Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Muiscas' March

A few photos of the Muisca Indigenous people's protest on Plaza Bolivar the other day. I wasn't able to get a lot of details about the protest's motive, except that the Muiscas feel that outsiders are building on their tribal lands without asking their permission. Indigenous people have been involved in many land disputes, often because they often lack formal documents for their traditional lands.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Reaching for the Sky, Forgetting the Ground?

Trouble on the ground? The unfinished BD Bacata just became the tallest tower in Colombia.
According to news reports, the BD Bacata Tower, being built by the intersection of Carrera 7 and Calle 19, just became the tallest skyscraper in Colombia, surpassing the 48-story, 196-meter Torre Colpatria, on Carrera 7 and Calle 26.

Reaching for the sky: An artist's
rendering of the BD Bacata tower.
I suppose that this is something to be proud of - despite some development researchers' observations that the construction of arrogantly tall buildings often anticipates economic swoons. 

The Bacata's website boasts about the project's urbanistic positives - mostly the fact that its central location won't contribute to sprawl and will reduce travel times to reach it. Those certainly are pluses, as is the potential to use public transit in the area. 

But none of that obviates the need for planning and investment to keep the surroundings livable and transit in the area functioning - things that aren't often the case now, even without this immensity. 

The 66-story BD Bacata will contain a parking lot, shopping mall, offices, apartments and a 364-room hotel. None of those are designed for poor people. Sadly, even with the area's wealth of bus service, most of the complex's users will likely arrive by car, snarling the chaotic traffic on Calle 19 and the narrow secondary streets. (Carrera 7 is currently pedestrian-only during the day.) 

Central Bogotá's skyline, with the Bacatá on the left.
While the Bacata's construction is advancing rapidly, I've seen exactly no, (zippo, 0, nada) transit improvements nearby to prepare for the onslaught of vehicles which this city-in-a-building will generate. In a rational city, of course, the Bacata's builders would be required to contribute to TransMilenio and-or light rail lines to expand the capacity of the adjoining avenues.

I won't even speculate about the capacity of nearby water, sewer and electricity service, nor mention the lack of nearby green space. And, how about urban renewal of the adjoining blocks, which are quite seedy? Will the Bacata's residents and users dare to walk a block outside the building, or immediately take refuge in a private vehicle - compounding perpetual traffic jams?

In an interesting aside, the Bacatá claims to be the world's first crowd-funded skyscraper.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Teachers' March

High school teachers, and some university professors, are on strike these days, demanding increased pay and benefits and an end to teacher evaluations.

Despite their vital work for society, teachers have relatively low pay and social status in many nations. And, for better or for worse, market forces play little role in fixing their salaries and work conditions.

These folks were marching this afternoon along Calle 26 near the Universidad Nacional.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The New Face of the Iglesia de Lourdes

A front view of Lourdes Church, with kids playing on the plaza.
The 240-year-old Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, in the heart of the Chapinero District, was unveiled last month after some three years of renovation. The work on the striking gothic-style was not without controversy, however: the project was criticized for damaging parts of the church, including old stone slabs and installing a beam which altered the building's design. Even the church's priest, Adolfo Vera López, who directed the work, received criticisms for his lack of expertise in restorations.
Still, to my untrained eye, the building looks nice. And it was also nice to see it crowded with faithful this afternoon. 
The virgin. 
The church's interior, during mass.

Church doorways.

'Lourdes, Cultural Capital.'
Archbishop Vicente Arbelaez, who had the church built in 1875, hasn't been treated with great respect.
The tiny park behind the church has also seen better days.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Mythbusting About Colombia's Armenia

Quindio, Armenia today. Not named after the original Armenia. (Photo: Skyscraper City)
There's a belief floating around, which I've read on some websites, that the Colombian city of
A location map of Armenia,
Armenia received its name in honor of the victims of the Armenian genocide, which started exactly 100 years ago, during which the Ottoman Turks massacred as many as 1.5 million people.

While the historical story is moving, it appears to be false. In fact, Armenia, in Quindio Department, received its name in the 1880s or '90s, decades before the genocide took place in the Ottoman Empire. In that era, it was fashionable in Colombia to give places biblical names. Armenia was the world's first nation to adopt Christianity as its national religion, in 301 A.D.

However, the Armenians are a long-suffering people. And, as a Christian minority in the declining Ottoman Empire, they had suffered many previous persecutions and even massacres. So it is possible that Colombia's Armenia was named after a previous massacre of Armenians.

Coat of arms of Armenia,
Neither did Colombia's Armenia receive its name because of immigrants from the Eurasian Armenia. While there are reports of a few Armenian settlers in the region, there was no significant immigration of Armenians into Colombia's Armenia.

After the Ottoman Empire's disintegration during World War I, Armenia was briefly an independent nation, before being swallowed up by the Soviet Union. It finally gained lasting independence in 1991, after the Soviet disintegration. Today, it is a parliamentary republic with an authoritarian government.

Many call the massacres of 1915 the 20th Century's first genocide. While planning the genocide of the Jews, Gypsies, communists and others, Adolf Hitler reportedly asked 'Who remembers the Armenians?'

Today, it seems, much of the world does remember the Armenians - but the Turkish government stubbornly refuses to acknowledge a genocide which the nearly all serious historians do agree happened. Sadly, too, U.S. presidents have not used the word 'genocide' so as not to damage relations with their Turkish ally.

In February, Turkey's increasingly authoritarian Erdogan visited Bogotá to talk about trade. Colombian Pres. Santos, who wants the whole world to pay attention to human rights violations in his country, didn't mention human rights violations in Turkey, past or present.

Armenians massacred by the Ottoman Turks during the 1915 genocide.
For lots more information on this topic, see: El nombre Armenia en Colombia, which is where I got the info for this blogpost.

Flag of the nation of Armenia.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, April 24, 2015

Tony Blair's Colombian Conflict

Tony Blair
Tony Blair ended his prime ministership of the United Kingdom with a generally positive image, it seems to me, as a dynamic, innovative leader (despite following the United States into the disastrous Iraq war). Since then, however, he has garnered criticism by parleying his fame and connections into a fortune calculated by some in the many tens of millions of dollars.

Now, Blair's initiatives are earning him flack in Colombia.

Windrush Ventures, which receives fees for consulting done by Tony Blair Associates (TBA), signed a contract to advise Colombia on the use of royalty income from mining. However, the work is being paid for by the oil-soaked United Arab Emirates.

That might sound like a sweet deal for Colombia. However, the arrangement has people asking whether the payment arrangement constitutes a conflict of interest. Will Blair favor Colombia, or his paymaster, the UAE?

"In this way, the Arabs pay Blair to obtain privileged information from each nation where they want to invest and also to facilitate their business by arranging meetings with government officials to accelerate the investment process," columnist Jose Manuel Acevedo wrote in an opinion column in Semana magazine entitled 'How Much Does Tony Blair Cost Us?

Colombia's Procuraduria also sent a letter asking similar questions.

The UAE recently invested in a Colombian gold mine.

What's more, Blair is the Middle East envoy for the Madrid Quartet, consisting of the United Nations,
Blair and Juan Manuel Santos.
U.S., the European Union, and Russia, whose mission is to resolve the region's connections. Some asked whether, if Blair was receiving payments from a Middle Easter nation, he could act as a neutral broker in the region.

Complicating more the situation, Blair is a long-time friend of Colombian Pres. Santos. The two even wrote a book together in 1999 about 'the third way,' a political philosophy developed by Blair and adopted by Santos.

In response to the questions about Blair's Colombian work, the Colombian government issued a statement asserting that Blair was not privy to any sensitive information about mining resources.

On his website, Blair said that Tony Blair Associates maintains strict confidentiality and denied any impropriety:

"TBA’s work has included support to improve the country’s Royalties’ distribution system, to help boost economic development and ensure that government revenue is allocated more equally across the population...TBA has also been helping establishing a Delivery Unit, so that the government can better deliver services which will increase jobs, reduce poverty and transform the lives of people in Colombia."

TBA also says that its commercial ventures finance Blair's philanthropic work, including combating religious conflict, promoting sports and Middle East peace efforts.

Blair is unquestionably a talented guy, and I've no reason to question his good intentions. However, the ex-leader of an resource-poor nation doesn't seem like the obvious choice to advise about resource revenue use. Couldn't they find someone from resource-rich Canada, Australia or Norway, instead? This sounds rather as tho the Colombian government sought Blair's stamp of approval to open export markets for Colombian minerals.

And the potential conflicts of interest are obvious: Is the TBA really looking out for the interests of Colombia, or of the UAE, which is paying it? Can Blair really be an impartial actor as a mid-east envoy when an he's accepting payments from one of the region's nations?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

'Vehiculos' Self-Defeating Vision

A good, gridlocked highway on the left, a bad, functioning roadway on the right, during Car-Free Day. 
In honor of its hated Car-Free Day, El Tiempo's car.-boosting Vehiculos section published this cover spread entitled 'Cars Are Winning The Battle Against Car-Free Day.'

If so, theirs is a bizarre kind of victory, judging from the photos. On the left, is Vehiculos' preferred vision: a gridlocked highway, and on the right, a mostly vacant roadway during Car-Free Day, on which traffic actually flows.

Be careful what you wish for, you Vehiculos editors, or else someone might notice that cars are killing this city.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Car-Free Day: More Symbolism Than Substance?

NQS avenue this afternoon.
The same stretch of the NQS Avenue on a normal day.
Bogotá pioneered the annual Car-Free Day during the Peñalosa administration as a way to show car-dependent residents that there are other ways to get around.

Palo Quemao's Market's empty parking lot.
It's a great concept. But unfortunately, it may do just the opposite: Rather than going to school or work by bus, bicycle or foot, many car owners simply stay home on car-free days, reinforcing their own beliefs that the only way to get around is inside a huge, polluting machine.

That seemed to be the case today, during Mayor Petro's new, extra Car-Free Day, when much of the city seemed somewhat ghostly.

Don't get me wrong: I believe that cars are a scourge on cities and the planet, and I wish that every city was car-free every single day. However, Bogotá's car-free days seem mostly to generate resentment against such top-down sustainable transit measures, while changing the behavior of few people.

Petro has proposed creating monthly Car-Free Days. That will only add an additional day off or work-at-home day for many people. Better, but even less politically possible, would be to create a Car-Free Week, which would obligate drivers to find a more sustainable way to get around.

At this point, I can't help recalling an anecdote from the time car-choked Caracas, Venezuela
A normal, grid-locked day in La Candelaria.
involuntarily went car-free. In 2002, engineers and tanker captains working for the country's key petroleum industry went on strike in an effort to paralyze the country's economy and force Pres. Hugo Chavez out of office. They failed, but for weeks gasoline, normally abundant and nearly free, was unavailable. I interviewed people waiting in line - irrationally - for days at dry gas stations, even tho they could have long since gotten to their destinations by bus or bicycle.

I knew a woman there who normally drove alone in her car from the city's outskirts to her office job in central Caracas, a miserable three-hour ordeal off traffic jams. During the petroleum strike she could not get gasoline and was forced - god forbid - to take the bus - and three separate buses, in fact. But despite that multi-bus odyssey, with the roads clear, my acquaintance got to work faster by bus than she had driving her car.

I'm sure that many people had similar experiences. Nevertheless, once the oil started flowing again, the immense traffic jams returned.

Should Bogotá shut down its gas stations? It could be a good thing, but not likely. Better for the city to triple the price of gasoline, or do what Petro said he would upon being elected: Create a London-style congestion charge.

That could really reduce the driving habit.

According to El Tiempo, bicycle - or, bike parking lot - use rose 9.2%, SITP bus use rose 19% and pollution dropped 15%.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Wood Racket

Stacks of wood for sale on Calle 13 in central Bogotá.
If you decided to buy a wooden table rather than a plastic or metal one because, being biodegradable, it's 'greener', perhaps you should reconsider.

Illegally cut? Stacks of recently cut lumber. (Photo: La Nacion)
According to a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund, 75% of lumber harvested in Colombia is done so illegally, so that table top may have a criminal history. The illegal logging contributes to Colombia's galloping deforestation rate of close to a half million hectares per year. Even so, illegal logging accounts for only about a quarter of Colombia's deforestation, most of which is caused by land clearing for agriculture, including illegal drug crops, according to Jesus Orlando Rangel, who studies natural history and the environment at the Universidad Nacional, in Bogotá.

Deforested land, which quickly turns into desert.
The statistics, naturally, are in dispute. The World Bank pegs the proportion of illegally-cut wood at only 42%. And the government calculates deforestation at the still horrific rate of 'only' about 240,000 hectares per year.

Who's to blame for this? Corruption, lack of rule of law, violent illegal groups...the whole mix of Colombian problems - problems we can only hope get resolved before the trees run out.

Lumber for sale in central Bogotá. Cut legally?
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, April 19, 2015

History Unearthed on Carrera Septima

Old streetcar tracks uncovered on Carrera Septima.
Skating by streetcar tracks
near Ave. Jimenez.

Laborers working on the pedestrianization of Carrera Septima have uncovered some reminders of the Bogotá of yore - tracks of the old tranvias, or streetcars.

The tranvia network was damaged severely by the April 1948 Bogotazo riots, which followed the killing of populist leader Jorge Eliezer Gaitan. The system limped on for a few years, until a mayor who was in the pocket of the competing bus companies, had his friends asphalt over the tracks.
Remaining streetcar tracks
in San Victorino.

The streetcars were replaced by 'modern' buses, which have brought us noise, pollution and traffic chaos.

Mayor Petro has proposed a light rail line for Carrera Septima, altho it is one of many Petro ideas which have gone nowhere.

Municipal archaeologists are proposing a museum to display the rails and other objects. They'd better hurry: Sooner or later, bazuco addicts are liable to carry off the antique rails to sell them as scrap metal.

A toppled streetcar burns during El Bogotazo. Some say the bus companies paid rioters to destroy the tranvias.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours