Colombia: Battle Over Proposed Tribugá Port Puts Sustainable Development In Focus – Analysis


By Dimitri Selibas*

The area surrounding the town of Nuquí and its neighboring bay of Tribugá on Colombia’s northern Pacific coast has some of highest levels of rainfall in the world, a unique geography snuggled between tropical mountains and the ocean, and a mega-abundance of exceptional biodiversity. It is home to nature reserves, virgin forests, mangroves, breeding areas for turtles and whales, and Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities whose worldviews are intimately intertwined with the territory and its natural resources.

But a battle has also been raging here against the proposed construction of a deep-water port in the jungle-rimmed bay of Tribugá. On Sept. 29, Colombia’s port authority rejected the developer’s application to construct the port, but a new application can still be submitted. And while the environmental impacts of the proposed port project have been extensively documented, less is known about the economic arguments and how the proposed port represents a disjuncture in what development means for local communities, and for those from outside.

Under Colombia’s Constitution, ethnic communities like those around Tribugá must be consulted prior to the start of any major infrastructure project.

“To understand the relationship the people have with the territory, a relationship which is historical and ancestral … they say that ‘I’m from here, my umbilical cord is planted here,’” said researcher Julian Idrobo about the Afro-Colombian community’s ties to the land in this area. “When they are born it is removed, treated and planted next to a tree … so can you imagine how deep their relationship is with nature?”

Idrobo, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental and natural resource management, spoke to Mongabay in a recent video interview. Between 2016 and 2018, he co-directed a research project that explored the role of biodiversity in improving the quality of life and reconstructing the social fabric of small-scale fishing communities in the region.

He explained how, since Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities gained their collective title deeds to the land around Tribugá, they have been fighting to protect and conserve it while not just subsisting, but actually “living well.” These communities’ values extend beyond the economic, and emphasize factors like good relationships and mutual care for one another and the environment, with everything revolving around food.


In 2018, the Nuquí Alliance was formed, made up of delegates from three Indigenous reservations and the Afro-Colombian Los Riscales Community Council, lawyers, Los Andes University, WWF, Conservation International, and foundations working in the region and promoting sustainable fishing, agriculture, ecotourism, Afro-Colombian culture, and marine conservation.

In addition to resisting the proposed port project, the Nuquí Alliance proposed an alternative development model for the area that considers the region’s distinctive ecology and the unique cultures of the predominantly Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. Through a participatory process with the communities, a plan for the area’s development was established called the Integrated Management District (DMI) of the Gulf of Tribugá and Cabo Corrientes.

A map showing the outline of the potential size and location of the Tribugá port, which was put together by MarViva using the dimensions and information listed by Arquimedes in an online report. Map credit, Marviva.

Harry Mosquera, president of Los Riscales Community Council in Nuquí, said in a call to Mongabay that within the DMI the communities have defined their economic model based on artisanal fishing, community-based ecotourism, organic agriculture, and sustainable forestry. “In this sense, we have defined our production systems, which characterize us as a different model from other models that have been established in the interior of the country, in this case the port of Tribugá.”

Alternative economies

MarViva, a marine conservation NGO, has been working in Nuquí for nearly 14 years, helping produce scientific research to establish the DMI and working closely with Los Riscales Community Council to support processes of local governance and participation. The NGO is also active in working with artisanal fishers to strengthen value chains between them and commercial businesses through the responsible fishing standards that MarViva developed, showing how there is an already functioning model that can be used in Tribugá.

WOK, a Colombian Asian-inspired restaurant chain, has for past 10 years worked with artisanal fishers, mostly in Bahia Solano, further up the coast from Tribugá. The restaurant group now purchases almost all its wild-caught fish from these artisanal fishers. Simon Vieira, WOK’s sustainability director, told Mongabay in an interview that with the help of MarViva they were able to implement responsible fishing standards for the restaurants. He added that the practices of artisanal fishers are well-suited to sustainability, for example being able to select fish species that are not endangered and whose size indicates they have already reached breeding age.

Vieira said he often speaks to fishers about this and how in the past it was much easier for their fathers and grandfathers to catch fish. Consumers are also increasingly conscious, and many more restaurants are looking for responsibly sourced fish. “I explain to them that it is the future … because if not, the fish will run out,” he said. “The only way to strengthen these communities is through responsible fishing.”

A significant part of life on Colombia’s Pacific coast revolves around food, and the region’s cuisine is renowned throughout the country, with tourists flocking annually to Nuquí’s women-led Pacific Gastronomy Festival. This adds another aspect to the region’s community-based ecotourism economy, with the biggest attraction remaining the more than 1,500 humpback whales that come to Tribugá to mate and give birth every year between July and November, drawing thousands of visitors to the region.

Research has already shown how the proposed port could increase noise pollution levels, which is particularly harmful to whales, which depend on acoustic signals for their reproduction, foraging and communication processes. The port could also increase the risks of accidental entanglement and collision with boats, and in the long term force the whales away from Tribugá.

The Tribugá area is also home to 1,865 hectares (4,608 acres) of mangroves, half of which would be lost if the port were constructed. Mangroves are one of the most efficient ecosystems for capturing carbon; a February 2019 study published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Policy showed the ecosystem services for the region that would be lost would equate to approximately $232 million per year.

In recognition of the environmental conservation work being done by communities in Tribugá, in July 2020 the community council in Nuquí won a joint award for Good Sustainable Development Practices. The award was granted by the Global Compact Network Colombia for how the communities are achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

CODECHOCÓ, the independent governmental sustainable development corporation for the department of Chocó, where Tribugá is located, was a key part of the developing the DMI with the community. It publicly stated its position against the port in May 2020. In an interview with Mongabay, the director of CODECHOCÓ, Arnold Rincón López, said the management plan for the DMI would come into effect as soon as COVID-19 gathering restrictions were lifted and the communities could then sign it off.

“The sustainable development of Chocó and Nuquí are in the hands of the communities,” he said. “They are the ones that need to make the decisions about their sustainable development.”

A port necessary for economic growth and fighting poverty?

In spite of its abundance of natural and cultural resources, Chocó department is one of the poorest regions in Colombia, where 15.1% of the population live in extreme poverty, compared to the national average of 2.7%.

William Naranjo is the general manager of Arquimedes Port Society SA (Arquimedes), the shareholding company behind the proposed port and its associated infrastructure projects. He told Mongabay in an interview that the Chocó government believes the port is the only project that can bring economic and social development to the department, which is why the project is also part of the department’s development plans, and Colombia’s as a whole.

He said the port in Tribugá would provide jobs and boost the local and regional economies, and would be better designed than Buenaventura, the only major port currently on Colombia’s Pacific coast. He added it would also provide the final connection in the Tribugá-Arauca road that crosses the entire breadth of Colombia.

Naranjo said that with increasing trade in the Pacific Ocean, another port is inevitable, and that planning needs to done looking decades into the future. “And undoubtably Colombia’s Pacific coast won’t only need two ports, but three, four, or five,” he said.

A PowerPoint presentation obtained from Arquimedes’s shows plans for constructing the port and its supporting infrastructure, including a train system to the interior of the country. The document is not publicly available; Mongabay received a copy from external sources. In the document, Arquimedes says the port would increase Colombia’s export capacity, significantly boost the productivity and competitiveness of the national and regional economies, and create a lot of direct employment.

Despite arguments for jobs and money, resistance to the project over the years has remained fierce.

Catalina Ortiz, a congresswoman representing the department of Valle del Cauca, Chocó’s southern neighbor where Buenaventura is situated, has been an outspoken opponent of the port in Tribugá, also working closely with the Nuquí Alliance. She said in an interview with Mongabay that although she is responsible for economic issues, she became involved in Tribugá because it didn’t make sense to intervene in a pristine natural environment when there was another option readily available. The port of Buenaventura is very close by, she said, and it has existing infrastructure place and is being underutilized.

Ortiz said Buenaventura was running at 52% of its full capacity even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, it’s running at 30%, illustrating that another port is not needed. “Because if at full capacity we are not using the current port, what is to say one will be used a bit further up? There is no evidence in this sense,” Ortiz said. “I became interested in this because I couldn’t allow an ecocide to happen when the economic value is somewhere else.”

Buenaventura currently has a maximum depth of 15.5 meters (51 feet), which means that large ships with heavy cargo cannot dock there, decreasing its possible port traffic. Buenaventura’s underutilization recently worsened as additional traffic was taken away when Ecuador opened a new deep-water port in Guayaquil.

Diana Aranda, a former adviser to Congresswoman Ortiz, researched the economic arguments presented by Arquimedes and said in an interview with Mongabay that a new port in Tribugá is not necessary. Among other points, Buenaventura could be dredged and turned into a deep-water port, she said. Although dredging has significant environmental impacts, both Aranda and Ortiz agree that these impacts will be far less pronounced in a region where there’s an existing port, rather than in a pristine natural ecosystem. With improvements to existing transport infrastructure, which are overdue and supposed to have been paid for by the Colombian government, Aranda said the total cost for this would be approximately $422 million.

There are no roads connecting Tribugá to the interior of Colombia, so for the port in Tribugá to function, Arquimedes has proposed a train system that would run to Chocó’s capital of Quibdó. But Aranda calculated that all of this would also require upgrading other existing road infrastructure, adding up to a total estimated cost of $1 billion.

Arquimedes’s project proposal also says that direct employment related to the port would amount to 3,384 jobs annually. But Aranda said that from their calculations for Buenaventura, a city of 500,000 people, only 1,500 direct and 7,000 indirect jobs were generated. Opponents to the port project also worry it will not necessarily bring positive development to the area. Although Buenaventura remains one of the most important ports in Colombia, accounting for 65% of the country’s exports, the city’s resident have on average only 4.5 hours of running water each day, and 41% of the population lives in poverty.

A lack of necessary licenses

The proposed port in Tribugá also needs to comply with mandatory licensing processes. Angela Sanchez from SIEMBRA, the group of environmental lawyers supporting the Nuquí Alliance, said in an interview with Mongabay that Arquimedes has not been able to move ahead in this respect.

ANLA, Colombia’s environmental licensing authority, has requested that Arquimedes submit an environmental alternatives diagnostic report as a first step before conducting the environmental impact assessment that is mandatory for all port projects. Sanchez shared with Mongabay a 41-page report that the lawyers sent to ANLA, analyzing step-by-step how Arquimedes had not complied with the requirements of the diagnostics report.

ANLA requested that Arquimedes resubmit the document, which is still pending. With a growing body of scientific evidence showing the environmental incompatibility of the port in this area, it was unclear how Arquimedes could comply with this essential step to construct the port. Yet in late August 2020, the governor of Chocó, Ariel Palacios, newly returned to office after being suspended due to corruption allegations, called a special departmental assembly to declare the port of Tribugá a “public utility,” meaning that it could potentially bypass environmental regulations to fast-track its construction.

This caused a public outcry in Colombia, with many prominent actors, musicians and other celebrities posting videos on social media, stating their opposition to the port project. Their actions led to the hashtag #NoAlPuertoDeTribugá becoming a trending topic on Twitter that day.

Edwin Novoa, from the Environment and Society Association, headed a recent investigation into how the “public utility” definition is often used in large construction projects that often result in massive environmental damage. In an interview with Mongabay, he said one of their biggest findings was that economists and environmentalists can have their positions, but no objective standards exist to declare a project as a “public utility.”

Novoa said that in Colombia the environmental impact assessments are often done as many as 10 years after the project has been declared a public utility. “You would assume that on one side you would have a clear list of the environmental impacts and what negative costs it would bring, and to clearly also have the economic benefits,” he said. “And you would assume a cost benefit analysis would be done … but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen … when you declare something as public utility … no environmental criteria need to be complied with.”

For now, the discussion in Chocó’s assembly about the about public utility of the Tribugá port project has been put on hold, with assembly members saying they did not feel sufficiently informed to make such a large decision. They have requested that the debate wait until the general assembly reconvenes in October.

In addition to the process with ANLA, the proposed project also needs to get a port license from ANI, Colombia’s National Infrastructure Agency, which is responsible for granting concessions to construct new ports. On Sept. 29, ANLA officially rejected Arquimedes’s application for a port concession as it had failed to meet certain requirements, including having an insurance policy in place to cover the cost of the port.

SIEMBRA lawyer Angela Sanchez said that Arquimedes had taken out a zero-value policy instead of the required insured value of $7,649,668, sharing with Mongabay an official letter they wrote to ANI highlighting this issue and other deficiencies in the port application. Although the application process can be restarted, Sanchez suggested that the inability to pay for the policy shows that Arquimedes does not have the investors it claims to have backing the project. In response to the news, Arquimedes general manager William Naranjo told a Colombian news publication that they would be considering their legal options as they still believed in the importance for the country of building the port.

Besides these legal issues, concerns have also been raised about who is investing in the project. Based on a list of shareholders of the Arquimedes Group as of Dec. 31, 2019, provided to Mongabay, the single biggest shareholder in Arquimedes, at 15.8%, is the Tribugá Pacific Port Society. Mongabay also received a copy of the company’s certificates of incorporation and legal representation, and upon further research found how several of the company’s directors are politicians and businessmen who were, or are, under investigation for problematic public contracts. The most high-profile case is that of director Isaias Chala, the former mayor of Chocó’s capital, Quibdó, who was jailed for corruption.

The meaning of development

Researcher Julian Idrobo said one of the biggest problems in Nuquí is that it reflects two models of governance — between the state and the local level — which is where the tensions and problems emerge.

He added that the port would bring huge problems, but it would also represent the country’s current development model. Planning and development need to integrate other perspectives, beyond the economic, such as ancestral, cultural, and environmental values.

“Nuquí is a laboratory of development alternatives,” Idrobo said, “and how these territories can think of sustainability in a different way.”

*About the author: Dimitri Selibas is writer and photographer from South Africa, currently based in Bogota, Colombia. His stories concentrate on the interactions between people and the environment, focusing on social justice, culture, travel, cities, health, and environmental defenders.

Source: This article was published by


Mongabay is a U.S.-based non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. Rhett A. Butler founded in 1999 out of his passion for tropical forests. He called the site Mongabay after an island in Madagascar.

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