As the ominous whipping sounds from the blades of a Blackhawk helicopter rebound from the mountains overlooking Cali, the capital of Valle del Cauca, it causes one to reflect upon the transformation this department has undergone in recent years.
It has gone from a conflict-ridden battleground to one of the most steadily growing economies in Colombia.
Like other departments, Valle del Cauca has benefitted from the strides made by the national government to regain control of strategic corridors by establishing a military presence, delivering basic needs and services and developing conditions for economic development.
Yet as the signing of the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) approaches, the department is looking to leverage recent economic growth as it attempts to consolidate itself as a leader in post-conflict Colombia.
As a gateway to southwest Colombia and a bridge between Caquetá and Putumayo, Cali’s geostrategic location has undoubtedly been a blessing and a curse. The rise of cocaine cartels during the 1980s and 90s incited a war of illicit rivals battling for control of FARC’s lucrative drug-trafficking routes.
But more than just this high-profile struggle has grown in Valle del Cauca, whose expanding economy is a testament of the department’s resilience despite the suffering it has endured.
Last year, the economy grew 3.8 percent in the first semester, outpacing the national economy’s 3.0 percent expansion during the same period. Unemployment also dropped 5.1 percent between November 2015 and January 2016, and Valle del Cauca was also the only department in Colombia that increased exports in January.
Looking back even further, the department was the second least impoverished in the country in between 2010 and 2015, according to the National Department of Administrative Statistics.
A modern highway network connects smaller cities like Buga, Palmira and Tulua, and helps enable their growing economies. And the port in Buenaventura, located on the Pacific Ocean, accounts for 60 percent of Colombia’s exports, giving it the potential to jump-start the national economy if local scourges — rampant corruption, drug violence and social issues — can be resolved.
Another advantage Valle del Cauca has over other departments is its economic independence from the energy sector. The department was left relatively unscathed amidst the global oil crisis over the past 18 months, given that there are virtually no mining or drilling operations within its borders.
Instead, the department’s economy depends heavily on industry, services and agriculture, especially sugar cane.
Esteban Piedrahita, president of Cali’s chamber of commerce, notes that what was once a setback — missing out on the oil boom of the 2000s — has become a benefit.
“Although we didn’t have such a good time at the party, we are going to do much better during the hangover,” said Piedrahita.
For Dr. Julio Cesar Alonso, director of the Center for Research on Economics and Finance of ICESI University, an eventual peace accord with FARC will open up a new opportunity for growth due to the department’s diverse economic structure.
“The post-conflict period will provide an opportunity for municipalities, such as Florida and Pradera, previously guerrilla strongholds, to grow and export agricultural products to international markets,” said Alonso. “They will now be able to farm fruit and cacao and contribute to the economy.”
Alejandro Ossa, executive director of Invest Pacific, a public-private NGO that aims to engage national and foreign investors, believes the agriculture industry also has a chance to grow.
“There are 20 million hectares available to cultivate in Colombia, but agricultural products are only grown on 5 million hectares,” said Ossa. “This is actually a great place to be if your middle class is growing and needs to feed itself.”
Recent economic growth will help Cali, the third largest city in Colombia, position itself as a post-conflict business hub of Colombia. This aligns with the city’s history as a center for politics, commerce, and migration in the Pacific region.
Cali is a diverse metropolis with the country’s largest Afro-Colombian population and has citizens from several indigenous groups. When conflict erupted in the countryside between armed actors in the early 2000s, large numbers of internally displaced people migrated to Cali.
This overwhelmed the ability of local authorities to meet the increasing demand for services, but the lessons learned from more turbulent times will prove invaluable as Maurice Armitage, Cali’s newly elected mayor, guides his staff to bolster peace and economic development.
Rocio Gutiérrez, peace advisor for the mayoralty, highlights the work of Ciudad Pazifico, a program that seeks to establish Cali’s leadership for peace efforts in the region.
Through this and other initiatives, he believes Valle del Cauca is in a unique position to lead with peace building as the country moves to replace the dissipating sound of helicopter blades with those of progress.
“We believe that through our leadership, Valle del Cauca will become a model to apply in other regions like, Chocó, Cauca, and Nariño,” claims Gutierrez. “We are aware that positive results in Cali have a profound effect on the rest of the region.”
Luis Carlos Sossa is a business writer and country representative for the Middle East Consulting And Trade Affairs Corporation.