Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Proits of Obesity

Cases of sugary soft drinks for sale.
We all know that obesity causes diabetes, heart disease and even cancer, as well as myriad other diseases, making it one of the biggest preventable killers.

However, other people know something else about obesity: There's lots of money in it.

That's why a phalanx of economic heavyweights are lobbying hard against a proposal to increase Colombia's tax on sugary soft drinks.

Big companies like Coke, Pepsi, the Oxxo junk food chain, and supermarkets all earn fortunes every year by pushing empty calories onto us. However, judging by the statements of Fenalco, Colombia's National Federation of Businesses, you might think that all they cared about were the 'little people'.

A tax on soft drinks, Fenalco warns, will cause layoffs in bottling plants, hurt mom-and-pop corner
Soft drink industry workers protest a new tax on Plaza Bolivar.
stores and disproportionately cost poor families. While there may be some truth to those assertions, you'd be forgiven if you smelled hypocrisy in the corporate statements. After all, these same soft drink companies are happily working with the chain stores which are trying hard to drive those mom-and-pop groceries out of business. And I'm sure that those bottlers now crying over the fate of their hourly workers are doing their best to cut costs by automating those same workers out of their jobs. And those rich companies which express so much concern about the poor are happy to sell those same poor people harmful junk food they can't afford.

And whose to say that whatever money the poor don't spend on soft drinks won't be spent instead on healthier fruits, breads and even school books? Poor people tend to spend their limited money quickly. So that will generate other, different jobs.

Obesity is a growing problem in Colombia.
Fenalco is also correct when it claims that a soda tax won't end obesity. But it might reduce it, at least a little bit.

And tax critics are also correct in saying that all sugary foods should be taxed equally, and I'm at a loss as to why they don't just tax sugar at its source - perhaps because the sugar lobby is just too strong. But taxing soft drinksis, at leastt, a start.

The corporations have good reason for concern. In Mexico, California and other places soda taxes have been shown to decrease consumption. By the same token, higher cigarette taxes reduce smoking, especially among children, which is why it's good that the reform will also increase the cigarrette tax.

The lobbies against tax hikes on soft drinks, cigarettes and other harmful products are classic
The Oxxo junk food chain pushes soft drinks.
examples of vested interests fighting to protect their fortunes - no matter the harm to their customers and society.

In a just world, companies would be required to pay the public costs caused by their products - in this case, disease, and, why not, the collection and disposal of all those discarded empty bottles.

Pushing 'double sweet' treats outside a McDonald's in La Candelaria.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Minor Example of Municipal Malfunction

Parque la Concordia today, and tomorrow, and the day after...
El Parque de La Concordia is a small public park located above the La Candelaria neighborhood, furnished with some swings, exercise bars and a futsal/basketball court. It's popular with neighborhood sports teams and dog walkers, as well as hippies and pot smokers. It's about the only substantial green area nearby.

At least, that's the way it was, until the city improvement folks got their hands on it.

In March, city workers blocked off the park and began renovation work due to be finished by July 1. July came and went, as did, Sept. 1, the next completion date. Since then, the city appears to have given up on publicly announcing such dates. I'd bet money that the park won't be completed until 2017.

Is this just incompetence? Bad planning? Or, is someone stretching this project out to milk all the money they can from it? After all, besides myself, nobody else seems to be paying attention to this project, even tho this was the neighborhood's only usable court for sports. (The only other one, a few blocks away, is disabled by a separate public construction project.)

Meanwhile, on hill hillside above, the Externado University is racing ahead with its construction of two towers, for which it deforested a large area, and which will block residents' views of the hillside.

The most infuriating part of all this? It was a perfectly good park before they started on it.

Will this history be repeated in the construction of Bogotá's metro system? Many prospective contractors and public officials are undoubtely salivating already. On the other hand, the metro project will recieve lots of media scrutiny, something which doesn't happen with small projects like this one.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Recycling a Bad Idea

Labeled recycling bins in Paloquemao Market. They all contain the same random trash.
Beginning next year, Bogotanos will be required to classify their trash for recycling. It's a great plan - and looks doomed to fail, just as Mayor Petro's similar plan failed before.

Why bother? It all goes to
the same place, anyway.
A visitor to Bogotá might be impressed by the receptacles in shops, parks and markets carefully Organic,' 'Inorganic' and 'Ordinario' trash. But look inside, and he'll probably see that all three bins contain the same miscelaneous garbage, and if he waits around he'll see that all the material goes into the same truck and heads to the same landfill.
labeled '

Recently, I talked to a young woman who teaches in a public high school. She spent a lot of time instructing the children how to separate recyclables from ordinary trash and place them in the correct bins. So, she was horrified one evening when she watched the janitor dump all the bins together.

"Don't do that!" she exclaimed.

"Why not?" the janitor replied. "All of it goes to the same place, anyway."

Classify this!
That's one big reason why recycling's doomed here. Another is the way garbage disposal works across much of the capital; You carry your sacks of garbage - classified or not - onto the sidewalk and leave them there for the truck to come around. Promptly, dogs or homeless people appear and rip the sacks open and dump the contents onto the sidewalk and sift thru them to something to eat or sell.

Fortunately, there's a much better way to reduce Bogotá's trash production and decrease its environmental impact, but unfortunately the city show's no willingness to employ it: Make producing garbage cost money. 
If these bags cost money, this guy would get a reusable one.

This is simple enough to do, by taxing things like throw-away plastic bags (which taxes have reduced
bag use by as much as 90% in places such as Ireland), and placing deposits on things like cans and tires. The consumer gets the most of the desposit back by delivering the used product to a recyling center and the rest of the deposit money finances the recycling. Such policies have succeeded in places in North America and Europe.

Instead, in yet another useless law, Bogotá intends to require those single use disposable bags to carry environmental messages. How nice.

The good news: These plastic bags may soon carry environmental messages.
A truck full of plastic bottles, soon headed for the landfill. A deposit law would encourage the soda companies to  adopt resusable bottles.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, October 14, 2016

A New Landmark Rises - for Better or Worse

The Torre Bacatá dominates the skyline in this view from La Candelaria.
Calle 19, in front of the Bacatá,
is already congested and chaotic.
The new Torre Bacatá, in downtown, adds a new landmark - and new problems, which the city appears not to have prepared for. Generally, it's good to build downtown, which limits urban sprawl and its compounding traffic troubles. But the 260-meter tall Bacatá, which will be the tallest building in Colombia and the second-tallest in South America, will cause huge troubles in its neighborhood.

The adjoining streets are already chaotic and congested, and this new mini-city will compound that. The Bacatá will contain offices, luxury apartments, a hotel and a shopping mall. And there's little open space, and no green space nearby. How about the quality of life for the residents of this new superstructure and those living nearby?

20th Street, behind the Bacatá:
narrow and already busy.
If I were the unfortunate person in charge of this city, I'd have said: 'Sure, go ahead and build, but you also have to help fund light rail lines on Calle 19 and Carrera Septima, as well as a public park nearby.' Fortunately for me, I'm not in charge.

Carrera 5, on the tower's eastern side, is narrow and pepetually traffic-jammed.
What will cars and trucks entering and leaving this garage on 19th do to traffic?
The only nearby public area is Las Nieves Plaza, the haunt of prostitutes, alcoholics and drug addicts.
Bogotá's skyline, and the Bacatá, seen from near the Central Cemetery on 26th St.
Bacatá, with dramatic architecture.

In a nod toward public space, the Bacatá provided this wide sidewalk on Calle 19.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Will It Help?

Peace accord supporters march down Carrera Septima.
Lots of activities these days pushing for the peace agreement recently signed by the government and FARC guerrillas, but narrowly rejected by voters. 
Many of these demonstrators took a SI victory for granted, I suspect, and neglected to vote. If they'd only shown this same enthusiasm on Oct. 2, most likely the accord would have been approved. 
I'm not sure how much this enthusiasm in the streets will push forward the talks going on now between Pres. Santos and ex-presidents Uribe and Pastrana, who opposed the agreement. But, if they do reach an agreement, then perhaps this energy will contribute to its realization.

On Plaza Bolivar, activists have been camping out for the last week in support of the accord.

'Not one step back.'
Listing names of victims of rights violations.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Trumping Latin Democracies

Donald Trump, would-be strongman.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro may
seem like polar opposites. One is a wealthy conservative, the other a leftist who started out as a bus driver.

The two, however, do have at least one characteristic in common: Authoritarianism.

At the last U.S. presidential debate, Trump told Democrat Hillary Clinton that if he were president, she'd "be in jail," because of her mishandling of government e-mails. Evidently, Trump had forgotten that imprisoning people is the job of judges and prosecutors, not of presidents - at least in a democracy.

Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's
authoritarian president.
But Trump might find a model in Maduro, whose government has imprisoned numerous opponents, most prominently Leopoldo Lopez, an ex-mayor and potential presidential candidate, whose trial was called a farce by many human rights organizations. Lopez is serving a 14 year prison term for supposedly inciting protests using subliminal signals.

Not satisfied with jailing opponents, the deeply unpopular Maduro has also used his puppet Supreme Court to declare Parliament, where the opposition has a majority, 'unconstitutional' and unable to issue legislation. Maduro also announced that he will instruct the Supreme Court to approve the national budget, even tho the Constitution explicits gives this job to Parliament.

Among Maduro's long list of authoritan, anti-constitutional actions is also using his puppet Electoral Council to put obstacle after obstacle in the way of a recall referendum the opposition wants to organize against him - another right provided in Venezuela's Constitution. And Maduro's government recently said that it won't hold governor and regional legislative elections this year because it can't afford to - this in an oil-soaked nation which throws billions of dollars away each year on corruption and giving away gasoline.

"The priority isn't to hold elections," Maduro said. "What is the country's priority? Fulfill the whim of the oligarchy or recover the economy?"

Leopold Lopez,
Maduro's political prisoner.
Under Maduro's incompetent mishandling, Venezuela's economy is sinking, it has the world's highest inflation rate and shortages of basic goods like sugar, flour, toilet paper and medicines. It also has one of the world's highest homicide rates.

What Venezuela needs most are elections, to throw out Maduro and his allies and restore sanity. understandably, Maduro doesn't want to permit votes he knows he'd lose.

Sadly, the story is not so different in nations like Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, where leftist leaders have entrenched themselves and are trying to become presidents-for-life.

In that sense, Brazil and Guatemala, both embroiled in corruption scandals, should be admired. There, at least, the democratic institutions have had the resiliency to remove flawed presidents and investigate their alleged misdeeds.

Would the U.S.'s own institutions be strong enough to withstand a President Trump?

Hopefully, we'll never have to find out.

Check out the excellent NY Times story about this.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

What's REALLY Important Here!

Men watch today's football along Jimenez Avenue in central Bogota.
Colombians - particularly male ones - turned out in droves today to watch the World Cup qualifying match. Colombian tied Uruguay 2 - 2.

If only people had shown half of this passion for the referendum on the peace agreement with the FARC, which happened to be the most important event in Colombia's recent history. Then, abstention wouldn't have been so high, and perhaps SI would have won.

A friend was just telling us about his trip to the Pacific Coast region, one of the areas hit hardest by Colombia's violence. In some places, he said, the threat of violence has lifted, and the people, most of them indigenous, turned to constructive projects. He described a fundamental change, which hopefully will last, despite the agreement's narrow loss at the polls. The politicians are still talking.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours