Colombia port proposal sparks concerns

A proposal to build a container port in a pristine bay on Colombia's coast frequented by humpback whales has raised an outcry among environmentalists who say the project would put the giant mammals at risk.

Malaga Bay is one of the whales' primary northern stops on their long migratory journey from the Antarctic to as far as Costa Rica. The bay's relative isolation and natural conditions make it an appealing place for the animals to mate and give birth. As many as 1,000 humpbacks are believed to arrive there from June to August.

But the bay is also appealing for business interests in nearby Cali, a bustling city known for sugar, coffee and, more recently, ethanol. A newly formed consortium has proposed building a deep-water port in Malaga Bay for bulk cargo and so-called post-Panamax ships capable of carrying 10,000 or more containers. Cali would benefit because cargo would have to pass through the city.

According to Rodrigo Velasco, regional chief of Colombia's largest business organization, known as ANDI, the port, which would be the closest in the hemisphere to Asia and the Panama Canal, would give Colombia a leg up on other Latin American countries in becoming an Asian trade hub.

"We don't want to destroy Malaga's ecology, far from it. We are proposing a project that would serve the environment, meaning human beings as well, and allow for economic development, something this region urgently needs," Velasco said.

The port proposal puzzles some because the Colombian government is investing tens of millions of dollars in the expansion, just 20 miles east of Malaga Bay, of the Buenaventura port, the country's largest on the Pacific coast. The investment there has a social objective: Buenaventura is a drug-trafficking hub, and President Alvaro Uribe aims to boost trade and create jobs for poor youths there with few prospects.

But business leaders in Cali say Buenaventura will never be a major port because of a silting problem that makes it unsuitable for the giant, deep-draught container ships. Dredging to accommodate them would cost tens of millions of dollars a year. Malaga, on the other hand, has no major rivers or sediment problems and is naturally deep, Velasco said.

The port proposal surfaced last fall, just as the government was about to decree Malaga Bay a national park. It is surrounded by rain forest and is home to deep-water corals and a diverse array of birds and animals, including dolphins and sea otters. The designation would have kept it free of development in perpetuity.

But Uribe acceded to a last-minute appeal from the Cali consortium to allow a feasibility and environmental impact study to be performed on the "compatibility of environmental management and port activity," in the consortium's wording. The University of Cadiz in Spain was hired to do the study, which it will deliver in June.

Environmental groups were disappointed because they saw national park status as the culmination of a two-decade-long campaign to conserve Malaga Bay, a process the government has generally supported. Proposals in the 1990s to build a timber and pulp mill, as well as an oil pipeline and tanker depot, were both nixed.

Now environmentalists are fearful that the port project could take on a momentum of its own. The port would almost certainly scare the whales away, said Mary Lou Higgins, director of World Wildlife Fund's regional office in Cali.

"It's the most important breeding site for humpback whales, the area that has the highest rate of birthing," Higgins said. A key to the high birth rate is low ship traffic and industrial contamination.

In recent years, a small but growing ecotourism industry has emerged around whale-watching trips, much like Scammon's Lagoon in Baja California, that benefit poor, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities along the bay.

"We're not opposed to development. We say conserve Malaga Bay and offer a different kind of development based on nature tourism and responsibly managed forestry and fisheries," Higgins said.

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