22.03.2019 | A wary Colombia enjoys peace dividend

They were images that spoke of Colombia’s guarded optimism as it seeks to move on from decades of conflict with left-wing rebel group FARC that left scores of thousands dead and displaced millions.

It was four o’clock in the morning when we flew into Bogota bleary-eyed, yet the arrival lounge was packed with high-spirited holiday-makers, many no doubt about to set off to visit Colombia’s breath-taking tropical interior or wild Pacific coastline. Parts of these regions just a few years ago would have been no-go areas, as FARC at its peak had been present in up to a third of the country.

Yet not long after we witnessed the surge in tourist numbers the country is currently experiencing, a visit to the capital’s Santamaria bullring conjured up a darker side to post-conflict Colombia. As we approached, there were lines of heavily-armed members of the security forces, seemingly braced for trouble.

Animal rights protesters had demonstrated last year following the controversial resumption of bull-fighting in the capital, after a four-year suspension by the city’s former left-wing administration. And tensions have also been high following the death of 21 people in a bomb blast in January linked to left-wing guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has yet to make peace with the government.  

Whatever the explanation for the large military presence, it was a jolt because wandering around this easy-going, sprawling capital – fringed by lush, green Andean peaks – you do not get a sense of any underlying anxieties. The main gripe is the dangerously high levels of smog engulfing the city, while our main concern was surviving hair-raising taxi rides.

When prompted, people do betray fears that the peace deal with FARC may falter, with many questioning the commitment of the new right-wing government led by Ivan Duque. Businessmen, by contrast, are very bullish about the future.

While Bogota’s gleaming financial centre, a regional commercial hub, was little affected by the conflict fought far away, its resolution opens up numerous new opportunities for local banks and businesses as foreign investors circle.

Notwithstanding the lingering threat from the ELN and dissident FARC members, not to mention organised crime syndicates, the level of stability the country has enjoyed since the peace accord was struck has generated a distinct economic dividend. Last August, the FT’s fDi Intelligence publication reported that Colombia had experienced three years of consecutive growth in FDI, ranking third behind only Brazil and Mexico in investment in Latin America and the Caribbean for the period.

Foreign mining companies are beginning to explore areas of the country once controlled by FARC, though dissident groups remain a threat.  Yet the prospect of new finds and a recent cut in corporation tax have boosted an industry that in recent years has been hobbled by local opposition to mining projects.  Oil companies, which have also been hit by similar protests as well as pipeline sabotage, are nonetheless planning a 14 per cent hike in investment this year, buoyed by the rise in crude prices. And despite a major recent setback when a hydro-electric dam flooded local communities, the country’s renewables sector is drawing investors, with hydro-, wind- and solar-power generation projects among 70 schemes awarded contracts in February.

Less promising has been the government’s attempts to persuade farmers to stop growing coca, the main ingredient for cocaine, whose local production helped to fund FARC’s activities. Crop substitution schemes have struggled to take hold with cultivation of coca reaching record levels in 2017. Farmers in former FARC territories who try to grow legal crops can face intimidation from armed groups that have moved in to maintain the cocaine smuggling businesses.  Illegal mining, another source of funds for paramilitaries, continues to be a problem, with over 60 per cent of gold output reportedly extracted unlawfully.  

Also a worry is the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have flooded into Colombia to escape their country’s economic crisis. In conversations with business people, concerns over criminals exploiting chaos in the border area were repeatedly raised. Colombia has a real challenge on its hands to absorb the refugees. The authorities are stepping up efforts to do so, well aware of the risks of inaction but also recognising the economic benefits that will arise through their successful integration.

While it is a sad irony for the region that just as Colombia seeks to resolve a long-standing debilitating problem its neighbour is facing an even more severe one, Bogota’s willingness to ease the plight of Venezuelans is testament to its new-found confidence and resilience.