The Megaproject: Friend or Foe?

Downing - Colombia - In the street in Santa MartaThere are many recurring themes in my experiences of Colombia: the fruits that continue to fascinate me; the awful rains from which many parts of the country are still recovering; and a few other topics that have raised interesting questions about Colombia’s development in the unique context of the armed conflict, but also within a broader regional framework.

One of the themes that I find particularly controversial and therefore difficult to tackle is that of the megaproyecto, or ‘megaproject’.  The term, which I only heard a few weeks ago, refers to any sort of large infrastructure or other development project. The idea that this sort of project (a new bridge, a mine, a carbon plant etc.) causes damage to the environment and presents issues of workers’ rights, land rights and others is not new. What strikes me about the megaprojects in Colombia is that there is a particularly broad spectrum of opinion regarding the megaproject and its possible effects, and that breadth of thought has motivated me to consider the issue in more depth.

Colombia, despite being ahead of many other countries in Latin America in terms of economic development and standard of living, has massive infrastructure problems and still demonstrates a huge proportion of the population living in poverty. The country boasts an incredible amount of natural resources, especially in the fuel sector. Since the reduction of the armed conflict, international corporations are increasingly interested in Colombia as a site for resource exploitation, and infrastructure development agencies are more willing to invest. This could be great for the Colombian economy if it brings in foreign funding in addition to improving infrastructure. The problem is that the money comes in at the top of the pyramid – at the level of government and large corporations – and the potential effects of that increased income (job creation, social programs etc.) don’t trickle down to the bottom where people need it most. The other problem is that the projects themselves create massive interruptions and sometimes dangerous living situations in the areas where they take place. An example is the current development of carbon extraction sites in the area of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a region rich in biodiversity as well as traditional indigenous ways of life, both of which are being negatively affected by the chemicals, fumes, noise pollution and other disruption caused by the mine. Indigenous territory is being encroached upon while local people employed by the mines complain of dangerous conditions and underpay.

Two issues at play here are: mismanagement of funds to the detriment of the poor who could benefit if the money was spent correctly; and inadequate implementation of new projects that affect this population.This is the group at the base of the pyramid. Hopefully the fact that I noticed this issue is an indication that it’s visible at the national level and that these issues will be resolved. That said, I think there’s a long way to go before the right changes are made so that ‘megaprojects’ can benefit all sectors of the population.

Posted by Cristal Downing — MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

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