But how can this be when up to 75% of Chocóans do not have access to basic services, infant mortality is 54 per 1,000 (compared to 19 per 1,000 for Colombia), the poverty rate is the highest in the country, and violence and corruption are still common? While the current reality is bleak for many Chocóans if you take a moment to look beyond these specific indicators and think innovatively about the region’s value and potential you may find that instead of being poor and “backward”, Chocó could be the richest department in Colombia.
Unlike Colombia’s leading industrial centers, the richness of Chocó lies in its culture, biodiversity and geographical location. Chocóan culture—with its mix of Afro-Colombian and indigenous traditions—is unique to both Colombia and South America. Colombia has proven the value of culture through its expanding creative industries and tourism sector and Chocó is well-placed to produce the next generation of Colombian artists and eco-tourism hot spots. Barranquilla has Shakira but Chocó is represented on the international stage by the increasingly popular music group Choquibtown—which performed at the American Grammy awards on Sunday. The expanding Colombian tourism industry currently relies on Cartagena and the picturesque coffee region but soon eco-tourists will be flocking to Chocó to experience the pristine beaches of Nuquí or spot jaguars in the Darien Gap.
Chocó is an area of extremely rich biodiversity and is recognized by scientists as one of the planet’s hot spots for unique species. The department has 700 species of bird—more than 7% of the existing total—and is home to some of the world’s greatest concentrations of frogs, butterflies and orchids. At a time when “adding value” to products and services is increasingly important, culture and biodiversity can create significant wealth and sustainable employment if properly cultivated.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Chocó is its geographical location. At a time when South America is looking to the east, Chocó has 400km of Pacific coastline and is the only Colombian department which touches both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Currently this doesn’t do the department much good as a large part of its territory is impassable. However, this will change if current plans for highways, trains and ports are ever realised. The announcement on Monday that China is interested in investing in a rail alternative to the Panama Canal, which would pass through the northern tip of Chocó, highlights the department’s logistical importance.
Infrastructure development is vital for Chocó’s future and current plans need to be clearly articulated and properly executed. These projects should be designed in a way that protects and enhances Chocó’s valuable ecological and cultural assets. The focus needs to be on sending goods and exports through and bringing much-needed public services in rather than taking natural resources out of the region.
Despite its current underdevelopment, isolation and mismanagement the Chocóan economy has great potential to expand beyond mineral production. As Colombia looks east to emerging giants in Asia and further integrates with its Latin American neighbors along the Pacific Rim it will need a developed, educated and entrepreneurial Chocó. With the proper planning, management and execution Chocó could develop into an important transport hub, with employment and income also coming from creative industries and sustainable tourism.
Chocó’s current material wealth may be well behind the rest of the country. The department may be isolated and remote to most Colombians but it would be shame, for Chocó as well as Colombia, if it’s cultural, environmental and logistical potential were not nurtured and developed in a way that brought sustained prosperity to the region and country.