By: Alejandro Rueda-Sanz (MPA/ID ’22)
As the only road-accessible entry points to the Colombian Amazon, the departments of Caquetá, Guaviare, and Putumayo are facing stark challenges for their future growth. These departments have been at the center stage of the armed conflict and concentrate today most of the deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. Growth, however, has lagged in all three departments relative to its Colombian peers. This puzzle set the stage for my MPA/ID summer internship at the Growth Lab at Harvard’s Center for International Development.
I began working on this engagement in the earliest stages of this project as a sequel of the Growth Lab’s Promoting Sustainable Economic Growth and Structural Transformation in the Amazon Region of Loreto, Peru project – both funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. I was tasked to use my background knowledge as a Colombian who had worked in policy, paired with the skills and frameworks from my first year of the MPA/ID to structure the prior stylized facts and assumptions for a Growth Diagnostic, an Economic Complexity Analysis, and to glean the causes of deforestation.
The Growth Lab provided the opportunity to achieve one of my objectives when joining the Harvard Kennedy School: shifting my career to strategic development policy. To work with the Growth Diagnostic and Economic Complexity frameworks, I received mentorship from my manager Tim Cheston (an MPA/ID alumn), on the practicalities of Growth Diagnostics, Economic Complexity, and the soft communication skills to present them.
Below, I discuss some initial findings and highlights from the internship.
Setting the priors – linking my experience to new frameworks and ideas
In the first weeks, I used the Colombian Atlas of Economic Complexity, which I used before joining HKS, and administrative data to draw the growth trajectory of the three departments. We learned these departments had different trajectories:
- Caquetá’s income per capita remained as half of Colombia’s since the 1980s.
- Guaviare had diverged from the national GDP per capita.
- Oil-rich Putumayo’s pre-2014 income gains dropped as growth deteriorated.
According to our estimates, it would take between 20 and 60 years for these departments to catch up with Colombia’s 2020 income per capita.
Satellite data showed us the extent of deforestation in the three departments. Between 2002 – 2018, Caquetá, Guaviare, and Putumayo had depleted 7.8%, 6.2%, and 11.9% of their forest cover, respectively. Moreover, through recent analyses and speaking with local experts, we learned that this trend had accelerated since the signature of the 2016 Peace Agreement with the FARC through cattle ranching and land price speculation. This trend, however, seemed puzzling given the slow growth in the region.
We presented the findings on the growth trajectory to the Growth Lab’s leadership, the project’s new team and discussed some stylized facts I had developed with my manager. Then, leveraging the Growth Lab’s expertise from the Loreto Project in Peru, we kickstarted discussions to build a growth question for the project and the diagnostic tree. At these discussions, I learned how researchers at the Growth Lab approach diagnostic frameworks, interpret information, and how they thought through adapting the framework to the circumstances of ecologically sensitive and remote geographies.
Being a part of the Lab: practice and learning about new trends and ideas
Setting the ground for the project was also a unique opportunity to learn from how the Lab approaches different countries. I learned what different teams did in other national and subnational contexts at discussions on ground-breaking development issues. For example, at the discussion on remoteness, led by Professor Hausmann, I learned how the Lab defines and approached this condition in diverse contexts, including Albania, Namibia, Loreto (Peru), and Ethiopia. I also reflected on how these analyses could enrich our discussion on the Colombian Amazon, given its unique circumstances where conflict and property rights play a critical role.
Working at the Growth Lab during the COVID-19 pandemic was further challenging and rewarding. Traveling to these sites in Colombia was difficult given global and local circumstances. Remote work reinforced the critical importance of communication and structured information management. This hurdle invited collaboration, creativity, and thought as the team navigated through data, qualitative information, and conversations with stakeholders. Furthermore, this circumstance provided a unique opportunity to contribute to the project with my experience in the field studying agricultural initiatives, especially in Putumayo.
Moving forward: linking growth diagnostics with deforestation
As the Colombia Amazon project moves forward, I am eager to learn about how the project will link the development of Amazonian departments with the protection of the rainforest as complements. Given the urgency of ecosystem and biodiversity loss, its links to climate change and its effects globally, the project comes at a unique moment to halt and reverse damage by providing some analysis on the economic inclusion opportunities for these regions. Furthermore, the insights developed will be critical for the opportunities of rural populations and ethnic minorities in Colombia that have faced the armed conflict, waves of natural resource depletion, and the effects of the country’s rural-urban gap.