(From Chris Stubbert, a periodic correspondent based in BogotÃ¡, comes this interesting post about a small town in Meta that seems to be getting things right.)
Think of small-town Colombia and you might picture dirt roads, under-developed infrastructure, insecurity, corrupt local politicians, and poor-quality education and healthcare. Yet if you took a look at the April 30th publication of Revista Dinero, you might think again. Castilla la Nueva, located 3 hours from Bogota, in Meta department, is rapidly moving away from that image. With a population of just 8,500, this town in Colombiaâ€™s oil country is becoming a model for other towns that rely on a lucrative natural resource.
In 3 years Castilla la Nueva has made progress that normally takes decades in other localities across Colombia. With a computer network “connecting” the town, information has become a key ingredient in the glue keeping this town together. Eighty-five percent of the municipality’s roads are paved, and the main town boasts 100% wireless connectivity to the Internet. The irony, however, is that trying to get there takes a fair amount of local knowledge. Hidden away from the local department capital of Villavicencio, Castilla keeps its charm through its isolation. But with an expanding economy, the town wants to attract foreigners to this part of Colombia.
Another social benefit promoted strongly here is education. All children are provided with at least 2 hours of English classes per day. On entering the town, a billboard exclaims “Welcome to Castilla la Nueva, soon a bilingual community.” Mayor Edgar Fernando AmÃ©zquita is intent on providing free transportation for people who wish to take courses in technology or English. Health-care coverage is also 100 percent, claims the mayor’s office.
So how does a town afford this expenditure? 86 percent of Castilla’s budget comes from petroleum revenues, while 7 percent comes from the central government. The rest is collected from the local industries of palm oil, rice, and cattle ranching.
In other oil departments like Arauca, Casanare, and Putumayo, towns have suffered from bad government and mismanagement, not to mention outright theft of oil revenues. By contrast, Castilla has placed in the top 15 strongest towns and cities on the National Planning Department’s “fiscal performance index.”
Where organized crime, paramilitaries or guerrilla groups had beleaguered local communities in the above mentioned departments, Castilla la Nueva has been relatively immune from such influence. Castilla used to be under the influence of Manuel Arroyave’s “Centauros Bloc” of the AUC paramilitaries. Yet many believe that when Arroyave was killed by his own men in 2005, the paramilitaries’ grip was weakened.
Like oil producers Norway and the United Arab Emirates, Castilla la Nueva knows that its black gold is only here temporarily.Â Once it runs out there must be an economically viable backup for the future.Â With around 10,000 hectares of palm oil, this community is betting on the bio-diesel industry to continue its identity as an energy producer. It is also betting on creating an educated, technologically savvy generation able to earn a living at home instead of migrating to Bogota.
Is it possible for other small towns in Colombia to learn from Castilla la Nueva’s efforts in education, infrastructure, good government, and health care? Granted, money from oil revenue helps the local budget, but much credit should go to fewer than 10,000 people cooperating and carrying out a long-term plan for a sustainable future. Castilla la Nueva can be a good example for the rest of Colombia.