Stretching from the Pacific ocean to the Caribbean, the Colombian department of Chocó is a land of natural and cultural abundance. The basin of the Atrato River, which flows into the Gulf of Urabá near the Panamanian border, holds a dense equatorial rainforest, largely still intact. It is home to Afro-descendant communities and Indigenous Embera and Katio peoples, and the capital Quibdó is one of the most important cities in the Colombian Pacific.
The easiest route to Quibdó from Medellín, the capital of the neighbouring department of Antioquia, is via a zigzagging and unstable road that descends from the Andes mountain range into the jungle. On a quiet day, this journey takes seven to eight hours. However, the landslides that often block the roads make guessing the time of arrival a fool’s game.
The complicated geography and the dense and rugged forests make communication difficult. Some areas can only be reached by plane or boat. This inaccessibility makes it an ideal place for armed groups who profit from drug trafficking and extortion, and who have taken over one of the most biodiverse places in Colombia. And the remote terrain hasn’t prevented environmental destruction: 30,600 hectares of primary rainforest – equivalent to an area twice the size of Miami – was lost between 2002 and 2021.
If that were not enough, poverty is a constant here. In Quibdó, the department’s most developed city, 70% of the population is considered poor.
In this context the local population has begun to look for business opportunities that allow them to earn an income without harming their environment.
One of the key pledges of the new Colombian government is environmental protection. At the last United Nations climate change conference in November 2022, President Gustavo Petro proposed “10 commandments” for action on climate change and spoke of “valuing the branches of the decarbonised economy”. Also last November, during the country’s first national meeting on biodiversity, the National Green Business Plan 2030 was presented, a 200-page document that aims to promote and scale up sustainable businesses in Colombia.
Andreina González, from the green business office of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, says that the green business plan is expected to reverse the destruction of Colombia’s natural forests, protect 30% of marine areas, contribute to carbon neutrality by 2050, promote green jobs and consolidate the income of sustainable ventures across the country.
The plan includes support to help sustainable enterprises – businesses that have a positive effect, or at least minimal negative impact, on the environment – to scale up and consolidate. Across the country there are 4,162 green businesses, according to figures from the Ministry of the Environment.
They already have a presence in 750 municipalities in Colombia, contributing approximately 700 billion pesos (US$146 million) to the country’s economy – a modest figure, but one which is growing. The latest official figures show a 30% increase in the number of green businesses in the year to May 2022.
For the people of Chocó, green business could offer a path to a better future. To date, the department is home to 163 such enterprises.
A win-win opportunity
In 2022, Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office issued three early warnings about imminent risks to the population of Chocó due to clashes between armed groups and drug traffickers increasing in the area.
The latest alert related to an armed strike in the lower Chocó last December, announced by the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest remaining guerrilla group in the country. In Colombia, armed strikes refer to actions by illegal armed groups in which they attack civilian life and official armed forces, by blocking roads and restricting mobility. The ELN claimed this was to control the military actions of The Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo), another paramilitary group that profits from drug trafficking and has challenged the ELN’s territorial control in the Chocó jungles.
Carlos Devia, an expert in sustainable business and a professor at the Faculty of Environmental and Rural Studies at Javeriana University, believes there is a relationship between the conflict and the lack of opportunities in territories such as Chocó.
Sustainable business is a win-win opportunity for the country. If the communities benefit, so do the rest of us.
“Sustainable business is a win-win opportunity for the country,” he tells Diálogo Chino. “If the communities benefit, so do the rest of us. That’s what we have to aim for.”
He also points to the need to provide a market to attract more entrepreneurs. “The coca leaf grower is in this business because he has an effective buyer,” says Devia. “He has a market where he is guaranteed a sale and a profit. The same needs to happen for green businesses and other crops, to make them sustainable.”
The total absence of state services, such as electricity, drinking water and access roads, is a major obstacle in remote areas of the country like Chocó, Devia adds. “Even access to a telephone is very hard to come by in many communities,” he says.
Nevertheless, he believes there is a huge potential to create alternative and sustainable livelihoods. This is a necessity in a country like Colombia, where half the territory – 50 million hectares – is forest.
The green business plan should be adopted as a long-term plan for Colombia, one which transcends different political administrations, Devia believes: this would help to “keep violence and law-breaking at bay throughout the country.”
Threats and extortion
Alicia Mejia* is the founder of a sustainable business in Chocó.
“Entrepreneurship has not been an easy task,” she tells Diálogo Chino. “Unfortunately we have big problems with public order.” After facing threats and extortion from a local gang, who sought bribes from her in exchange for allowing her to carry out her business in safety, she fled to Medellín together with her family. She now makes secret visits to Chocó to oversee the work at her factory.
“He who does not pay dies,” says Mejia. “We decided to leave. At this moment I am in mourning. It is very sad to have to flee as if we were the criminals.” Mejia wants more support from the state so her business can thrive without the fear of violence.
On the coast of Chocó lies Nuquí, a dream destination, where dense jungle meets the Pacific Ocean. It is not accessible by land, and must be reached by plane or by sea. Between July and October, groups of humpback whales come from Antarctica – 8,500 kilometres away – to give birth in its warm waters.
The beauty of the landscape is set against a backdrop of armed conflict and deforestation. But the locals believe tourism can be a way of promoting sustainable development while protecting the environment.
“We defend the territory, the conservation of the environment, the rivers and the jungle,” explains Nelfer Valoyes of the Cumbancha cooperative. “Our tourism practices are clearly responsible. Our customers take their rubbish with them so as not to leave anything in the communities.”
Cumbancha offers tourists the opportunity to explore the primary forests, guided by local inhabitants who have received training in caring for wildlife and waste management. It also provides trips to humpback whale-watching spots and secluded beaches.
Valoyes adds that their work isn’t just about selling trips to tourists, but also involves the care of mangroves, forests and the coastal marine area: “Our role is to educate people about biodiversity conservation.”
To help support entrepreneurs in Chocó, the National Development Corporation (Codechocó) created the “Green Shop” in Quibdó.
“Entrepreneurs did not used to have a space to sell their products,” explains Heidi Rosero, the shop’s coordinator. “This space was created to raise consumer awareness. We have to create a model of sustainable consumption.”
Rosero explains that the shop guides entrepreneurs to develop products that are profitable and have a positive environmental impact.
In early February, the EU ambassador to Colombia, Gilles Bertrand, made an official visit to Quibdó. He visited the shop, and reaffirmed plans to strengthen international cooperation to achieve economic and social development for the people of Chocó.
The local population, though, remains sceptical of the promises of President Petro’s new government and the European representatives. What they want is concrete action.
“Being an entrepreneur requires a lot of investment,” says Mejia. “We don’t need welfare, we need the government to help us, once and for all, to promote and strengthen our businesses.”
She dreams of one day being able to export her products overseas. In the meantime, she wants to live in peace and go about her business in safety.
*Name changed to protect identity.