CORRECTED-Colombia's Magdalena River project dredges up economic promise
By Julia Symmes Cobb
BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia, July 9 (Reuters) - The hulking backhoe dredges up rocks and silt from the shallows of the muddy Magdalena River in the first laborious step to transform the waterway into an engine of economic growth.
The excavation along a verdant stretch near Barrancabermeja, an inland oil and coal hub, is part of a $600 million government bid to reclaim the river, once Colombia's primary transport route.
By clearing logjams, the aim is to allow big cargo barges to steam up 900 km (560 miles) from the Caribbean coast to Puerto Salgar, close to the capital Bogota. Currently only smaller barges can navigate as far as Barrancabermeja, 250 km (155 miles) from Puerto Salgar.
The project, due to be completed in six years, could spur potential investment by manufacturers and raw material producers keen to reap the benefits of new river transport after enduring decades of costly, inefficient and dangerous roadways.
President Juan Manuel Santos's bid to ease travel and reduce freight costs comes as he tries to shift reliance in the slowing economy away from oil, coal and other traditional exports hit by price plunges.
The government predicts a fivefold increase in river transport - to 10 million tonnes annually by 2029 - and new industry along its banks will add up to one percentage point of economic growth and help conquer new markets like China.
"The Magdalena River will transform Colombia," said Carlos Nunez, head of Cormagdalena, the government agency overseeing digging, which began in June. "It's our salvation." Continuación...