Laying a Foundation for Success

School children with the supply backpacks given out by the Port of Santa Marta in Colombia.

School children with the supply backpacks given out by the Port of Santa Marta in Colombia.

Corporate social responsibility projects throughout Latin America set the region on a course for success

By Tom Hranac

While port operations remain and will essentially always be an exercise in moving cargo, ports throughout Central and South America are effectively responding to rising expectations from a variety of stakeholders about the subsequent effects of their maritime activities. As semi-public entities obligated to meet larger civic responsibilities, Latin American ports become more than just economic motors of the community and providers of employment. Ports are increasingly conscious of this port-community relationship, and although they must be economically competitive to survive, they have to balance their bottom lines with the needs of their communities in order to operate.

Nearly all ports use a proactive approach by undertaking various corporate social responsibility projects that seek to cultivate positive port-community relationships; however, in Latin America, the growth of these relationships takes place in a rapidly developing region where tensions between haves and have-nots are magnified. Latin American port executives are acutely aware of this reality, yet they find themselves in a unique position to become catalysts for future development.

Sometimes enhancing the port-community relationship can be as simple as allowing the general public to enter into the port. The API Port of Progreso’s Race on the Sea in Progreso, Mexico, takes advantage of the port’s defining physical characteristic: its location on a 7.5 kilometer-long pier jutting out directly into the Gulf of Mexico.

The 10-kilometer race along the course of the pier requires that participants bring food, as well as pay a registration fee, that will be donated to local charities and community organizations. Even as the wildly popular Race on the Sea continues to grow, contributing more than 2 tons of food and 250,000 Mexican pesos after last year’s edition, it also achieves a greater purpose.

The Port of Progreso’s General Director Raúl Torre Gamboa explains that the race is a way to “promote port culture and develop a close and harmonious link between the port, the city of Progreso and its surroundings by allowing residents to have the opportunity to access port facilities.”

Encouraging the community to recognize that a port exists to serve its common interest may also be achieved through inclusionary business practices. Ann McKinley Meza, executive president of JAPDEVA Port Authority in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica, has made it a priority to embrace what she describes as the “great social diversity that forms and enriches the surrounding (port) community.”

Although McKinley Meza has spent only eight months at the helm of JAPDEVA, a main focus of her tenure thus far has been to show that “port operations are open to all” by placing an emphasis on scholarship programs, as well as hiring and training women and minorities in the local indigenous population. Through these programs, McKinley Meza aims to not only improve the general opinion of the port, but also to empower people.

“We want to ensure that they know they can take an active role in (port) administration and that their work will be the same and of equal value, which breaks with tradition, but will in turn have a positive impact on the future of the region,” said McKinley Meza.

McKinley Meza is not the only one to identify education as an important element of social responsibility programs that work toward improving the quality of life for port communities. The Sociedad Portuaria Regional de Santa Marta, Colombia, has launched various educational initiatives that help underprivileged youth.

“Every year, the port distributes books and more than 4,000 school supply kits, and it has collaborated with various organizations to build and operate early-childhood development centers that serve over 3,000 children in surrounding neighborhoods,” said Camilo George Díaz, head of communications and public relations at the Port of Santa Marta.

Jorge Sanchez Ruiz, director president of Companhia Docas do Pará in Belém, Brazil, affirms that an investment in “supporting a complete education will always generate work opportunities for youth.”  For this reason, the Port of Belém actively seeks to make internship program agreements with local universities. They have taken their educational commitments a step further by introducing environmental education programs to teach school children in Belém and Santarém about conservation, preservation and sustainability practices as a complement to their solid-waste treatment programs in both cities.

The Port of Belém’s dedication to education and the environment underscores an even stronger general commitment to sustainable initiatives on the part of Latin American ports. Santa Marta’s George Díaz believes that corporate social responsibility ultimately equates to achieving sustainable development that “strives for balance between economic growth, social well-being and use of natural resources in the surrounding environment.”

For Latin American ports, the importance they place on sustainable initiatives reflects a heightened awareness of the role that the environment plays in port operations.

“How can we implement and sustain a competitive and efficient business model while realizing the existing realities like a lack of infrastructure and financial resources?” asks McKinley Meza.  “First and foremost, it is essential that we preserve our natural inheritance – the environment – because it maintains our agricultural base and will provide new opportunities for growth that are currently overlooked. Take for instance ecotourism, which didn’t exist a few years ago, but now adds value our cruise business,” adds McKinley Meza.

Consequently, Latin American ports are finding ways to tackle environmental sustainability in spite of obstacles. “Our biggest challenge has been making the city believe that by having a port right in its center, we can responsibly and sustainably generate development, employment and incomes,” says George Díaz, whose Port of Santa Marta became the first port outside of Europe to earn the ESPO environmental certification ECOPORTS for sustainable environmental business practices. “There isn’t a better way for a port to connect with their community than by having a personal and direct relationship and responding and listening to their concerns,” says George Díaz.

The API Port of Ensenada, also in Mexico, followed Santa Marta’s example and recently earned its ECOPORTS status this past December, and various ports in the Southern Cone are beginning to pursue environmentally sustainable certifications as well.

As part of its commitment, the Port of Santa Marta also conducts and publishes annual reviews of its programs that are made available to the general public on the port’s website, which ensures that updates on the initiatives are shared with the larger community.

At the Port of Progreso, much like at the Port of Santa Marta, corporate social responsibility boils down to a mutual exercise in listening and responding to people’s interests. “Communication and close relationships are the key to tailor our programs to the needs and requirements of the community,” stressed Torre Gamboa.

Once its initiatives are put into practice, Port of Progreso then spreads the word by utilizing different tools at its disposal to reach out to the greatest number possible. “We publish press releases on our website, pass them along to local media outlets throughout our state and use our Facebook and Twitter accounts,” says Torre Gamboa.

By emphasizing a strong commitment to community relationships through their corporate-social responsibility initiatives, Latin American ports are laying the foundations for future success by becoming models for inclusionary and sustainable practices that all ports may follow.