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Colombia: Don’t Abandon Plans to Preserve Málaga Bay May 1, 2010

Posted by Afflatus in Environment, Politics.
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Since time immemorial humpback whales have migrated 8,500 km every winter from Antarctica to Málaga Bay, Colombia. In the pristine and warm waters of Málaga Bay, humpbacks give birth to a new generation of their species every year between June and November. According to one witness, the waters “turn into a carnival of songs, jumps, fluttering of fins and snorts, a welcome to life for the newly born whales.”

However, the whales are not the only ones who find Málaga Bay appealing; recently the Colombian government, at the behest of the business community, has moved towards developing the bay into one of the country’s largest ports. To many, this idea is confounding because the government has recently invested in a multi-million dollar expansion of a port just 20 miles south at Buenaventura. Currently Buenaventura handles 53% of Colombia’s foreign trade and 80% of its coffee exports.

The proposed port at Málaga Bay would have several important advantages over the one at Buenaventura. Unlike Buenaventura, Málaga has no rivers depositing sediment into the bay, so no expensive dredging to allow for big boats to enter would be required. Málaga is a naturally deep bay; whereas many worry Buenaventura will soon be too shallow for the ever-increasing size of container ships. There is also a fear that Buenaventura will become congested as ship traffic increases. Málaga is closer to the Panama Canal than is Buenaventura, adding to its allure.

Despite these economic advantages, Málaga Bay should not be turned into an intercontinental port. A port at Málaga would devastate the mating routine of the humpback whales – an endangered species. Developing a port at Málaga Bay would reverse over two decades of governmental planning to turn the area into a national park. In 1989, Colombia’s Office of Planning of the Province of Valle del Cuaca first proposed the creation of a national park to be called Wounaan – the name of the indigenous tribe in the area. Málaga Bay’s vast ecosystem has other species that will be greatly affected in addition to the humpback whales and the indigenous tribes. The known species in the area include 60 amphibious species, 148 species of saltwater fish, 57 marine birds, and 360 terrestrial birds, 141 species of mollusks, and 99 species of crustacean. There are seven types of swamplands, as well as 400 species of trees and a great variety of flora.

While not all of these species will be devastated by the impact of the port’s construction and operation, one must also consider the impact of the infrastructure and periphery development that accompanies the construction and operation of a large port. For example, construction plans include a 204km oil pipeline, as well as a massive oil depot. These projects will disrupt the natural ecosystem in the area, particularly the roughly 3,500 Afro-Colombian and indigenous inhabitants who live nearby and oppose the port’s construction. Málaga Bay’s environment is a diverse and vibrant ecosystem which is virtually uninhabited; this should not be destroyed.

The Colombian government faces a stark choice between likely economic development and preserving forever a pristine natural environment. Throughout the world, governments typically choose to pursue economic development at the expense of the destruction of the environment and the local indigenous communities. The value of Málaga Bay’s ecosystem does not have a price, but its value will only increase as other governments make the mistake of destroying Mother Nature. The government should continue developing its port at Buenaventura, and leave Málaga Bay undisturbed.