Colombia is looking to make the most of its dramatic geographic features, by turning Latin America's fifth longest river into a gateway for trade and transport.

The Magdalena River and its basin are the lifeblood of Colombia. Winding some 1,500 kilometers through disparate, distinctive Andean and tropical ecosystems, 18 departments and 726 municipalities of the country, the basin coves 24% of national territory and affects 60% of the population, including the capital city. It feeds the country by providing 75% of agricultural products and the majority of its coffee. Colombia's appetite for electricity is also sated by the river, which generates 70% of the country's hydroelectric power and 95% of its thermoelectricity. Significant works from the national literary canon were inspired by the Magdalena and its history, most notably in some of Gabriel García Marquez's novels and short stories. In addition, the river itself is a primary food source, with over 200 different species of fish navigating its waters at any one time.

Boats have also begun to traverse the lengthy waterway in recent years, following a half-century hiatus for passenger vessels. Approximately 2 million tons of cargo, and more than 350,000 passengers, were utilizing the channel in the mid-1950s. In 1961, the David Arango steam ferry was burned, at a time when security had dissipated throughout rural Colombia following the civil war of the 1950s, La Violencia. The expansion of the national rail network in the 1970s added to the slow decline in importance of the river. It was not until 2009, when the eco-tourism ferry Florentino Ariza took to the water, that a formal ferry service recommenced. However, the river is not entirely navigable.

Ambitions to make the Magdalena possible to negotiate by more than just ferries are high, with barges and boats expected to sail the route following an enormous project finally begun by the government. Despite two decades of attempts to start dredging the most important river in the country, and fifth longest in South America, a Ps2.1 billion concession has been made available using the public–private partnership (PPP) model. The Corporación Autónoma Regional del Río Grande de la Magdalena (Cormagdalena), key Colombian oil firms, the national government, and departments situated along the river are set to contribute. The concession stipulated a requirement to complete the channeling of the river within a period of three years, and the dredging process over the course of 10 years.

The aim is to transform the Magdalena and to ultimately increase its cargo capacity from 1.5 million tons to 6 million tons. Currently, the cost of moving a container from the center of the country to the coast by road is $3,200; by river, it is estimated that it will cost $1,800. Along with four new ports to assist in the loading of freight, the newly accessible river will provide a critical path for the export of coal and other important commodities from the interior along the channel to the Caribbean port of Barranquilla.

Impala, a subsidiary of the commodities firm Trafigura, has taken the lead in investing in this project to overcome the expenses of road-based logistics. “Moving infrastructure, mining, and oil equipment by road is difficult, complex and very expensive. The Magdalena River, therefore, becomes an attractive — and exciting — proposition for the convenient transportation of such large-sized cargo," explained its General Manager, Alejandro Costa Posada. “Any company engaged in the construction of power plants and energy generation infrastructure, such as thermal or gas energy, which will be sorely needed if the country is to achieve its expansion goals, is eager for a solution to this thorny problem."

With a total investment of $800 million, Impala is creating a brand new inland port at Barrancabermeja which will be used to load grain, coal, crude oil and naphtha, steel, and containers from Boyacá and Cundinamarca, as well as a number of other inaccessible central regions. This facility is being built over 500,000 sqm and will be capable of storing up to 720,000 barrels of crude oil or naphtha and 100,000 tons of coal. In addition, more than 130 cargo barges, tens of tugboats, and other specialized port terminals for difficult bulk cargoes.

This transformative process will increase the ability of Colombian firms to export their produce at a reasonable price. However, as with other large-scale projects such as this, the potential for environmental disruption and even pollution is a concern for some. The abundant, varied ecosystems that run with the river support a range of endemic species, including over 800 bird species and the aforementioned genera of fish. One of Cormagdalena's core missions is to ensure the protection of this biodiversity, and to this end the organization has sought the help of experts with knowledge of the Mississippi river to determine the correct balance between navigation and conservation, and developed a comprehensive strategy to preserve the fragile ecology of these regions.

The opening up of the Magdalena river to the passage of vessels for cargo and travel will unlock the potential of Colombia's verdant interior to the wider world. Provided that the key stakeholders continue to comply with their own rigorous environmental regulations, the channel will augment vital sectors of the economy, including tourism, mining, energy, and logistics, giving a new lease on life to this emerging regional leader.