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The economic geography of mountains in Caldas

Do you remember any landscape composed of steep mountains, highlands and hills?

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New Zealand in the trilogy of LOFTR? Chile in the movie Alive? Scotland in Highlander? What if this landscape was your home and you had to travel through it to have access to health, food, goods and services and your job?

An abrupt geography is one of the most significant attributes of Caldas, a state in Colombia. Its territory lies not on one, but on two of the tree mountain ranges that divide the country (check out the map). These geographic conditions impose considerable costs and barriers for the economic integration, food distribution and health access of the poor. A very important fact is that 47% of the state's population is rural, meaning that geography is a crucial factor in understanding their problem of access (people are scattered around in small towns, not grouped in big cities).

The economist Jeffrey Sachs has studied how an economic system is affected by its geography. Think about creating commercial routes in Europe (or even Africa), which has a relatively flat territory with many inland waterways, vs. doing the same in Colombia, a territory fragmented by the Andes Mountains and covered with beautiful but wild rivers. Transportation costs, time, infrastructure efforts must be doubled or tripled to fuel economic activity in an effective way.

There is a famous statistic in Colombia which says that delivering a package from Cartagena (a Colombian city located in the Caribbean coast) to Hamburg, Germany, has a similar cost than delivering the same package from Cartagena to Bogotá (Colombia’s capital city, located in the center of the country). This is the impact of geography. Although the country is doing tremendous efforts to develop interior highways that nurture local markets, Caldas is a region that has lost some economic pace compared with other regions (Pereira, the capital of the neighbor state Risaralda and Medellin-Colombia’s second largest city).

As you can see in the pictures, Manizales, the capital city of Caldas, looks more like San Francisco than Los Angeles. Built on a group of hills, its airport is famous in Colombia for being closed on short notice because of constant fogs and low clouds than come down suddenly from the surrounding mountains and highlands. 

With such an abrupt territory, building highways that can integrate the region itself and to other regional markets such as Bogotá (Colombia’s capital city), Medellin and the Caribbean coast (and to international markets) has been a great challenge. Instead of building tunnels through the mountains, Caldas highways were built to serpent around them. The region suffers a great deal when heavy rain season arrives, because landslides block highways and roads.

As a result, Caldas (and many other regions in Colombia) has suffered from considerable barriers imposed by geography. Delivering new goods and services, such as technology, health access, even food and construction materials, can be tougher than usual. Even public services such as education, access to clean water and health assistance, may be difficult to guarantee. How can design and innovation help us sort this out?

Finally, I invite you all to watch a video I’m posting about a short documentary (Children of the Cable) a famous Colombian journalist ("Pirry") made. He shows an extreme way of transportation some kids use to go to school every day. It’s in Spanish, but the images are unbelievable and they illustrate very well the issues of poverty and geography some Colombians face daily.

Hope this is useful to understand and empathize with people from Caldas. :)

P.S. Colombian friends: thank you very much for sharing this info with us. All of the pictures above are landscapes in Caldas. 


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Great video, thanks!

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