Author Archives: Cristal @ Colexión

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

Diversity and Development

Santa Marta - ColombiaI’ve now been in Colombia for a few weeks and somewhat predictably, I love it more each day. I spent last week on the Caribbean coast, which struck me (as it has before) as being remarkably different from Bogotá, and therefore reminded me of one of the things I love most about Colombia – its diversity. It is amazing that one country can have such a wide range of landscapes, climates, cultures and people.

As part of my research, I am investigating the creation of one of ten indigenous communities in the lower part of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a mountain range near the city. The indigenous people have been badly affected by the armed conflict in the region and are now in the process of reclaiming their ancestral lands in a sustainable way. I started this research with a very skeptical view of the government and NGO involvement in the projects, but the more I look into the development of indigenous land rights and governmental structures that support indigenous life in Colombia, the more impressed I become. It seems that in comparison to many other countries in Latin America, especially those where the indigenous population is a minority, Colombia has made more tangible efforts to preserve indigenous identity as part of national diversity, while also politically engaging indigenous groups at the local and national level.

That said, it seems that the community I’m studying may have some issues in its function as a development project. Monitoring and evaluation is almost non-existent and it seems that though collaboration was strong and effective in the process of creating the new village, it has weakened considerably since the inauguration of the community in July 2010. While I do think that the people should live in the village without constant interference from the outside, the lack of communication between the indigenous-lead NGO, another local NGO and the interested governmental entities could be problematic if accompanied by a lack of accountability for unforeseen issues.

While the impressive representation of indigenous interests in local and national government seems to me to be quite unique to Colombia, these last observations regarding a lack of accountability are common in development projects all over the world. Hopefully in the coming weeks as I spend more time investigating this project, I’ll learn more about how this type of issue can be resolved in order to complement the strides Colombia has already taken in indigenous and development-related work.

Posted by Cristal Downing – MA Candidate at CLACS

Talking and Reading in Bogotá

Downing - La Candelaria, Bogota - Colombia

I have frequently been amazed by how quickly things can happen in Latin America if you talk to enough people, and I seem to have been talking a lot since I arrived in Colombia last week. I’m lucky to have a few friends here in Bogotá, and upon my arrival they began asking questions about what exactly my thesis research involves and what contacts I’ve already made. A few days later, emails started trickling in with helpful suggestions and useful contacts. Of course one might say that it would have been great to have these contacts before, but I’m certainly not going to turn them down.

So far, research has consisted of spending a lot of time in the public library in Bogotá, where I’ve been reading up on indigenous NGOs, land rights and involvement in sustainable development projects. I wasn’t expecting to find so much material in Bogotá, and it’s been great to realise that indigenous-lead NGOs have been very involved in positive political change at the national level. It’s also given me a lot to think about in terms of how I want to direct my research and to what use I can put the meetings I have organised in the coming weeks.

This weekend I head to the Caribbean coast where I will meet with representatives of the NGOs who headed the development project I’m studying, as well as leaders from the community at the center of the project. I’m excited at the prospect of adding some current perspectives to the background research I’ve completed in Bogotá, and about getting to know the people involved in the project I’ve spent so much time looking at from afar. I’m sure the change from chilly Bogotá weather to the warmth of the Caribbean won’t hurt either.. And of course, I will keep talking!

Posted by Cristal Downing – MA Candidate at CLACS