Thursday, January 31, 2013

New Year; Same Dirty Air

Where did downtown Bogotá go?

You can glimpse a few of the buildings.
On January first, EcoPetrol, supposedly, began distributing distributing very clean diesel across all of Colombia. The new diesel has only 50 parts per million of sulphur - high quality by developing world standards. Previously, the diesel fuel in Bogotá had 300 ppm of sulphur, and that sold outside the city was much dirtier.

These photos show the view of downtown Bogotá from the window of my apartment above La Candelaria in the morning. Most mornings I can barely distinguish the buildings in downtown thru the grey pall.

A rare clear day.
EcoPetrol may very well be distributing clean fuel, altho I'd love to see an analysis by an independent laboratory. (Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a laboratory in Colombia with sufficiently precise equipment that's not connected to EcoPetrol.) But that only demonstrates how much more needs to be done to clear the air.

The city needs to retire older, higly-polluting vehicles and enforce emissions laws on the rest. Even many new cars, especially Chinese and Korean models, leave plumes of smoke behind them.

Where does the smog come from? It's no mystery:

A TransMilenio bus, the icon of Bogotá, belches smoke.

This truck was repairing electricity lines along the Circunvular.

A bus belches its way down Carrera 10.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bogotá's Eastern Hills - So Near, Yet So Far Away

Construction equipment parked on an illegal road near La Calerain Bogotá's Eastern Hills. (Photo from El Tiempo/CityTV)
They rise up on the city's eastern edge, providing a green, forested backdrop to Colombia's capital, as well as a source of vital fresh air.

Bogotá's Eastern Hills provide a sweeping green
backdrop for the city.
But Bogotá's Eastern Hills are under constant attack, as a pair of articles in El Tiempo yesterday and today chronicled. A rancher near La Calera in north Bogotá built an acess road across his land, illegaly and without obtaining permits. The road damaged three separate protected forests, according to experts interviewed by the paper, and polluted one of the rivers flowing into the capital.

But the road's biggest impact may happen in the next years if the environmental officials do not succeed in removing it. That's because it'll enable the construction of homes and other buildings in the area, further destroying the forests.

The landowner who created the road sounded unrepentant, telling El Tiempo only that he wanted to be able to drive across his property to observe his cattle.

The cable car station to Monserrate and the
Virgin de Guadalupe statue behind.
This road is a small-scale example of one of the greatest threats to Colombia's forests: While mining, oil wells and other types of resource extraction cause damage themselves, their greatest impacts occur in the following years, as farmers and ranchers use roads and pipeline rights-of-way to invade virgin areas and carry out more deforestation.

This road is only the most recent attack on Bogotá's Estern Hills, which are protected by law, but where both rich and poor try to build houses illegaly.

But the damage to forests is only one fundamental tragedy of the Eastern Hills of Bogotá. Because of the area's isolation and the many rough neighborhoods along the base of the hills, the hills have a reputation for crime.

A view of central Bogotá from the hills.
About five years ago, some friends and I hiked to the top of Monserrate, then down the back of the hills and back into Bogotá via the canyons behind the Parque Nacional. We took precautions, including carrying big sticks and bringing along several pit bulls. Even so, we kept silent for long stretches of the walk so that the tough kids in the barrios down below wouldnpt hear us and and come out in pursuit. In the end, we had a great time walking thru peaceful pine and eucalyptus forests, where we felt as tho we were in a different world, far from Bogotá's noise and pollution.

We planned to do another hike the following Sunday. But on Saturday part of the hills caught fire and a family visiting their grandfather's ashes, which they'd scattered behind the Parque Nacional, was gunned down in a mugging gone awry. We canceled our second hike, and I haven't been back since.

There have since been many more crimes in the Eastern Hills, including a dramatic one in north Bogotá last year, in which muggers stopped hikers at gunpoint one by one and took them to a field, where they robbed them and held them for hours until they'd succeeded in methodically robbing several dozen people.

I grew up in the San Franciso, (California) Bay Area, where we loved going hiking, bicycling and picnicing in the Berkeley Hills. Bogotá's Eastern Hills could be a similar wonderful resource for the nine million people trapped in the capital's stress, noise and pollution, especially for those who don't have the time or money to leave the city.

The situation is a sort of Catch-22: As long as few people venture into the hills, they'll remain isolated and dangerous. But unless more people start recreating in the hills, they won't become safer.

The city has plans to turn the Eastern Hills into a park, complete with hiking and cycling trails. But they haven't advanced. Such plans will require lots of money and planning. However, the city might start on a small scale, creating secure trails and exhibits, which would be steadily expanded as more and more people venture into the hills. Perhaps some of the kids who now occupy themselves by mugging people could even be employed in these projects.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Why Public Preschool Employees are Protesting

Employees of Bogotá's jardines comunitarios, or neighborhood preschools, have been protesting for the last months. They are concerned about changes to the preschools' hiring system, which historically has been done thru neighborhood women's organizations. Instead, employees are to hired directly by the city.

The changes are supposed to mean more benefits for some employees - but reduced pay for others.

These employees protested today on Plaza Bolivar.

This group's banner asked whether this policy was a 'Humane Bogotá', turning around the city's 'Bogotá Humana' slogan.

'Children aren't Garbage' says this sign, making a parallel to the city's ongoing scandal over mismanagement of its garbage collection.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, January 28, 2013

Dictator for Democracy?

Raul Castro: First Secretary of the
Communist Party of Cuba, Dictator, and
now pro-democracy leader.

Today, a supposedly pro-democracy organization appointed the hemisphere's only dictator as its president.

If that makes no sense, it just might interpreted thru the lens of hemispheric politics.

The organization in question, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, was founded in 2010 almost solely to defy the United States (and Canada) and to replace the Organization of American States, which is often seen as a puppet of Washington.

The CELAC is certainly not purely Latin. It has a dozen English-speaking member nations, albeit mostly tiny ones, and one Dutch-speaker, and 18 Spanish-speaking ones. Culturally, ethnically, linguistically or economically, these 33 nations with five official languages, lots of religions and varied economies and histories, have little in common.

So, nothing in particular ties the CELAC's members together, except one thing: they aren't the United States.

The CELAC's reasons for being are to exclude Washington and promote Hugo Chavez's ideas about socialist revolution. It was not by chance that Chavez was a co-chair (along with Chilean Pres. Piñera) of the committee that drafted the CELAC's statutes, or that its first summit was held in Caracas and its third is scheduled for Cuba.

Sure hope Raul's not too busy jailing journalists and
arranging one-party elections to promote democracy?
At the CELAC's second summit, held today in Santiago, Chile,  Chilean Pres. Sebastian Pinera handed the organization's presidency to Cuban dictator Raul Castro.

The vice president of Venezuela also read a letter supposedly written by Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president who has held power for some 14 years and recently began yet another term even tho he's been out of sight for more than a month in a Havana hospital suffering from cancer. The letter called for unity among the organization's members and denounced the U.S. blockade of Cuba.

Are Venezuela and Cuba the CELAC's models for democracy?

It's healthy to have a counterbalance to Washington-driven policies. But nobody should deceive themselves that an organization evidently directed by Cuba, a dictatorship which permits no free press, and by increasingly authoritarian Venezuela, will promote democratic values like free speech and the right to vote.

Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer got it right in this quote in a Washington Post article: “it’s hard to take the CELAC seriously when in their foundational charter they put that they’re going to defend democracy and then they elect a military dictator as its president.

Oppenheimer observes that the CELAC has no headquarters. I couldn't even find a website for the organization. Perhaps the CELAC will do nothing more than organize meetings and issue statements, as leftist demagogues are so fond of doing.

On the other hand, the CELAC might do some good if it makes some think skulls in Washington D.C. realize the imbecility of the embargo against Cuba, which succeeds in giving Cuba a moral standing it didn't earn and generates responses like the CELAC.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Bogotá's Avenue of Sad Sculptures

La Rebecca reaches futiley for water on a dry island amidst trash. 
It was supposed to be an avenue of art, welcoming visitors on their way from the airport to central Bogotá in style.

But neglect, time and weather and the mistakes of city workers, have turned Bogotá's 'art avenue' into a sad spectacle. 

The concept was created in 1991, entitled el Museo Vial, according to El Tiempo, altho several of the works were created before that. 

The Ala Solar, donated by Venezuela,
is now a skeleton against the sky. 
Perhaps the most pathetic piece is the Ala Solar, or Solar Wing, located on 26th St. near the National Prisons Institute, INPEC. The sculpture, created in 1975 by Venezuelan artist Alejandro Otero and donated to Colombia by the Venezuelan government, was part of a series including other works located in Venezuela, Washington D.C. and Italy. The original sculpture included many pieces of metal, which have since been stolen and sold to scrap dealers. Today, the sculpture could be mistaken for a framework for a construction project, or perhaps a support for a lost billboard.

Across 26th from the Central Cemetery is a bust of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, the leftist, populist politician assassinated in 1948. The bust, by sculptor Bernardo Vieco Ortiz, is in good shape. However, it was removed and replaced during the work on the 26th St. Transmilenio line. El Tiempo reports that the bust had originally been placed with its back to the Central Cemetery, symbolizing the fact that, for political reasons, Gaitan was not buried. When the bust was returned, it was placed facing the cemetery.

This cement platform a kilometer west of the
Ala Solar looks like it ONCE carried a sculpture. 
Near the Central Cemetery, however, stands perhaps Bogotá's most best-known piece of outdoor art - the huge 'fat man on a fat horse' by sculptor Fernando Botero, outside of the Parque del Renacimiento. And the huge, empty mausoleums in the block just west of the Central Cemetery are decorated with images of people carrying stretchers - a haunting memorial to the victims of Colombia's armed conflict. 

Finally, somewhat hidden in a concrete plaza at Carrera 13 and 26th is La Rebecca, a nude woman kneeling to collect water. The artist is unknown, according to Wikipedia, but the sculpture has suffered a lot. The sculpture was installed in 1926 in what was then the Parque Centenario, created for the centennial of Simon Bolivar's birth. But during the following decades the park lost sections as avenues were sliced thru around it. The park's other sculptures were moved to the Parque Nacional, but La Rebecca remains, pathetically reaching out toward a pool of dirty, trash-strewb water. City officials are considering moving La Rebecca to the nearby Parque de la Independencia, El Tiempo reports. 

Bogotá has nearly 500 pieces of public art, many of which are deteriorating. The city's partimony department says that during 2013 it will concentrate on restoring the 50 or so pieces located in Bogotá's historical center. 

This bust of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan across from the Central Cemetery was removed for TransMilenio construction and then put back. Gaitan, a fiery communist, may feel unformfortable beside a marketing billboard. 
When Gaitan was put back he was set facing the Central Cemetery - even tho the sculptor wanted Gaitan with his back to the cemetery, where he could not be buried. 

Some real, new art on 26th St. - great street murals near Ave. Septima.

Stencils on these empty mausoleums along 26th St. represent victims of Colombia's conflict. 

'Life is sacred.'
Near the Central Cemetery stands Bogotá's only Botero sculpture in a public space.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, January 25, 2013

El Pasaje Hernandez

The pasaje's southern entrance. 

The pasaje's elegant, if neglected, interior. 

One of the most traditional, if a bit crestfallen, spots in central Bogotá has to be the Pasaje Hernandez, between calles 12 and 12 and carreras 9 and 10. With little shops, all of them small businesses offering age-old goods and services like dresses and printing (as well as some Internet and cell phone credit), in Pasaje Hernandez you won't find the glitz, variety and hecticness of Unilago. But you'll have a calmer shopping experience and might go home with something you'll actually use.

Neighbors pass the afternoon in a small cafe. 

A window full of women's wear.

A printer at work. 

This small fish restaurant seems to be a hang-out for Afro-Colombians.
A fruit seller by the south entrance. 

A neighboring building has seen better days, and years. 
A fish seller by the pasaje's north entrance. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Colombia Decaffeinated?

Good Colombian arabica coffee beans, green on left and roasted on the right. 

Colombia is no longer coffee country. Oh, sure, Colombia will continue producing coffee, coffee will continue being an important crop, and, hopefully, the country will long be known for high-quality arabica coffee.

A German-language banner announces 'The best coffee
of Colombia' from Cafe de la Fonda. 
But the days when coffee was the country's economic mainstay are behind us, and that's bad news. That's true not only because the coffee harvest has declined so much that 2011 saw the smallest harvest in 30 years, at 7.8 million sacks, but also because Asian nations have recently become coffee powerhouses. (In fact,  for domestic consumption, Colombia actually imports inexpensive robusta coffee
- sometimes from as far away as Vietnam.)

But, Colombia's no longer coffee country for a second, also unfortunate reason: it's becoming an oil country.

Juan Valdez, the brand created by Colombia's
cooperative of coffee farmers. 
As coffee production has declined, Colombia's output of petroleum and coal has risen. Economists talk about the country pumping out a million barrels per day of oil, which would be close to half of OPEC member Venezuela.

But, while oil may be worth more, this is still a bad deal for Colombia. According to coffee organizations, some 560,000 families, or several million people, grow  coffee in Colombia. Having a coffee farm is proud, healthy way of life (as long as they don't use too many pesticides). And, when the coffee is shade grown, it can contribute to biodiversity. In contrast, fossil fuel production, with its huge machines, provides few jobs, often feeds corruption, and I won't even touch on its environmental impacts except to point out that global warming is damaging Colombia's coffee farms.

A petroleum-based economy is also bad for democracy, as a glance at Venezuela's ailing democracy and the dictatorships in many Middle Eastern nations shows.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Is Medellin the New Bogotá?

Cable cars sail past the Biblioteca España in Medellin, which is a contender for 'the world's most innovative city' title.
(Photo: Arquitectura Medellin on Flickr)
A decade ago, it was Bogotá which was de moda. International publications loved to send correspondents here to write glowing reports about the city's eccentric, innovative mayors and progressive urban policies, which contrasted so strongly with Colombia's drug-and-guerrillas international image.

Still not perfect: Medellin's impoverished,
troubled and violent Comuna 13. (Photo:
But today La Ciclovia's no longer so novel, Bogotá's Ciclorutas are in disrepair and mayors Antanus Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa have been replaced by Samuel Moreno, now in prison, and Gustavo Petro, now under siege for mismanaging the city's garbage collection service.

Instead, Medellin is now in fashion. Colombia's second city, still known mostly for Pablo Escobar and violent hillside slums, makes a great story thanks to its modern subway, cable cars swaying over those violent comunas and beautiful mountain-top library.

Probably, the shift is deserved. Medellin's subway has renewed the city's image, as well as transporting millions smoothly past traffic jams and dangerous neighborhoods. (But whether a subway would be the best option for a larger, flatter city like Bogotá is another question.) The cable cars and library, besides providing new services for residents of poor neighborhoods, have also helped reduce homicide rates, according to studies.

Coming to Bogotá? A Medellin light rail station.
Despite its stumbles, tho, Bogotá hasn't stood still. The city's expanded its TransMilenio bus system, created new parks and libraries, and cut its poverty and homicide rates are dropping.
Medellin is now a finalist, along with New York and Jerusalem, for the Wall Street Journal's 'the world's most innovative city' award. The winner won't be chosen scientifically, tho: apparently, people can vote as many times as they wish. With that policy, the highly-wired populations of New York and Israel have huge advantages.

Vote early, vote often for Medellin at:

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours