per capita GDP

Oil, Coal, and Economic Development in Colombia

Although Colombia is not usually classified as a major oil-producer, it ranks 19th in the world according to the Wikipedia, turning out more than a million barrels a day in late 2014. Although this figure was well below that of Venezuela (2.5 million barrels a day), it surpassed those of such well-known oil exporters as Oman and Azerbaijan. It is no surprise, therefore, that Colombia has taken an economic hit from the recent decline in the price of oil. Compounding Colombia’s woes are the continuing strikes on its oil infrastructure by leftist rebels. According to a recent Financial Times article, “rebel attacks on pipelines cost state-controlled oil company Ecopetrol $430m in lost output last year.” As a result of such problems, the “Colombian peso [is] one of the weakest freely-traded currencies in the world, rivalling the rouble and the Brazilian real by falling 36 per cent over the past 12 months.”

Colombia exports treemapBut as another Financial Times article notes, Colombia has been able to weather the recent economic storm better than most oil exporters. The Colombian economy is buffered by its broad production of other goods. As its currency has fallen, exports such as coffee, flowers, car parts, and textiles have surged ahead. Columbia is particularly competitive in swimwear and Venezuela Exports Treemapunderwear; in 2013, its international sales in these categories brought in some US$ 133 million. As the export treemaps posted here show, Colombia is much less dependent on oil than Venezuela, its neighbor and rival. (Tensions between these two countries have intensified in recent weeks, as Venezuela has closed the border and deported hundreds of Colombians.)

Colombia GDP per capita mapBut despite the profitability of some of Colombia’s other exports, oil still looms large. Its significance is readily apparent in the map of per capita GDP posted to the left. As the map shows, the value of goods and services produced per person in Colombia’s 32 departments varies by more than an order of magnitude. The Colombia oil mapmost economically productive departments, Meta, Arauca, and Casanare, form the heartland of the Colombian oil industry. All are relatively lightly populated Colombia GDP per capita map 2lowland departments; Casanare, for example, has only around 350,000 inhabitants. Their economic productivity runs counter to the more general Colombian pattern, as the country’s elevated plateaus tend to be more prosperous than its lowlands. This pattern is apparent on the next map, in which the highland zone is outlined within dark black lines.

Per capita GDP figures, however, do not necessarily tell us much about the actual economic conditions found in particular places. At the sub-national level, wealth from extractive industries in peripheral areas often flows to more politically powerful regions. Unfortunately, more economically revealing statistics on such measures as average household income are not readily available for Colombia. Colombia Reports, however, has posted a Colombia poverty mappoverty-distribution map, which unfortunately lacks a key and excludes Arauca, Casanare and other eastern departments. As can be seen, oil-rich Meta has a relatively low poverty rate, but not to the extent that one might expect based on its raw economic output. Meta’s per capita GDP figure is roughly three times that of Cundinamarca, yet Cundinamarca, located near the capital city of Bogotá, has a lower poverty rate. Poverty is most pronounced in the distressed Pacific coastal department of Chocó, moreover, even though Chocó is more economically productive on a per capita basis than such departments as Nariño and Sucre.

Colombia kidnapping mapIn some respects, Colombia’s oil-rich departments are more troubled than many much less economically productive areas. The oil industry apparently attracts not just attacks on infrastructure by rebels, but also other forms of crime and violence. As the Colombia Reports kidnapping map shows, Meta, Arauca, and Casanare rank at the top of this unfortunate indicator. Kidnapping in Chocó, a department noted for drug smuggling and corruption, is also elevated.

Colombia’s oil industry is associated with a significant amount of environmental degradation, although its severity is much debated. Many locals even attributed a severe drought that hit Casanare Department in 2014 to oil extraction. Although oil drilling itself has no influence on precipitation, it is possible that a variety of oil-extraction activities reduce dry-season stream flow. Informed observers, however, are more inclined to blame such problems on deforestation in the headwater areas located in the Cocuy Highlands. More recently, however, the problem has been one of excess rain, as floods in early and mid-August 2015 forced many people in Casanare to flee to higher ground.

Colombia coal graphOil is by no means Columbia’s only major source of energy. The country has a fair amount of natural gas and significant hydroelectric potential. Coal is even more important. Colombia ranks 11th in the world in coal production, and its standing in terms of coal reserves is similar. Colombia’s reserves are almost entirely composed of high-quality anthracite and bituminous coal. Colombia coal mapAs a consequence, both production and exports have surged ahead in recent years. Colombia’s largest coal mines are located in the northern departments of La Guajira and Cesar, but deposits are widely scattered across the northwestern half of the country.

Global coal prices have dropped significantly, and the use of the fuel is of course increasingly opposed due to concerns about climate change. Some coal producers operating in Colombia, however, remain committed to expansion. As was recently reported in BloomburgBusiness:

Murray Energy Corp. plans to increase output at the Colombian coal mines it bought from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. this month, betting it can lower costs enough to withstand the prospect of several more years of low prices.

The U.S. coal producer founded by Robert E. Murray intends to push up the annual output rate at the La Francia mine in northern Colombia to 3 million tons by the end of the year from about 2.5 million tons now, Murray said in a telephone interview Monday from his headquarters in St. Clairsville, Ohio.

The industry is in a “very distressed and dangerous condition,” with low prices set to last through the end of 2017, he said. “Murray Energy has done its planning to contend with and compete in this depressed market.”

Local activists, not surprisingly, have leveled harsh criticisms against foreign-based coal producers operating in Colombia. Glencore PCL in particular has been accused of “whisking profits out of the country, while causing environmental and labor issues.”



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GeoCurrents Break and Renovation

Dear Readers,

GeoCurrents will be taking an end-of-the-year break; regular postings will resume in the second week of January. During the break, plans will be made for renovating and expanding the site. In January, blog postings will increase from the current two or three per week to four or five per week. New features will also be added, focused on providing brief coverage of geographically significant news stories from around the world that are neglected by the mainstream press. According to current plans, the fully refurbished site should come on-line by April 2012.

The GeoCurrents team will also expand. In addition to myself and Kevin Morton, Asya Pereltsvaig, frequent commentator and author of the Languages of the WorldWorld Map of Per Capita GDP, with Large Countries Divided weblog, will be joining the project. As the site grows, other contributors may join the team as well.

During the end-of-the-year break, periodic “housekeeping” posts may appear on the site. Today, for example, I have posted an additional map from the Demic Atlas project that was carried out this summer by myself, Jake Coolidge, and Anne Fredell. This map shows nominal per capita GDP (2009, in US$) for all countries with fewer than 100 million inhabitants and for all first-order subdivisions of countries with more than 100 million inhabitants. Some patterns that are invisible in both the standard state-based framework and the demic framework are apparent in this map. Russia, in particular, takes on a distinctive appearance. Here the lightly populated but oil- and gas-rich districts of western Siberia fall into the highest category, whereas the North Caucasus, as well as parts of European Russia and eastern Siberia, fall into the second-lowest category. In Indonesia, the resource-rich province of East Kalimantan stands out, contrasting sharply with the much poorer southeastern reaches of the country. In Nigeria, a distinct north/south division is visible.



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Maps and Stats, Good and Bad

World thematic maps that treat each country as a holistic entity can be highly misleading. Consider, for example, the ubiquitous economic development map based on per capita gross domestic product. Here we see such countries as Brazil, India, and China uniformly colored, as if the goods and services they produced were evenly distributed over their vast expanses. In actuality, per capita GDP varies by roughly an order of magnitude from the wealthier to the poorer regions of each of these countries. More finely subdivided maps are much more revealing, but they can also be hard to find. In the case of the European Union, fortunately, a treasure trove of regionally specific maps is available from the European Commission Eurostat website:

On the Eurostat map reproduced above, a number of significant spatial patterns jump to the eye. Notice how Prague stands out from the rest of the Czech Republic, and how Athens is differentiated from the rest of Greece. The north-division in Italy is clearly apparent, as is the gap between the prosperous south of Germany and its poorer northeastern counterpart. This is just one of many detailed maps available at the Eurostat site, which delves into social as well as economic issues. The map of internet usage is especially noteworthy, revealing as it does a substantial cultural divide between what we might call the networked north and the sociable south.

To be sure, maps based on country-level data can also be valuable, especially for those parts of the world divided into relatively small countries. Such maps cease to be useful, however, when dubious data is employed – as happens all too often. The worst single example that I have come across is a NationMaster map of per capita crime rates, reproduced above. A glance at the key reveals that this map identifies Finland and New Zealand as crime-ridden, while Colombia, Yemen, and Papua New Guinea are portrayed as practically crime free. The accompanying table gives Yemen an absurdly low (and surreally precise) rate of 1.16109 crimes per 1,000 people. Finland, we told on the same page, suffers a crime rate roughly two orders of magnitude greater, at 101.526 per 1,000 people

( Similar problems are encountered elsewhere on NationMaster, a site that compiles a huge array of official statistics. The figures for rape rates, for instance, listed on the home page as one of the site’s “top stats,” ranks Saudi Arabia as the safest country for women while marking Australia as the third-worst with Canada close behind.

Could anyone serious believe that a woman is 250 times more likely to be raped in Australia than in Saudi Arabia? — or that Finland’s overall crime rate is 100 times that of Yemen? Finland is famous for its relatively crime-free environment; Yemen is a land of anarchic clan-based violence and rampant kidnapping. In Finland, however, most infractions are reported and recorded, whereas in Yemen few crimes reach official attention. If NationMaster labeled its map and chart “rate of reported and recorded crimes,” it would be an accurate and useful index of police efficiency, if not of criminal activity. But it does not. Does anyone at NationMaster scrutinize the data that is displayed on its site? Does anyone care?

Underlying the promulgation of such misleading maps is our tendency to take the sovereign state for granted: to treat all recognized countries as if they were equivalent entities with comparable governmental capacities, including the gathering and compiling of accurate statistics. This is not the case. And as far as statistics themselves are concerned, we should recall Mark Twain’s warning: many stats are lies, some damned, other worse.

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