PORT SERIES: BUENAVENTURA

Though handling 60% of the country's imports and providing 27% of its total customs revenues, Colombia's largest port, Buenaventura, languishes in neglect. Will Beijing come to the rescue?

Colombian Special Forces troops sit in an armoured vehicle as they patrol a street in the "La Playita" neighbourhood, during a visit by Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon in the port city of Buenaventura March 21, 2014. REUTERS/John Vizcaino


The Pacific port of Buenaventura, Colombia's largest, made headlines in the spring of 2017 when civil society groups kicked off a strike that brought the city of 400,000 to a near-complete standstill for three weeks.

Enraged at the poverty, violence, and neglect into which the city had been allowed to sink, it was the second such strike in four years aimed at drawing the government's attention to their plight. Their first, in 2014, merely won a series of unfulfilled promises.

Responsible for 60% of the cargo that enters the country, the 3,000 trucks that usually enter and leave the port on a given day dwindled to barely 200.

The Colombian Association of Cargo Transporters reported losses of USD16.4 million, with 11.2 million tons of cargo unable to get through. Colombia exports 22% of its annual coffee harvest, 60% of which passes through Buenaventura.

While the port generates an average USD1.8 billion for Bogotá and 27% of the country's customs revenue, only 3% of that makes its way into the city's coffers. As Julio Cesar Alonso, director of the Research Center in Economics and Finance at ICESI University in Cali, once said: “Buenaventura isn't a port city, it's a city that happens to be next to a port."

After 22 days of protests that at times descended into looting, police violence, and a citywide curfew, the leaders of the strike finally secured promises for USD517 million in funding for housing, infrastructure, justice, and public services, in addition to more funding for rural aqueducts, a new hospital, and improved access to drinking water in general.

While these measures are necessary, they will hardly be sufficient in bringing the city up to speed with the rest of the country.

An ocean and a hard place

Not only do 64% of the city's overwhelmingly Afro-Colombian inhabitants live under the poverty line, but 60% are unemployed, 50% have no access to clean drinking water, and 17% are illiterate. The city's last public hospital was recently privatized, then closed. For serious medical treatment, they must travel three hours to Cali.

The only city of any importance along Colombia's 1,400km Pacific coast, Buenaventura is also its only coastal conglomeration reachable by road.

Thanks to two recent developments, however, the historic neglect faced by the city could be coming to an end.

First, as part of a general post-conflict development push to combat the conditions in which guerrilla and bacrim (criminal networks of former rightwing paramilitaries) are able to take control of areas, the government is finally acknowledging the importance of massively increasing economic development policies.

Long one of Colombia's most deadly cities, much of the violence that has plagued Buenaventura in the past decade was the result of former president Alvaro Uribe's 2004 demobilization policies, which disbanded many of the country's most notorious rightwing paramilitaries in 2004.

However, without incarcerating the leadership or providing alternative sources of employment for the foot soldiers, many simply formed or joined bacrim that came to terrorize Buenaventura in particular in the ensuing 15 years.

Realizing this, the National Planning Department (DNP), the country's premier federal agency, recently launched the Economic Activities Centre in Buenaventura (CAEB) as the pilot program of its New Cities Program.

Aimed at creating new economic centers of growth and development in areas previously marginalized by the conflict, the program aims to kickstart the city's development first by building a 4,000-hectare logistics center through a combination of public and private investment.

The red wave

Yet Bogotá is far from the only capital that stands to gain from developing Colombia's Pacific coast. Days before the citywide strike broke out demanding more government investment, a Chinese delegation visited the CAEB site, a site into which they invested USD16 million back in 2016.

Though China has not shown anywhere near the interest in Colombia that it has in neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador, the tide may slowly be turning.

Several hundred miles north, in the dense jungles of Chocó, a heavily Afro-Colombian region that's also the country's poorest, a subsidiary of the state-owned Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) is investing in the regional capital of Quibdó.

Plunking USD2 million in the city's vastly underfunded, underused, and underserved airport, the Capital Airports Holdings Company (CAH) will receive a 15-year concession to operate the airport and increase its cargo capacity, giving the Chinese a near-monopoly on the export of Chocó's agricultural produce—93% of whose exports are now gobbled up by Beijing.

Coming up for air

Yet these still pale in comparison to the scale of local projects in the pipeline, should they ever see the light of day.

In February, Cali's El País reported that four major project bids for Buenaventura are currently under consideration at the National Infrastructure Agency (ANI): a terminal for bulk liquids, hydrocarbons, and vegetable oil at Puerto Estero de San Antonio; a new dock for handling lumber, fish, carbon, and liquids at Delta de Río Dagua; a new 150ha-terminal at Puerto Solo; and a new dock for handling timber, cement, and fish.
The people have already come to Buenaventura. But will they build it?