Colombian Army Rebuilds Rural Roads
By Marian Romero/Diálogo May 11, 2017The Colombian Army Corps of Engineers has been working since January on 20 rural road improvement projects designed to benefit the communities farthest from cities. The projects also aim to improve access to the Provisional Demobilization Zones (ZVTN, per their Spanish acronym), established under the peace accords. The road between Icononzo and La Fila in the department of Tolima was built by the Maintenance Engineers Battalion and was opened in February. The 2.4-kilometer road has allowed vehicle traffic to return to the area, to the benefit of 250,000 people. “The idea to improve rural roads came out of the peace accords as a way of providing easier access to ZVTNs, but more importantly, it is about creating better living conditions for people living in the region. Locals have borne the brunt of this conflict’s twists and turns,” explained Brigadier General Emilio Cardozo Santamaría, commander of the Colombian Army Corps of Engineers. ZVTNs are spaces distributed over different rural areas around the country, specifically where the armed conflict was most intense. They were created to ensure a lasting ceasefire by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to reintegrate its members into civilian life, and to carry out the process of surrendering arms to the UN Mission in Colombia. There are 23 ZVTNs located within the jurisdiction of 22 municipalities in 12 departments around the country. There, temporary camps were set up to take guerillas through the process of transitioning to a law-abiding life. Only the government and FARC have access to these camps. However, the roads there are transited daily by people living in the area. From January to April, 18 of the 20 projects assigned to military engineers by the Ministry of Defense were completed. These projects were done in coordination with local authorities, the Ministry of Transportation, the National Roadways Institute, and the Special Programs for Peace Fund, a special account used by the Office of the President to manage the post-conflict budget. The Colombian Army is contributing its technical capabilities, labor, and construction equipment, and is providing the security needed to build roads in those areas. In all, 96 percent of the planned roads have been built, with general maintenance of 304,769 kilometers of roadway. Military engineering serving rural areas The Corps of Engineers has a special brigade for building primary, secondary, and tertiary roads. The brigade was created to improve troop mobility and it is a valuable tool for the most isolated communities. Thanks to this initiative, locals can expand the marketing chain for their agricultural products and sell them in other communities. “The wartime missions undertaken by our military engineers have strengthened and honed their specialized technical capacity which is now being used to contribute to this nation’s development,” said Gen. Cardozo. “We have a presence throughout the country and have detailed knowledge of each region. This allows us to build a bridge or fix a road in record time, dig a well to provide water for a desert community in Guajira, or efficiently build a compound.” The engineers support maneuver units in four key areas: mobility, allowing troops to advance to their target, for example in military demining ops; counter-mobility, to prevent the enemy from advancing on the troops; survival, to ensure the troops’ well-being. and engineering, to improve roads and facilitate the flow of logistics to carry out the Army’s mission. Each road construction project is protected by a security squad of about 40 men. The projects are in areas that still have security issues because of ongoing threats from dissidents within the FARC and the National Liberation Army, or from armed organized groups set up to traffic drugs and work illegal mines. “In some regions, soldiers have to work construction with their rifle slung over their shoulder. We’ve paid a high price sacrificing our men to reach these territories. In these projects, soldiers [have been killed] by snipers or antipersonnel mines,” Gen. Cardozo said. The Icononzo–La Fila road The Corps of Engineers has 17 local battalions capable of doing technical surveys and determining project viability. “We know this territory like the back of our hand, better than any other private or public company because we have been on the ground here for a long time. We know which weather conditions carry a threat of rain, and we are up to speed on the social dynamics. This streamlines our logistics,” said Lieutenant Colonel José Luis Bastidas, commander of the Maintenance Engineers Battalion. “Time is of the essence in these kinds of projects. To take advantage of the dry season, we had to make our soldiers available 24 hours a day and even on weekends,” he added. The Maintenance Engineers Battalion in the department of Tolima is tasked with upgrading the road between Icononzo and La Fila. The plan is to work on a 13.3-kilometer stretch to cut and widen the road, improve ditches, and compact and grade the ground. Though the road is unpaved, the water run-off and drainage works are enough to give it the durability needed by its 6,400 beneficiaries. As of now, 2.5 kilometers of the road have been finished. “Icononzo is a farming district, and its economy centers on coffee and fruit crops, but its topography and security issues have hindered its development. Now people have access to larger markets for the sale of their products. That’s what’s happening in many other areas around the country with the same characteristics,” Lt. Col. Bastidas said. The Corps of Engineers’ road improvements are not meant to compete with the Colombian government’s engineering or with road building companies. “For us, issues like project profitability are irrelevant, as it’s the government that puts up the resources and we’re not generating any profits. But the relationship is mutually beneficial because these ongoing projects keep our personnel trained,” Gen. Cardozo concluded.