Monday, March 18, 2013

A Hero for Bogotá's Hills

Jose Baquero stands before Monserrate, with a newspaper about his fight to protect the hills. 
Deforested land where La Externado
University is building its towers.

He's a small man, who lives in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Belén and supports himself and his three teenage children by installing natural gas stoves.

But Jose Baquero, 50, hasn't hesitated to take on some of the city's most powerful institutions in his long battle to save Bogotá's beleagured Eastern Hills.

Baquero was in the news recently when he organized a protest march against a pair of towers being built by the Universidad Externado in the hills in forest above La Circunvular Avenue. He has filed legal objections and recently organized a protest march, which he said was attended by 40 people.

Jose Baquero on a Bogotá street, carrying a packet of
documents about the Eastern Hills.
It's a David-and-Goliath struggle for a man of humble means who didn't attend college and until today didn't even have an e-mail account. Impressively, he expresses confidence that he'll be able to stop La Externado's project, even tho the forest has already been cleared and work is proceeding. That's despite the university's money, connections and team of attorneys.

"Any fight is winnable," he asserts.

Baquero is president and a co-founder of the Civic Environmental Comittee for Bogotá's Eastern Hills, which was founded 25 years ago, but still doesn't even have a website.

What's most impressive to me about Boquero - and pathetic about the rest of us - is that in a city of nine million people, all of whom benefit from the hills, as well as NGOs and city officials charged with protecting the environment, Boquero seems to be the only person actually doing something to defend those hills.

A sign at the construction site last year gives permission
for building up to seven floors. It doesn't mention
basements or multiple towers.
With his lack of sophistication and resources, he's an unlikely crusader. Yet, he's also representative of the majority of Bogotanos, for whom escaping from the city for a weekend in the countryside is an unaffordable expense. They have to find nature in the city's urban parks - and its Eastern Hills, if their forests survive.

According to news reports, one trouble for Baquero is that the hills are in a sort of legal limbo, subject to multiple and contradicting municipal resolutions and court rulings. Still, it seems to be popular belief and common sense that the hills which provide a green backdrop for the city, as well as oxygen and rainwater, are common patrimony.
In a recent photo, the sign has been replaced by another one
describing two towers of eight floors  with three basement
levels and 484 parking places.

Another problem is the weakness of laws and, perhaps, officials' lack of determination. Recently, the media reported the construction of an illegal road in the hills in north Bogotá. Despite unanimous opinion that the road was illegal and that it crossed several protected forests, according to the last thing I read, officials said they could not have it removed, altho they did promise to find the road's builder.

Boquero also pointed out an apparent contradiction in the university's construction plan, which is posted on a signboard at the site. One sign, which Boquero said he photographed late last year, describes plans to build two seven story towers without basements. But a sign at the site now says the university has permission to build two eight-story towers with three basement floors. Those floors will apparently contain the project's 480 parking spaces - a contradiction to the city's goals of promoting mass transit and discouraging use of the private car.

Jose Baquero and friends in defense of the hills. 

In the past, Boquero has challenged construction projects by La Universidad de Los Andes and La Universidad America, which he said violated hillside protections. Those projects include a swimming pool complex built by Los Andes and fencing which Boquero says illegaly excludes the public from hillside rivers. He said he also participated in an 'popular action' against the cutting of trees in Parque de la Independencia in order to build a bridge over 26th St. to the Museum of Modern Art. That project, already mostly finished, is now finally moving ahead.

Despite Boquero's crusade, powerful institutions like La Externado have continued deforesting and building on the hillsides. But Boquero is not discouraged. He claims to have stopped additional construction by Los Andes University, among other battles.

"That's why I don't have any fear," he says.

A sign near Monserrate says that this is an
 'Area of Protective Forest Reserve.'
While he and I talked on La Plaza del Periodista in La Candelaria, some friends of his walked past. There were a dark-skinned family of indigenous descent. Boquero said that they lived in the hillsides, where a number of families have homes, whose legality is uncertain.

"The city just told them they couldn't plant potatoes on their land," Boquero said. "We poor people get shafted, but the rich get permits to do whatever they want."

Boquero also said that he and others had requested permission to build a fourth floor on the La Concordia neighborhood's public high school, which is in the heart of the city's historical center. They were refused because of historical preservation laws. Yet, La Externado is building eight-story towers.

Baquero points out that without the hills' forests, Bogotá's remaining wetlands will suffer, and the city will experience worse flooding from rainstorms. The problem, says Boquero, is that, if La Externado builds its towers, "there'll be another and another and another..."

Boquero seemed thoroughly informed and determined, with his feet planted on the ground. However, he did describe one extraordinary experience. He said that recently he was kidnapped, drugged and dumped outside of town north of Bogotá. He didn't offer any evidence of the supposed ordeal, which would be a serious crime if true, and said that he had no idea who had done this. Whatever the truth of this experience, it might also be true that just a bit of insanity is needed to carry out such a Don Quijote-like struggle.

Boquero has other dreams, including an 'ecological corridor' extending up Jimenez Ave. to the Quinta de Bolívar and then along La Circunvular, an area in which the city planned several public parks which have never actually been created. But getting people to visit a park in the Eastern Hills will be a challenge unless the area's reputation for muggings changes. Boquero, in fact, said that while in the hills recently thieves tried to steal his camera. He fought them off, but the camera was damaged, and he can't afford to pay the repair shop's charges.

But with lighting and security, he expects Bogotanos to use such a park.

"It's what I wish for," he said.

Baquero also hopes to replace the cement posts on La Candelaria's sidewalks with planters to give the very grey neighborhood some green.

Baquero is has scheduled a second protest march against La Externado's project, this one to start at Plaza del Rosario at 9 a.m. April 1.

"We have to double the number from the previous march," he says. "Maybe get 100 people.

"I'm keeping the faith. I won't give up."

Jose Baquero: 313-805-3888

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


mauricio forero l said...

Hey Mike, do you have his e-mail??? I like this guy a lot, and If I can, I would like to help him. This is an example of somebody with courage and initiative, he is truly a hero. At least I can give him a camera.

Miguel said...

yes, he's one of those unseen heroes. yesterday, I helped him set up an e-mail.

comiteambientalcerrosorientalesbogota( arroba ) latinmail (punto) com .

I'm sure he'll appreciate any help.


mauricio forero l said...

Mike, thank you so much!!!!