Challenges in Colombian port logistics

Roadblocks, losses and solutions.

The Colombian port sector is facing significant challenges due to persistent road blockades, particularly along the Buga-Buenaventura road, which are disrupting port logistics and affecting export cargoes. These disruptions, exacerbated by security concerns, have led to substantial losses and raised questions about the future of major ports like Buenaventura.  

The road blockades, mainly concentrated around Buenaventura, “where the issue is persistent” have created a sense of uncertainty for businesses. “Colombia has 10 port zones, 8 of which are on the Caribbean coast and 2 on the Pacific coast where Buenaventura is located.” Explained a current trade union leader, “many of the country’s exporters and importers are preferring to take their cargoes through one of the Caribbean ports and not through Buenaventura because that one has a lot of uncertainty regarding access.”

These blockades are a result of deep-seated issues, including “non-compliance of the State, the privatisation of the port and the lack of social responsibility of the district’s companies,” reported a political leader of the Pacific region. The blockades, although not continuous, disrupt port operations, leading to delayed shipments, increased logistics costs and compromised security for businesses operating in the region. “This is not something new, this has been going on for a long time,” exclaimed the political leader, “In 2017 in Buenaventura there was one of the biggest demonstrations.” While other ports in Colombia have sporadic disruptions, Buenaventura remains persistently affected, leading many businesses to divert their cargoes through alternate ports, impacting the port’s competitiveness and economic stability. 

The losses incurred due to these blockades are significant, “Last year, more than five billion pesos a day were lost in all the road blockades that occurred,” sighed the current trade union leader with more than 20 years of experience in the public and private sector. Although exact figures are challenging to quantify, the economic impact is evident. The trade union leader continued, ‘In a period of six months billions of pesos are lost, due to logistics, delays in container deliveries, cost overruns associated with the operation, trade closures, and the collapse of some businesses.”

“last year, more than five billion pesos a day were lost in all the road blockades that occurred.”

Current trade union leader, Colombia

The poultry sector, highly dependent on timely port operations, has been severely affected, highlighting the critical importance of resolving these issues. Moreover, the political leader of the Pacific area “believes that all sectors are affected,” including tourism, education and general commerce, experiencing indirect but substantial losses due to reduced mobility and economic instability. The political leader with more than 25 years of experience highlighted that “the road closures are an effective way to make them [the government] listen to us, the problem is that there are no results from the commitments made by the government. So, we must go out again.” 

Apart from the road blockades, major ports in Colombia, including Buenaventura, face multifaceted challenges. “The port sector has been lagging,” observed the political leader, “due to its lack of modernisation, lack of technological innovations, outdated regulatory frameworks, difficulties in information management and in infrastructure and planning, which directly affects its competitiveness.” One of the primary concerns is the lack of efficient inland connectivity, “a single carriageway does not work, a dual carriageway must be built,” stated the current trade union leader. He continued, “and obviously there have been all these stoppages. Now we are not stopping sending loads, what is happening is that for two, five hours, one day, the way things are, the logistics become a mess.” The disconnect between territorial and port planning exacerbates the saturation issues faced by several ports in the country. “This affects the image of the country and the business community, it affects confidence in the export sector, and this is a risk for trade relations.” 

“This affects the image of the country and the business community, it affects confidence in the export sector, and this is a risk for trade relations.”

Current trade union leader, Colombia

To address these challenges, several measures can be considered. First, prioritising infrastructure development, especially the completion of the Buga-Buenaventura dual carriageway, is crucial to ensuring seamless inland connectivity. “We have been waiting for more than 10 years for the completion of a key project such as the Buga-Buenaventura dual carriageway,” explained the exasperated political leader. Additionally, modernising regulatory frameworks, encouraging private investment and incorporating sustainable practices are essential steps toward port improvement. “We have an outdated regulatory framework,” he added “and that has to be changed according to international standards.”

Enhanced coordination between territorial and port planning systems, coupled with the implementation of advanced information systems, can optimise port operations and alleviate congestion. “The national port policy identified in detail the problems of the ports.” These are plenty, as the political leader listed, “planning problems, weakness in the appropriation of environmental practices and social responsibility, for example with the issue of carbon footprint, inadequate disposal of materials used in port operations, outdated tariff schemes, and also precariousness in land, rail and river access to the ports.”    

“We have an outdated regulatory framework and that has to be changed according to international standards.”

Political leader of the Pacific region, Colombia

Moreover, fostering dialogue between the government, local communities and businesses is essential. Addressing the root causes of social unrest and poverty in regions like Buenaventura can contribute to long-term stability. Collaborative efforts between public and private sectors, focusing on sustainable development and social responsibility, can create a conducive environment for port operations and economic growth. 

The challenges faced by Colombian ports, particularly Buenaventura, demand urgent attention and collaborative efforts from various stakeholders. Addressing road blockades, improving infrastructure, modernising regulatory frameworks and promoting sustainable practices are integral to enhancing port logistics and ensuring long-term economic stability. “The situation can get worse if we don’t take efficient measures,” commented a member of the current trade union.

By fostering dialogue, investing in infrastructure, and implementing strategic reforms, Colombia can overcome these challenges and foster a competitive and resilient port sector. “It is a very complicated situation, but it is the only way to bring about real change,” summarised the political leader with national incidence due to his current position, thereby contributing significantly to the nation’s economic growth and international trade relations. 

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