When the frontrunner in Colombian elections taking place on Sunday, Ivan Duque, failed to participate in the third presidential debate in the Pacific port city of Buenaventura last month, critics interpreted it as a sign of elites’ historic neglect of a desperately impoverished part of the country. Chinese investors, however, have been looking to bring significant investment to the Chocó region. Yet, in doing so, they will exacerbate an unequal form of economic development based on the extraction of natural resources that brings little benefit to the local population. Capital Airports Holdings Company (CAH), a company wholly owned by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), plans to invest almost US$2 million in the modernisation and expansion of the airport in the regional capital Quibdó. Largely isolated due to its challenging geographical conditions and unsafe road connections, the new possibility of international flights could connect regional capital Quibdó to global markets. The deal will include a 15-25 year concession to operate the airport and will increase its cargo capacity, enabling China to secure its monopoly on exports from the region’s agriculture, forestry and mining sectors, the share of which has already grown from just 2% a decade ago to 93% last year, according to data from Colombia’s Central Bank. Quibdó is so underdeveloped that it does not even have water pipelines or a sewer system. It has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country, with poor access to health services, low levels of education and recreation infrastructure and high levels of corruption. With this in mind, it is difficult to argue that the investment in modernising and extending the local airport is a priority for the local community. So who stands to benefit?
Quibdó: an international or a socially exclusive city? Quibdo’s local inhabitants (including local academics), speak proudly of the forthcoming internationalisation of the city and the progress that this project will bring to the wider region. However, an important consequence of this FDI is that improved transport infrastructure will pull in more foreign investment and will facilitate extractive activities in El Chocó. This new investment is already tangible in Quibdó. In 2017, a private real estate company began constructing a new shopping complex with cinemas and a casino and playgrounds. A private international consortium is promoting a business and residential complex with high-rise luxury towers which would consist of a hotel, offices and apartments meeting ‘high international standards’. So far, however, what activity there has been in the mining and real estate sectors have brought few benefits and it is difficult to argue that new projects like this will guarantee a more prosperous future for inhabitants for whom properties and luxury facilities will be out of reach.
Chinese in Chocó: refuelling conflict? In the last decade, extractive industries such as gold mining have developed and expanded in El Chocó with enormous environmental and social consequences. By 2001, gold mining activities had destroyed 302 hectares of rainforest, but by 2014 this had increased to 36,185 hectares, according to national newspaper El Tiempo. This situation becomes even more complex when in many cases the production of commodities is managed by illegal armed groups, which also control coca production and narcotrafficking in the region. Therefore, extractive economies in El Chocó are not only environmentally destructive but also non-inclusive and benefit only a narrow group of local elites. According to the latest report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, (OECD) the profits from illegal mining in Chocó are laundered locally in sectors such as real estate. Between 2010 and 2014 Quibdó’s construction sector recorded the highest rate of economic growth (13%) of any sector, followed by real estate and financial services (8,2%), according to the Colombian Central Bank’s annual Regional Economic Report (ICER 2015) for Chocó. This activity therefore has a direct impact on the built urban environment in cities such as Quibdó and gives an illusory impression of economic development. That is, new construction developments that are not responding to a growing demand for housing or leisure. Quibdó does not have enough of a state presence or a resilient enough local economy to withstand a boom in this kind of internationalised trade and investment driven by China’s demand for raw materials, or to ensure benefits are redistributed locally. Data from Colombia’s Central Bank shows that since 2012 exports have become highly concentrated in the Chinese market. China’s huge growth in metal imports for construction materials began in the 1990s and widened between 2003-2011. But it started to decline in 2012. Rapid urbanisation and construction in China in this period enabled it to stimulate economic activity and overcome the global recession of 2008, according to distinguished geographer, David Harvey. However, this fall in metal imports since 2012 is not true for precious metals such as gold, an important element in high-technology manufactured goods such as smart phones, to which China’s economy has shifted attention in recent years. What next for Quibdó? The airport concession to CAH promotes development under a ‘neoliberal’ framework as a ‘way to pay’ for Colombia’s historic neglect of the Chocó region. Moreover, the state is taking advantage of this foreign direct investment (FDI) to be seen as working for the development of Chocó, large parts of which were controlled by guerrilla group-turned-political party FARC. These decentralised policies looked for a more ‘active social policy’ and political participation. However, in rolling back the state, and as geographers Peck and Tickell point out; “[…] local institutions and actors were being given responsibility without power, while international institutions and actors were gaining power without responsibility”. FDI in large infrastructure projects in Quibdó is transforming the city. Despite new real estate projects, shopping malls and casinos springing up and being marketed as a part of a modern, luxury playground, such a level of wealth is wholly unimaginable for the vast majority of its inhabitants. They more accurately represent the result of foreign investors putting pressure on nation-states with few alternatives to open their doors for economic activity in weakly administered and regions that have strategic resource value. Coordinating a response The interest in developing the ‘marginalised’ Colombian Pacific not only comes from China and Colombia. Neighbouring Latin American countries also aim to benefit from its greater connectivity. The economic bloc the Pacific Alliance, formed in 2011 which comprises Colombia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru, seeks to ‘…form a regional trading bloc and forge stronger economic ties with the Asia-Pacific region’. China’s investment agenda in El Chocó presents yet another challenge for the Colombia as it navigates the post-peace deal era since the impacts of this growth in trade must take into account not only the unequal economic benefits but the environmental degradation and social injustice.
China – the world’s biggest importer of iron 1992-2014 (%). Source: ECLAC, 2016
The interest in developing the ‘marginalised’ Colombian Pacific not only comes from China and Colombia. Neighbouring Latin American countries also aim to benefit from its greater connectivity. The economic bloc the Pacific Alliance, formed in 2011 which comprises Colombia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru, seeks to ‘…form a regional trading bloc and forge stronger economic ties with the Asia-Pacific region’. China’s investment agenda in El Chocó presents yet another challenge for the Colombia as it navigates the post-peace deal era since the impacts of this growth in trade must take into account not only the unequal economic benefits but the environmental degradation and social injustice. The response to China in El Chocó must be undertaken through processes of participation and open consultation. Many zones affected by mining are circumscribed in well-organised, collective afro-descendant and indigenous territories (i.e. Consejo Comunitario Mayor de la Asociación Campesina Integral de Atrato -COCOMACIA, which is the major Community Council of the Integral Peasant Association of the Atrato). Ignoring these communities by granting mining licenses in their territory without prior consultation is also a violation of their territorial rights. FDI should guarantee the mutual benefit of the investor and the local community, allow the transfer of technology and build local capacity. With closer monitoring by the next government in partnership with local communities, Chinese investments could act as a catalyst for the economic inclusion of local communities, the sustainable development of El Chocó, and could help contribute to the process of building the peace.