Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Rail 'Canal' Through Colombia?

Colombian coal train 
Being the only South American nation with coasts on two oceans has long been a source of geological pride for Colombia, but of little practical value. The nation is very mountainous, its transportation infrastructure rudimentary and its long Pacific coastline is remote and roamed by guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug smugglers.

However, the Chinese and Colombian governments are now discussing the possibility of building a several-hundred kilometer railroad line from near Cartagena to a spot on the Pacific coast, most likely Buenaventura.

One has to wonder about the project's economics. After all, the much shorter Panama Canal is nearby, and Panama even has its own shorter rail line across the isthmus.

The rail line would certainly improve Colombia's own transport, particularly for coal. Coal is not environmentally friendly and environmentalists worry that the line will slash through the roadless Darien Gap region. But rail lines are much better than highways, especially in tropical regions, where the roads open jungle areas to slash-and-burn agriculture.

The plan also highlights China's rise in the world. The world's first major modern canal, the Suez, was built in 1869 by French investors and later controlled by the British. The Panama Canal was dug a century ago by the United States (after slicing Panama off of Colombia, whose legislators had opposed the project). Now, the planet's economic center of gravity is shifting into East Asia. 

All of which suggests a troubling scenario: a powerful China dominates the economies and politics of Colombia and other regional countries as the U.S. did in the region for decades. 

One wonders too whether this project, if it happens, will create tension between Colombia and Panama, which is investing billions of dollars in expanding the Panama Canal to accept bigger ships.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

No comments: