Oct 16

Is there hope for the future of Chocó?

Choco Toucan in...El Choco

Chocó is one of Colombia’s most troubled regions. For decades, it has been enveloped in war, corruption and violence. Isolated from the rest of Colombia by thick, dense jungle and politically estranged thanks to Colombia’s armed conflict and high levels of corruption, it has long been cast off as an unsalvageable wasteland.

The future of Chocó still remains uncertain, with many people claiming that the region is doomed to remain in the grips of poverty, isolation and destitution. True, there are higher than average levels of poverty and displacement in this region, but are there signs of hope for the future of Chocó?

On the face of it, it appears unlikely. Aside from massive levels of unemployment, Chocó has its fair share of problems. According to independent studies, around 80% of people in Chocó are not receiving basic necessities and human development indices rate this region as the most undeveloped in Colombia, with a level similar to that of Bolivia. On top of that, almost 10% of all of the displaced children in Colombia can be found in Chocó.

Choco frog
A stunning example of Chocó’s amazing wildlife

Yet it isn’t all doom and gloom. While these problems present major challenges to the people and politicians of Chocó, there are perhaps some reasons to be hopeful. There is plenty of potential here, both in terms of resources and tourism.

As one of the most biodiverse regions in Colombia, Chocó has a spectacular amount to offer the tourist industry (so diverse is it that even the fruits are different – try a Chocoano lulo and you won’t even recognise the colour or taste). The problem thus far has been that the reputation of the region has held off any mass tourism. Yet this does not have to be a hurdle that cannot be jumped. Take a look at Colombia in general – two decades ago, most people would not even have dreamed about taking a holiday here, but now it is one of the hottest destinations around. Is it not possible that the same could happen in Chocó?

The jungle here is bursting with life and offers incredible opportunities for ecotourism on a grand scale. Furthermore, Chocó is the only region in Colombia, and indeed the whole of South America, that has both a Pacific and a Caribbean coast. The potential for mass tourism is there, it just needs to be nurtured.

Up until now, there has been very little investment in the region, as a result of both neglect and corruption. The infrastructure is basic and poorly maintained, while tourist services and amenities are underdeveloped. The roads in and around the capital, Quibdó, are largely rough dirt roads, while the

Choco beach
Just one of Chocó’s many awe-inspiring beaches

majority of buildings appear to have been ignored for decades. However, this need not mean that it has to remain this way. With the massive potential that there is here, it is surely just a matter of time until investment increases (part of the problem is that the rainforest makes developing any form of infrastructure difficult, though not impossible).

As and when this does happen, there is no doubt in my mind that the people of Chocó will embrace tourists and tourism with open arms. In fact, they are some of the friendliest and most helpful people I have met in the whole of Colombia. And that really is saying something. It should be pointed out, however, that the need to increase tourism to the area should always go alongside efforts to protect the environment and avoid the destruction of precious ecosystems that would be major tourist draws.

Add to this the superb richness of the Afro-Colombian culture, with its unique history, music and food, and you have yourself a stunningly beautiful and cultural tourist destination.

Choco hammock by Luis Perez
As good a place to laze around in a hammock as any…

As well as the potential for tourism, it should be recognised that Chocó is incredibly well-endowed when it comes to natural resources. Of course, there is timber in abundance thanks to the jungle, although logging has previously been poorly controlled, leading to irresponsible deforestation. River and sea fishing is another major source of trade that needs to be regulated and promoted.

Chocó is one of the world capitals of platinum and there is plenty of gold, silver, limestone and copper too. With such an array of precious raw materials, Chocó should be economically and socially much more advanced than it currently is. However, once again, these industries have been unregulated and victim to shocking amounts of corruption. It is clear that Chocó needs to be helped in order to ensure that it receives the full benefits of its vast riches.

However, despite the positive signs when it comes to primary industries, levels of industrial development in Chocó are worse than anywhere else in Colombia. In fact, the region only accounts for 0.5% of Colombia’s entire GDP. With almost half of Chocó’s population being under 15, there is a huge workforce that, in a few years, can take on the challenge of developing the region’s industry. Investment is key when it comes to Chocó, with a massive potential just waiting to be tapped.

It is, however, the friendly and enterprising people that are Chocó’s greatest resource. Happy, hopeful

Choco night by Mauricio Villamixar
Chocó by night

and eager to make a change, the vast majority of Chocoanos are desperate to shake off the negative image and pull Chocó into the future. Having recently attended the San Pacho Festival in Quibdó, I was blown away by the incredible spirit of determination and devotion that the festival brought out. The people here embody the amazing Colombian propensity to look forward rather than backward, to have hope, to be optimistic and to want to make positive changes.

Yet these people are unable to do it on their own. Without the means, both politically and financially, there is little that the Chocoanos can do entirely by themselves. The responsibility rests in the hands of politicians and responsible investors, who have the power to promote and improve the region alongside the people that live here.

Choco accommodation by Luis Perez
Stunning and peaceful accommodation in Chocó

Currently, there are a number of initiatives in operation that do offer hope for the people. Speaking with policemen on the streets of Quibdó, I learnt about numerous community projects that aim to improve the daily lives of citizens. ‘Cine en tu barrio’ offers locals the opportunity to watch films for free in their area, while other projects concentrate on helping to build houses for displaced people with no resources, offering courses in business and making attempts to clean up the streets.

These are of course humble beginnings, but alongside other initiatives, local and national government schemes and private investment, there is no limit to how far Chocó can grow. All it takes is faith and confidence from those with the power to make a change and the rest will surely follow.

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