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Reconstruction of the Coffee-Growing Region in Colombia

It was the most destructive natural disaster in Colombia’s history. On January 25, 1999, two earthquakes, measuring 6.2 and 5.8 on the Richter Scale, destroyed more than 100,000 buildings in 28 municipalities in the heart of Colombia’s economically strategic coffee-producing region, killing 1,185 people and leaving more than 550,000 homeless in a 1,360-square-kilometer mountainous region that lies between the Pacific Ocean and Bogota.

The shock of the disaster, which had an economic cost estimated at 2.2 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product, was made even worse by the fact that it came during a period of economic recession.

Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the government and people of Colombia, and aided in part by the redirection of several prior IDB loans in a new package channeled to the Fondo para la Reconstrucción y Desarrollo Social del Eje Cafetero, FOREC (Fund for the Reconstruction and Social Development of the Coffee-Growing Region), recovery has been better than it otherwise might have been.

Homes belonging to about 130,000 families have been repaired or rebuilt. Another 16,700 new homes have been built for people who had previously rented property in areas at high risk of seismic damage. These families were relocated and given permanent titles to new homes, creating a new class of low-income homeowners. Approximately 649 schools and 52 health centers were repaired or rebuilt in the 28 affected municipalities.

Although the official goal of reconstruction was to rebuild infrastructure that was damaged or destroyed, in some instances the region ended up better off after the earthquake than before. Armenia, a city of 300,000 inhabitants that suffered extensive damage in the quake, now has a gleaming new skyline, a new airport, a new police station, a new administrative center, and new hotels. Several new schools were concentrated in one area called the Ciudadela Educativa del Sur, as part of an administrative reorganization that had been previously contemplated but was suddenly made a reality during the reconstruction process. Perhaps what is most remarkable is that all this was accomplished in just three-and-ahalf years.

How did the government do it? Ironically, the answer is that the government did not do it directly. Convinced that traditional bureaucratic channels would be too slow and inefficient, Colombian authorities devised a plan to mobilize nongovernmental organizations and put them in charge of the relief and reconstruction efforts.

The government selected 28 universities, cooperatives, civic groups and professional associations to administer the 32 operational zones set up for the reconstruction program. These NGOs were responsible for identifying recovery projects and families that needed relocation and new homes. They were also in charge of applying proper administrative practices, mechanisms to include the affected population in the reconstruction process, and environmental safeguards. Finally, the NGOs called for competitive bids from construction firms that were subsequently awarded contracts to do the actual construction.

The government’s role was limited to providing overall supervision in the process and assigning resources from FOREC. Only 120 government officials were permanently assigned to the reconstruction program. In keeping with the goal of limiting bureaucratic intervention, the government officially dissolved FOREC in July 2002, declaring that it had completed its mission.

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