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Dreamed of for 150 Years, Port Helps Afro-Colombian Communities Improve Their Lives

Also available in: Spanish

A never-ending field of banana trees greets visitors flying into Apartadó, a town in the Antioquia Department of Colombia on the Caribbean Sea. The area near the border with Panama accounts for over 75 percent of the country’s banana production.

A visitor might expect to find a world-class port facility to export all those bananas. Instead, you would learn that the first proposal to build a port in the Gulf of Urabá was discussed in 1871, but after several dozen false starts over the course of 150 years, construction just started in 2022. This was only possible because the community council of Puerto Girón, one of the Afro-Colombian communities affected by the project, resolved a legal obstacle that had frozen construction In 2019.

Puerto Antioquia: Building a State-of-the-Art Port Facility

Andrés Bustos Isaza, Chief Institutional Officer of Puerto Bahía Colombia de Urabá / Puerto Antioquia, the developer of the new, privately managed port located on the southeastern side of the Gulf of Urabá in Antioquia, said it will serve container ships of up to 366 meters in length and handle 14,000 20-foot-long cargo containers.

Agricultural products (bananas, pineapple, and avocados), vehicles, and general cargo will be handled using two inter-connected facilities consisting of a 1.38-kilometer offshore deck and an inland terminal and logistics facility expanding over 38 hectares connected by a 3.8-kilometer viaduct and access road.

“The facilities at Puerto Antioquia will replace the use of private barges to get agricultural exports to container ships out in the open sea where they are currently loaded with the ship’s cranes,” Bustos Isaza said. “Up to five container ships will be served at a time.”

While not among the biggest ports in Colombia, Puerto Antioquia is expected to have a significant impact on the country’s economy. The port will be the closest one to the production centers of about 70 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product as well as to the Panama Canal.

Once operational, businesses in the golden triangle extending from Medellín, Bogotá, and the “Eje Cafetero” (Coffee Axis) will be able to conduct export/import activity in a location over 350 kilometers closer than any other port. Bustos Isaza believes that the reduced transportation and operational costs due to faster port access and a modern facility to streamline operations will attract major businesses and new shipping lines as well.

J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. provided a $103.7 million loan facility to Financiera de Desarrollo Nacional S.A. (FDN), a state-owned enterprise created to promote infrastructure in Colombia, which in turn provided debt financing to Puerto Antioquia. MIGA guaranteed J.P. Morgan’s loan.

Paola Horrillo Espitia, an FDN official, said providing financing for the development of Puerto Antioquia was a high priority. “This is one of the infrastructure projects with the greatest potential impact on Colombia’s competitiveness in the world markets. We know that the country’s economy will benefit as exporting and importing activity will be conducted with vastly improved efficiency when the port begins operations,” she said.

FDN welcomed MIGA’s support to secure dollar funding from J.P. Morgan, a major participant in international capital markets, at a favorable cost that it would not have been able to obtain otherwise. Development of the port was also supported by the Inter-American Development Bank through IDB Invest as senior lender. Construction costs for the port are estimated to exceed $700 million, with the initial phase costing about $400 million.

José Ocampo Gaviria, Colombia’s Minister of Finance when Puerto Antioquia initiated construction, observed that the country’s relationships with international development organizations like the World Bank were critical to overcome the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have worked to facilitate foreign direct investment, allowing private investors to participate in all economic sectors,” Ocampo Gaviria said. “MIGA’s support for projects in Colombia over the past few years is greatly appreciated.  We look forward to many more future collaborations.”

Las Comunidades: Rooted in the Past, Claiming Collective Rights Today

The Afro-Colombian communities in Colombia trace their roots back to the people who came from diverse African regions and ethnic groups and were brought to the American continent as slaves. Each community consists of a group of families with a culture, traditions, and customs that distinguish it from other ethnic groups. They were first legally recognized in the 1990s as a people with collective rights to land and ancestral knowledge, contributing to Colombia’s ethnic and cultural diversity.

The Consejo Communitario (Community Council) of Puerto Girón represents some 700 residents as they claim the right to the lands where the community has lived for generations. This claim created what appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle to the development of Puerto Antioquia, which includes construction over a portion of those lands. Families live in small wooden structures built on stilts. “We have many basic needs,” explained Porfirio Serna, one of the council leaders. “Our community has no running water and access to electricity produced by a generator is limited to a few hours a day. There is no hospital nearby. Our pregnant women are at risk when giving birth.”

Due to the land rights claim of Puerto Girón, the Courts had imposed restrictions on an area of more than 11,000 hectares that prevented the developers from obtaining environmental permits while the claim was still being considered. Port developers had closed their local office as the standoff continued over two years beginning in 2019. “We did not see a clear path to solve the impasse before the court,” Bustos Isaza explained. “We thought the project had reached a dead end.”  

Las Comunidades and Puerto Antioquia: Planning a Better Future Together

Puerto Antioquia was committed to a participatory development process that addressed economic, social, and environmental concerns, seeking solutions acceptable to all stakeholders beyond those required by law. It had worked carefully to build trust among the affected communities over the eight years from inception of the project. MIGA, IDB Invest, and FDN worked closely with Puerto Antioquia to support the implementation of MIGA’s Environmental and Social Performance Standards.

“We knew from prior experience with other port developments that engaging the affected communities was critical to the success of Puerto Antioquia,” said Bustos Isaza. Negotiations among the developers and the community councils for Puerto Girón and Comunidades Negras de Nueva Colonia as well as representatives of other affected communities led to a series of agreements that provide for specific initiatives designed to create tangible benefits for all parties.

The agreements cover a wide range of economic, cultural, and environmental matters. Plans, including training the local workforce with a focus on port-related jobs and providing university scholarships, are being developed by a task force of educational institutions in coordination with port officials and in consultation with the affected communities. In addition, Puerto Antioquia has developed internal processes to provide preferential treatment to local businesses and is providing training and resources to local businesses to enable them to be first in line to take advantage of contracting opportunities during and after the construction of the port.

Andrés Maturana González, Mayor of Turbo, emphasized that the area has been deeply impacted by military conflicts and drug-related violence for decades. “We are ready to move on. The port will generate employment opportunities, but just as important will be the stimulating effect on our younger population that will benefit from improved educational opportunities. The fiscal revenues generated by new businesses will allow us to improve the quality of life with better roads, modern water and sewer lines, and many other infrastructure projects to serve our residents.”

To promote future growth and preserve the environment, the developers have committed to help the communities with infrastructure projects. An important commitment to Puerto Girón focuses on attracting environmental tourism to the area. “We look forward to the development of a pier in our community,” said Porfirio Serna. “We hope that it will bring tourists that want to enjoy the bird sanctuary in our lands.”

Leading the Way for the Port to Become a Reality

Leaders of Puerto Girón recognized the potential economic and social benefits for the community flowing from the development of Puerto Antioquia. While progress was halted due to the court order, the council was in discussions with the port developers to find a solution to the impasse.

In July 2021, during a public audience before the court, the Consejo Comunitario declared that it had no objections to allowing Puerto Antioquia to initiate construction while its claim for title to the lands was being adjudicated. With this declaration, the Puerto Girón community cleared the way for construction of Puerto Antioquia to begin more than 150 years after the first port proposal was discussed.

Shortly after, the court removed the legal barriers to allow Puerto Antioquia to obtain the necessary permits to begin construction. Financing for the port was then finalized, including the MIGA-guaranteed loans from FDN. Construction began in April 2022. Completion of the initial phase is expected by 2025, when the port will begin operations.

Luis Gilberto Murillo, Ambassador of Colombia to the United States, attributes the successful outcome in Puerto Antioquia to the sincere desire of its developers to work with “Las Comunidades” and other groups affected by the project. “It takes years to build a relationship of trust with these communities,” he said. “The time invested in this effort will yield long-term benefits for all involved because the communities understood that their concerns are being taken into consideration as the project was planned.” Murillo believes that the approach taken by Puerto Antioquia’s developers should serve as a model for projects in Colombia and the rest of Latin America.

Also available in: Spanish