Today we share the interview conducted on September 5, 2019 with the researcher of the Global Port Performance Network and honorary professor of maritime geography at the U. of Applied Sciences in Bremen (Germany) and at the U. of the Andes, Gordon Wilmsmeier. In this interview, he analyzes the Colombian port system and also states that the country should analyze and exploit the possibilities of expansion in the port of Buenaventura before considering building another port.
Curiously, the PhD analysis is valid in the current panorama of the port system in Colombia. Taking into account the latest news on the approval of the maritime development policy to position Colombia as a ‘bioceanic’ power, this could be the beginning to optimize the country’s port system and achieve trade facilitation. Now, it is essential that Colombia develop distribution, transformation, and assembly in its ports and multimodal transport to and from its ports in order to be competitive in positioning Colombian products abroad.
We leave you the interview carried out by El Espectador so that they consider the academic opinions on the subject and generate their own opinions.
The discussion on the environmental impact of building a port in the department of Chocó, a region of invaluable environmental wealth in northwestern Colombia, has diverted attention to some fundamental questions of the logistical and port development of the country. Is the country prepared for the new panorama of trade that grows towards Asia and declines with North America and Europe? Does Colombia need a new gateway in the Pacific? Gordon Wilmsmeier, researcher at the Global Port Performance Network and honorary professor of maritime geography at the University of Applied Sciences in Bremen (Germany) and professor of logistics at the University of the Andes (Colombia) explains why the answer to these questions should go through an analysis of what products the country moves and what type of port they need; the potential development of the ports that already exist and, above all, the need to improve their connection with the interior of the country.
How is Colombia in its offer and capacity of container ports?
Today, Colombia has two main container ports: Cartagena, in the Caribbean, and Buenaventura, in the Pacific. These two ports fulfill their role in the regular line network and are complemented by secondary ports in the country. Whether more capacity is needed depends, first, on the potential for expansion of infrastructure and where existing ports are located. And, second, what is the expectation of growth of that demand, which may involve the import and export of the country or the transshipment business, which implies a greater movement of ships in ports. (Read The largest tree in the Amazon is 88 meters tall and is safe from fire)
The idea of making a new port in the bay of Tribugá in the Chocoano Pacific has been reborn. Is a new port in the Pacific needed or does it make sense, in addition to that of Buenaventura, which today moves about 15 million tons of cargo per year?
Whether or not it makes sense depends on the country’s strategy and where the country’s economy wants to emphasize. But that decision must depend on an analysis of expected demand and regional economic development. If you want to expand port capacity in the Pacific, first, you should analyze and exploit the possibilities of expansion in the port of Buenaventura before considering building another port.
For me, the crucial part of this discussion is not so much the port infrastructure. Today, the challenge of the largest ports is not maritime accessibility (although it could be improved) or port capacity, the challenge for Colombian ports is the connection inland. Why? Because there is no railroad, there are no good roads and the rivers are not being used. Thus, if you want to build a new port, you must also have an interior connection plan and build a suitable multimodal infrastructure inland.
Does that mean that the priority should be to improve access roads to ports? For example, building the dual carriageway to Buenaventura …
Just building a dual carriageway is not a sustainable solution. There is another topic: if we talk about large ports, it is because we want more volume. The question is whether it is sustainable to handle all that cargo with roads. We have old railroad corridors that do have the potential to make connectivity and activity inland more efficiently. In addition, they allow economies of scale to be generated in their movements and a reduction in the environmental and social impact of cargo transport.
See article: Pacific Railroad resumes operations
From an environmental perspective, what is your opinion on the idea of a port in Tribugá, in the middle of a virgin forest?
The issue of Tribugá cannot be reduced to an environmental one, one must first ask why Colombia needs another port. At this time I don’t see a need to make a port in Tribugá. While there is a port system that has expansion capacity, the first thing to do is resolve the connection of these ports inland, before adding complexity to the system.
If the balance between economic, social and environmental is sought, there are more benefits in developing the existing infrastructure. We must focus on improving the systems that we already have, since these are not at the limit of capacity and are not developed under a global standard of competitiveness. From a systemic point of view there is no point in investing in a new port when this investment could be used to develop the rail system that really improves the cargo transport system that already exists in the Pacific.
Those who promote the idea of a port in Tribugá often mention examples of ports in the Netherlands and Australia. Do they seem good references?
It seems to me more pertinent to have on the radar the case of La Unión in El Salvador. A port that was built in a virgin area of this country, that was developed with international investment and that since 2013 has not moved a single container. It is not totally comparable to Tribugá, but it is a case that may be similar. In the case of El Salvador, they raised “a white elephant” in the middle of “the jungle”, that in order for it to work, the economic geography of the country had to be changed. The discussion there now is how to rescue that multi-million dollar investment.
Those who promote the idea of a port in Tribugá say that the problem in Buenaventura is that the bay is very sedimented and that there are no deep-draft ships. What would be the most efficient: dredge that bay or think of another port?
The main question should be: What type of service does Colombian container loading require? Colombian export cargo is, for example, refrigerated and perishable cargo. This load, be it banana, avocado or another product, requires, above all, a high frequency of services. This applies equally to coffee. In any case, improving the maritime accessibility of the port of Buenaventura is always faster and less expensive to build a new port.
If it is so clear what should be the priority of port development in the Pacific, why is this idea of making a new port still valid?
Ideas of new ports come up everywhere, every year. They are not new things. The first time I had the discussion about a possible new port in the Pacific was in 2007. Those issues come back, but most of the time they are not done. The expectation is the economic development related to this. I believe that we have an incipient potential in Buenaventura that we are just beginning to take advantage of. We have new developments that are very interesting: for example, there is a logistics area in Buenaventura, CELPA, which is the first to have international standards and has undergone a very interesting development. It is difficult to understand why an attempt is made to open a “new box”, when the others still do not work well and have a lot of development potential.
What does the port of Buenaventura need to take advantage of its full potential?
I think, among others, there could be a government policy that focuses on investing in rail. In Chile, for example, there is the port of San Antonio, which is launching a railway to Santiago, the capital. In this case, a more efficient corridor is being created than the one that moves the cargo by truck and generates competition between the different modes of transport. Furthermore, that is aligned with sustainable development and emission reduction.
Those who promote the idea of new ports evoke the equation “port = development”. If so, why is Buenaventura one of the poorest cities in Colombia?
This may be related to the history of the country and to the armed conflict, since this was a high intensity area of the conflict. But, on the other hand, it is also necessary to see what the effort of the public sector has been in creating employment and training the human resource that the sector needs. Also, there is an image theme: Buenaventura’s image is much worse than it really is. Who is going to leave his load in place that everyone says is dangerous?
It doesn’t seem like just an image problem. Buenaventura’s socioeconomic indicators are regrettable: the index of unsatisfied basic needs is 36%, three times higher than that of Cali; there is no third level hospital; drinking water is rationed and the unemployment rate is double the national rate.
Cargo enters and leaves Buenaventura, does not add or leave value there. Thus, the economic value that is captured within Buenaventura is very limited.
Could that be different?
The port by itself does not generate economic development. Container terminal operations are becoming more automated every day – and do not generate much direct employment. Logistics zones, on the other hand, do generate employment and attractions for other industries to locate there. The territory must be developed inland, where it is possible to invest and generate economic activities, storage areas, transformation, packaging, refrigeration …
In Buenaventura there is already such an area with very positive results; There are even loads that arrive there from China and distribution is made to other Latin American countries. Thus, if the right incentives are created and adequate territorial planning is developed, obviously it will generate added value, income, employment and economic development. That is more interesting than a cargo that gets off the ship in Buenaventura and then goes overland to Medellín or Bogotá.
Why has something that seems obvious to an expert in ports and logistics not been included in public policy or in the National Development Plan?
The last port reform was made in the 1990s and, after this, the truth is that the country has always looked up towards the Caribbean Sea, where the case of Cartagena has been and continues to be a success and example of development in the region. The importance of the Pacific has been increasing with the increasing importance of Asia and certain Asian products in the country’s economy.
Trade with Asia today accounts for almost 40 percent of transportation in Latin America and continues to grow as trade with Europe and North America has fallen. Will that trend continue?
This is an important issue. Traditionally, Colombia’s trade relations have been with the United States and with Europe, so the concern about accesses by the Pacific is relatively recent. There is indeed a shift from the Caribbean to the Pacific. We can see that the ports in Mexico that are on the Pacific side have had a development of many years, this comes with the change in the commercial geography.
I am going to read something you wrote: “Traditionally, infrastructure in developing countries and exporters of natural resources or ‘commodities’ has been used solely and primarily to satisfy the requirements of leading operating companies, which in many cases has been in an enclave-shaped infrastructure development that hinders the possibilities of suppliers and / or processors to participate effectively in the value chains of the different ‘commodities’ ”. In Colombia, could that be the case of the coal ports such as Cerrejón in Guajira or Drummond in Santa Marta?
Yes that’s what I mean. For example, there are rail corridors on the Caribbean coast, but how many containers move on that rail? We are not taking advantage of it. Lately some tests have been done to use this railway from La Dorada (Caldas) to Santa Marta for the export of coffee, but it is hardly a test.
You have raised in your work the need for profound changes in port policies vis-à-vis sustainable development. What are the key recommendations for these new port developments or, even, for the expansion of existing ports to be sustainable?
Ports are part of various supply chains, so both maritime and inland access should also function sustainably. A port that only depends on road transport to the interior, as is the case of the ports in Colombia, is not sustainable and never will be. A port that does not have a multimodal option – that takes advantage of waterways or railways – is not sustainable.
In other countries rivers are key as arteries of transportation and connectivity with ports. Here, those who have really understood or exploited the potential of communication and transportation of the rivers are the armed actors and the drug traffickers.
A few years ago there were several shipping companies on the Magdalena River that moved all kinds of merchandise. Today only two or three shipping companies survive, dedicated almost exclusively to moving Ecopetrol gasoline between Cartagena and Barrancabermeja. Are we facing the extinction of navigation on the Magdalena River?
No, I don’t think that will happen. There are movements that seek to reactivate these activities, but it is also important to issue policies that support the development of that activity. If road transport is faster and cheaper, why should I use the river? Changing the distribution of modal use is a challenge that exists worldwide, not just in Colombia. A main challenge is that no mode of transport pays for its externalities.
What do you mean by this?
Nowadays, no mode of transport pays its externalities in terms of CO2 emissions, social costs, accidents, etc. because there are no economic values that quantify these costs. Thus, this is one of the biggest challenges we have, since we have become accustomed to using infrastructures without paying the real cost. As long as the external costs of each mode of transport are not internalized, there will not be what I would call “a fair field” that allows the most efficient, sustainable and safe modes to be the most competitive. On the other hand, more sustainable systems can only be developed if fossil fuel subsidies are eliminated.
In other words, if these invisible costs are added to land transportation, would river transportation become more attractive?
Could be. It depends on the structure of the river service. For example, there are cases in Europe where the regulation of land transport in terms of emissions is so strict that they are less polluting than a boat, on certain routes. It depends for example on the type of fuel used: if a gas boat is used, obviously this boat emits less emissions than a boat that burns diesel. You always have to see what are the technological standards that apply to each mode of transport. But water transport is not always the cleanest.
What concrete advances are there to highlight in this field of sustainability in Colombian ports?
The government and some terminals are already working on energy efficiency strategies. This is an issue that obviously has to do with the environment, but it is also an economic issue. With each liter of fuel that is not spent, a more efficient and competitive operation is made, while reducing emissions. There is a double benefit. In 2014 we did a study of the terminals in Latin America and we saw that, on average, more or less 10 liters of diesel equivalent or slightly more was spent to move a container in a port container terminal in Colombia. Today we are around 8 liters of diesel equivalent.
Investments must be made for this transition, but these are paid in the medium or long term. For example, having ports generate their own renewable energy can be very attractive investments. Furthermore, the surplus of this energy could be sold to the country’s electricity grid, especially in areas where the energy supply is not sustainable or is not assured.
Any example in Colombia where it already happens?
A good example is the electrification program for the RTG cranes in the port of Cartagena.
In what other ways can ports be more sustainable?
There are countless opportunities to make ports more sustainable. It is important to remember that sustainability is to seek a balance between the economic, social and environmental aspects to ensure competitiveness in the long term.
Are more incentives needed from the government?
Yes, it is necessary for the government to reward leading sustainability actors. However, incentives are not always needed. For example, energy efficiency in all modes of transport and terminals is a no-brainer for me, a scenario where there is only profit: if I use less fuel, I spend less money and reduce my carbon footprint. It is simple.
* Fund Editor ODS- CODS