TRIBUGÁ, COLOMBIA — Aida Leides Palacios Moreno strolls through the narrow dirt streets in the Colombian town of Tribugá surrounded by palm and plantain trees rustling in the seaside breeze. She’s trying to round up her neighbors for a meeting to discuss yet another ecotourism project.
It’s a quiet morning in February. Most of the town’s men have already gone off to work in community gardens, or to collect shellfish from the more than 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) of mangroves that line the shore surrounding the town. The mangrove forests, which grow in the mud of brackish water, are a unique feature of this part of Colombia’s Pacific coast in the Chocó rainforest. It is one of the most biologically diverse areas of world, with some of the highest number of endemic plants in South America.
The 20 or so people who attend the meeting express optimism that a tourist economy can grow and provide an alternative to the deepwater port that for years has been planned for this very spot. Many locals fear the port could displace them altogether.
“We don’t have money, but we live calmly,” says Palacios, a mother of three who was born and raised in Tribuga, “but we are now again being threatened by the port.”
The idea for this mega infrastructure project in the Gulf of Tribugá has been debated for decades, and across generations. Palacios, 27, says her grandfather was a little boy when talk of a port started to circulate around the town. It has since surfaced periodically over the years, but always disappeared.
Many trace the idea back to 1953, when then-President Gustavo Rojas Pinilla cited the need for another port on the Pacific coast as an alternative to Buenaventura, just 200 kilometers (120 miles) south, to boost international trade and local development.
The plan has stalled for various reasons over the years, but under the current government of President Iván Duque, this project looks closer than ever to becoming a reality. In 2019, the government approved the 2018-2022 National Development Plan, which promotes the construction of a new deepwater port and all “complementary infrastructure,” including roads and railways. Discussions for the project have continued even throughout the COVID-19 crisis, according to media reports.
Many locals and environmentalists have long said this is not the kind of development this pristine region of the Chocó rainforest needs, and violates the sovereignty of the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that live here. Harry Samir Mosquera, president of the Afro-Colombian community council Los Riscales, says there’s no way this project fits with the locals’ way of life, economy, and conservation plans.
“This port does not offer a better guarantee of well-being and development for the local communities,” Mosquera says, adding, “This is development well thought out for foreigners and for investors who will live off their business of moving cargo.”