TED Case Studies

Plan Pacifico in the Chocó Region of Colombia

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I. Identification

1. The Issue

Over the last decade, Chocó, the Pacific Coast region of Colombia, has been the target of ambitious state plans--known collectively as the Plan Pacifico--to tap its resources more systematically and to use it as a platform for increased trade with the outside world. This current plan puts the lush tropical rainforest and its inhabitants, vast amounts of plant and animal life and indigenous and black Colombians, in great danger. There are severe threats to the biodiversity of the Chocó region due to infrastructure development, deforestation, and mining. The conservation of the extraordinary diversity of living forms in the Chocó Biogeographic Region should be one of the highest priorities of the coming years.

2. Description

The region discussed in this case study is known as a whole to conservation experts as the Chocó Biogeographic Region. It is a tropical rainforest larger than Costa Rica (second only to the Amazon in size, 71,000 km2), extending from the state of Darien in Panama to Esmeraldas in Ecuador along the entire Pacific coast of Colombia, flanked between the western slopes of the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. The area is virtually sealed off from the dominant state. This isolation, combined with the institutional weakness of the Colombian government, discouraged development strategies towards the sea. The tendency was to penetrate the region merely to secure necessary roads to the sea.

The tropical lowlands are considered to harbour one of the 5 richest assemblages of plants and animals with exceptional endemism in a wide range of taxa. Due to these lowlands and mid-elevation forests, large tracts of intact forests are conserved which permits natural altitudinal migrations of many birds, mammals, and invertebrate species; a phenomenon that's rare today due to forest destruction.

Anywhere from a fifth to a half of all plants and animals living in the Chocó are not found anywhere else in the world resulting in a fantastic variety of flora and fauna.(1) Numerous species have limited distribution in the area creating extraordinary 'beta' diversity, or significant variations in species from one locality to another. In fact, most of the plants and animal species of Chocó are yet to be discovered; approximately 3,500 species of plants are known to exist here and scientists predict as many as 6,500 await identification- a quarter of which are unique to the area.(2)

Chocó contains one of the last prestine stretches of coastline in tropical America. This coastline is a stopping point for migratory humpback whales and the shoreline is a critical feeding,wintering and stopover site for millions of migratory shorebirds. Mangrove forests protect the coast from erosion while providing nursery for young fish that feed in and depend on nutrient rich waters around mangroves. The region's marine area is home to an abundance of fish species and marine mammal populations.

The Colombian Pacific is a site of vast mineral and natural resources. At present, the area is the country's main producer of platinum and the second producer of gold. The Pacific Coast also contains considerable deposits of bauxite, manganese, tin, zinc, nickel, tungsten, copper, and chromium, as well as possible reserves of oil. The region accounts for around 60% of Colombia's wood and paper pulp production. Regional fish production, although representing 45% of the national total, is believed by state officials to be as little as 1/7 its estimated potential. In addition, due to its biodiversity, biotechnology, if developed in the region, could rival mining and forestry activities. Finally, the region, with a complex of vast river basins, has also been seen as offering huge potential for the generation of hydroelectricity. It is no wonder why Former President Carlos Lleras Restrepo called this area of Colombia, 'our country's piggy bank'.(3)

After years of systematic indifference from the Colombian state, the Pacific Coast has recently become the subject of ambitious development plans supported and encouraged by international bodies, planners and politicians. The government of Colombia sees the region as the answer to over $20 billion in debt, low export/import ratio, and a way to link with the North American and Asian Markets.

The idea of development in the Chocó began in 1974 with President Alfonso Lopez Michelsen who wished to turn Colombia into the 'Japan of South America'. Development of the Pacific would match existing access to the Caribbean and Atlantic and enable Colombia to take full advantage of its potential for trade, given its strategic location at the crossroads of North, Central, and South America.

In 1984, a development plan financially supported by UNICEF, entitled Integral Development Plan for the Pacific Coast, was approved. The aim was to remove the 'structural bottlenecks hindering regional development and holding back rapid growth.'(4) Ambitious infrastructure projects included the building of roads, hydroelectric and energy plants, telecommunications networks, as well as plans to boost forestry, fishing, agriculture and mining. The Bahia Malaga naval base 50km north of Buenaventura, which related to defense and security, was the first project begun by the state. An access road to the base now brings traffic, pollution, and new settlers to the area and has increased the likelihood that a second major port will be established in this pristine bay surrounded by mangroves.

Under President Barco Virgilio Barco (1986-1990), development projects were unveiled involving $4.5 billion in investments. The centerpiece of the plan was the construction of the Puente Terrestre Inter-oceanico (PTI), a land bridge between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans near Panama, comprising a railway, road, canal, and oil pipeline. PTI was to be the means by which Colombia would rival the Panama Canal. Other road-building plans throughtout Chocó were to increase connections with centers of economic prodution in Colombia. The importance of Barco's plan was 'to stimulate and expand the economies of the north, the center, the east and the west of the country, allowing them to exploit their potential and resources to the maximum.'(5) Local people feared the mega-projects proposed by Plan Pacifico would increase damage already being caused to the region's environment and social fabric.

As early as 1984, 20.8% of the Pacific Coast's nearly 7.3 million hectares of forest had been destroyed by indiscriminate logging to satisfy domestic demand for wood and paper production. Mahogany reserves were being exhausted; substantial forest areas had been decimated to make way for the agro-industrial production of African palm; and, particularly in the south, the installation of industrial shrimp production facilities has led to a serious drop in mangrove coverage. Uncontrolled gold mining alone is responsible for the destruction of 80.000 hectares of forest per year, which also threatens aquatic ecosystems with sedimentation and dangerous levels of mercury.

Clearing and disrupting the forests through logging, mining, and excessive use of motorized equipment affects the watershed areas and prompts the erosion and silting of stream beds. In turn, the region's lush coastal wetlands and bays are at risk of pollution from silt and unsound agricultural practices. More damaging still, is that the penetration of alien forms of economic production, and the cultural values accompanying them, have begun to erode traditional social and economic structures based on collective organization, mutual support, environmentally sustainable methods and a harmonious relationship with nature. Further development would simply cause greater environmental damage and cripple the region's biodiversity.

-Progress Takes Away What Forever Took To Find-

The Dave Matthews Band

3. Related Cases

Colombian Deforestation

Brazilian Gold Mining and the Environment

Peru Mining

Colombian Oil

4. Draft Author:

Lina Betancourt (June 1998)

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:

Disagreement and In Progress

One of the disagreements between the Indegenous and black peoples and the Colombian government is the compilation and intellectual ownership of biological and botanical knowledge. "First it was timber and gold...now it is our biological wealth," says Alberto Achita, and Embera Indian and leader of the OREWA regional Indian organization. "This could be the second great looting of our resources and knowledge. We want to define with our communities what resources exist in order to lay the basis for a sustainable development plan. We want to do it our way-respecting our cultures-and we have been working on this for years and years. But there is a clause in the contract awarding intellectual property of all this information to the state. We wouldn't even have the right to use it!"(6) The Biopacific Region is unique and it must be treated as such by linking local and state leaders to provide the best way to develop the area while protecting the evironment and local culture.

6. Forum and Scope:

Colombia and Unilateral

7. Decision Breadth:

1 sovereign state-Colombia

8. Legal Standing:


III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: South America

b. Geographic Site: Western South American

c. Geographic Impact: Colombia

10. Sub-National Factors:


11. Type of Habitat:

Tropical Rainforest

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure:

Regulatory Standards

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:


14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: Yes-Many

b. Indirectly Related to Product: No

c. Not Related to Product: No

d. Related to Process: Yes-Deforestation, Erosion

15. Trade Product Identification:

Timber and Paper (WOOD), Gold (MINE)

16. Economic Data

As previously stated, the Pacific Coast of Colombia has the ability to provide desperately needed funds and pay part of the increasing federal debt. Its vast natural resources and potential for financial success is very attractive to foreign and local investors which can greatly affect the overall economic status of the country.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:


18. Industry Sector:

Lumber and Products (WOOD), Gold (MINE)

19. Exporters and Importers:

Colombia would like to increase trade with Asia and North America and would probably export many of the products made from materials from the Chocó region to them.

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type:

General (Habitat Loss)

The environmental problems throughout the Chocó Biogeographic Region are extensive. There is a threat towards species loss of all kinds (land, air, sea), deforestation, and the general loss of bio-diversity.

Due to the increase in development in the region, air, land, and sea pollution has increased dramatically. Timber extraction, mining, and expanding agriculture and cattle ranching are the leading causes in the destruction of the region and its ecosystem.

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species