestion on the roads significantly. Studies undertaken by Cormagdalena have shown that each convoy will be able to transport 240 trailers or heavy industrial vehicles, meaning that the development of the river has huge implications for the quality of life of the average Colombian. According to the association, today, only approximately 1% of Colombian cargo is moved by the river, which infamously costs more to move from Barranquilla to Bogotá than it does from China to Barranquilla. The master planners indicate that following the restoration the river should be able to move around 10 million tons of cargo per year, today hydrocarbons, carbon, cement, clinker, and also minerals, such as sand and gravel; sugar, and organic food stuffs are being transported.

The idea is to recuperate 908km in total, and a length of 652km from the coastal town of Barranquilla until Barrancabermeja will be dredged, channeling work will be undertaken for a distance of 256km from Puerto Salgar to Barrancabermeja. The total investments in the mega works today stand at approximately $1 billion, to be invested over a period of around 13 and a half years.

The river Magdalena has 43 ports, with the three largest currently under construction and being developed by the filial of Dutch multinational commodities trader Trafigura, Impala, which is constructing a logistics base at Barrancabermeja—the petroleum industry hub. The Terminal Fluvial Andalucia is also under construction at Gamarra, and Novo Porto at Barranquilla. In addition to the new ports, two of the river’s largest existing ports, Bocas de Ceniza and Aguas profundas of the Sociedad Portuaria del Caribe (Barranquilla), are undergoing a valuable upgrading of their infrastructure and equipment.

The election of a new director for Cormagdalena in June 2015 was an important event. The organization, which is often referred to as the Superministerio, is considered to be of exceptional importance on the landscape of infrastructural projects in Colombia.

Such is the importance of the directorship of the Cormagdalena, in fact, that electing a new director has a special electoral process in which five ministries; Transport, Environment, Mines and energy, Commerce and Agriculture are all entitled to a vote, as is the President of Eco-Petrol—given they are the main commercial users of the river—Three governors: Cundinamarca, Santander, and Bolivar, the President of Inví­as, six mayors from Girardot, El Agrado, Barrancabermeja, Rí­o Viejo, Cicuco, and Suan, and a representative of the Private sector. Of these 17 potential votes, the winning candidate needs to win at least 12.

*At the time of going to print the election of a new director of Cormagdalena was on standby, as the electoral board had been unable to unanimously decide on a candidate.

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