Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Odebrecht Bulldozes the Environment

Odebrecht didn't stop at paying off politicians.
The 1071-km Ruta del Sol is to run from near Bogotá
to the coast near Santa Marta.
Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant whose name has become synonymous with corruption thanks to close to a billion dollars in bribes to governments across Latin America and Africa, did not stop at obtaining contracts on corrupt basis.

The company and its business partners also violated and ignored environmental laws on at least one of its headline projects in Colombia, according to a new report by Colombia's Controlaria.

The Controlaría found 442 violations of the environmental licenses of the $4 trillion peso-plus project, of which Odebrecht is part of the consortium. These involved waste water disposal, lack of reforestation, noise, mishandling of wildlife, and others.

The consortium "is not only not complying with the terms of the environmental licenses, but is not making any effort to comply," the Controlaria wrote.

Odebrecht bribed officials throughout
Latin America.
(Image: Notimerica)
But that's only the beginning of the scandal: It turns out that the National Environmental License Authority, the ANLA, did not fine the consortium a single time for those violations.

And even worse, other megaprojects, such as the dredging of the Magdalena River and the repair of the
Canal del Dique, are being carried out without even bothering with environmental permits, and in the case of the river, the ANLA has not bothered to oversee the project for nine years, the Controlaria found.

Is this a matter or corruption or just sheer apathy and laziness by supposed government watchdogs? Probably both.

For one of the planet's most biodiverse nations, and which claims to treasure its natural wealth, this situation goes way beyond scandalous. And it's in addition to the inherent damage done by these proyects, such as drying out wetlands, dumping silt into rivers and oceans, and facilitating deforestation by slash and burn farmers.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

What's Going on With the BD Bacata?

See anybody working on those unfinished upper stories? Neither to I.
Announced with lots of fanfare, the BD Bacatá tower was to be a glorious new landmark on Bogota's skyline: It would consist of Colombia's two highest buildings, containing high-status offices, luxury apartments, a hotel and a shopping mall.

And it yet may be. But today, it's an inglorious one.

The ground-floor mall is operating.
The two-tower complex's taller, 67-floor south tower, with its knife-like design said to be modeled after a skyscraper in Dubai, stands unfinished, and I haven't seen anybody working on its upper stories for months. (The ground-floor mall is open, and some of the apartments are said to be occupied.)

Even as the building's upper columns and walls suffer from heat, cold, sun and rain, the builders have stayed silent, and the media haven't enquired - despite this conspicuous problem - leaving one to speculate.

Did the money run out? The Bacatá was crowdfunded, said to be the world's first skyscraper financed that way. The investors, who were promised that the building would be finished and they'd be enjoying returns years ago, are understandably upset.

It's often good to increase urgan density instead of spreading a city out. But the Bacatá was built in an area with already congested streets and little public space - and much less green space - nearby.

Sure would be a pity for this building to stand as a monument to unrealistic ego and excessive ambition.
Offices and apartments for rent.
Incidentally, I sent BD Bacata a message via their website asking them what was going on, but they have not replied.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Stump City: The Deforestation of Bogotá

A freshly-cut tree stump on Carrera Septima, in the city center.
Trees cool cities down, reduce pollution, noise and stress, and add beauty to urban areas. They can also provide habitat for bats and birds, which eat pesty insects. But, sadly, anybody walking past the series of stumps along Carrera 7 in downtown could be forgiven for believing that Bogotá's suffering an urban deforestation.

A forlorn tree stump on Las Nieves Plaza.
Urban trees can certainly cause trouble: they fall down, drop branches and leaves, and their roots can break sidewalks and water pipes.

So, when one of those grand old trees becomes a nuisance, the easiest response may be to just cut it down. That solution is not only easiest, but also the most profitable: I understand that the city contractor gets paid for each tree it cuts down (rather than each tree it saves) and also gets to sell the lumber.

With incentives like that, it's a surprise that any tree is still standing.

It wouldn't be so bad if they actually replaced the trees, but the city rarely seems to.

Along Carrera 7, the stumps have it. I didn't see any signs of replanting, either.

In the Parque Nacional, this big tree is leaning over, but otherwise healthy. Will officials cut it or save it?
Manuel can't hold the tree up, but a steel or cement column might. Instead, bet that the tree will be cut down.
Update: The city is doing some sort of work on Carrera Septima, which may be the reason for cutting down all of those trees. Perhaps there's hope yet for the urban environment, if not for the rural one.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Slashing Science

A researcher protesting on Plaza Bolivar this week displays
a sign claiming he needs a microscope to see his science budget.
Colombian Pres. Santos has not, like U.S. Pres. Trump, denied basic science - but he is acting that way.

'Did you know that the government plans to cut 40%
of the science and technology budget?
The other day, across Colombia scientists protested against the government's proposed slashing of the science budget from 380 to 220 million pesos - a drop of 41%. The cuts include reductions in Colciencia's budget and the shifting of royalty money from science to road infrastructure.

Science isn't the only area scheduled to suffer: The environmental budget is also on the chopping block. That makes no sense in a country suffering a horrific deforestation rate, and in which the guerrilla demobilization has created new environmental challenges.

The big winner? Defense - which makes no sense, since the FARC, Colombia's biggest and oldest guerrilla group, just signed a peace treaty, gave up its weapons and demobilized.

Running with full tanks: Pick-up trucks carry soldiers thru La Candelaria.
An El Tiempo graphic showing the government's 2018 budget proposal.
The environment and science lost. The military won.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Beating Our Heads Against a Wall

Coca plants being eradicated in Colombia, near the Ecuadorian border.
For years, Colombia was the model anti-drug fighter for the Washington D.C. conservatives, thanks to military tactics, aggressive erradication and U.S.-supported interdiction programs. Meanwhile, left-wing governments in Bolivia and Ecuador expelled U.S. anti-drug personnel.

The U.S. also sent more than 10 billion dollars  in Plan Colombia aid to battle the guerrillas and erradicate Colombia's drug crops.

Coca leaf acreage has shot up, perhaps to record levels,
during the last several years. (Graphic: Semana magazine)
The result? Today, Colombia's cocaine production has more than doubled over the last several years and more than 90% of cocaine sold on U.S. streets comes from Colombia.

Some analysts argue that the cocaine boom has resulted from a drop in gold prices, which pushed unemployed miners into the drug business, or that as the FARC guerrillas demobilize they have urged campesinos to plant coca leaf in order to obtain a future compensation for erradicating their own crops, or that the suspension of aerial herbicide spraying a few years ago sparked a drug-planting boom.

Any and all of those might play a role, but there will always be incremental factors affecting the drug
92% of cocaine sold in the U.S. comes from Colombia,
according to the DEA, and the rest comes
from Peru and Bolivia. 
economy. And it's interesting that until recently U.S. officials argued that the guerrillas' demobilization would deal a blow against the drug economy. Now suddenly it's the reverse.

In fact, the sustained increase in coca leaf cultivation over the past several years can only be explained one way: More demand has generated more supply. Campesino farmers aren't stupid, and they're only planting coca leaf because they're confident they'll be paid for it.

For way too long, the U.S. has wasted tax money on a futile anti-drug campaign which has only ensured that violent gangs, guerrillas and paramilitaries get rich off of the drug trade.

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Isn't it time to try a new tactic, such as drug decriminalization?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, August 21, 2017

Corruption Accomplishes Something

Jumpin' Jack Flash
During his last year as mayhor, Gustavo Petron built this nice wooden platform along Calle 26 across from the Central Cemetery and furnished it with tables and chairs for folks to sit around or enjoy lunch. Despite the noise and pollution from the adjoining avenue, the area was actually used - for about a month, until the tables and chairs all disappeared.

Further west along Calle 26, the city build similar platforms, but these were never even furnished.

The whole project stank badly of an administration ladeling out public money to friendly contractors - no matter the usefullness of the work- which is a long-winded way to say 'corruption'. (They also installed bike racks in a place where nobody would want to park a bike -which racks were promptly stolen.)

But the public expense has not been completely useless. The wooden platforms have become popular skateboard parks, as these photos attest. And the huge city-funded murals don't harm the visuals at all.

The below scenes, further west along Calle 26, with backdrops of murals by Toxicomano y DJLU, are in a stretch where the Petro administration built wooden platforms, but never did anything at all with them. Is that corruption compounded by mismanagement?

Happy skateboarding!

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Watching the Eclipse

Watching the eclipse in front of the planetarium.
Take a good look, kid.
 Lots of Bogotanos turned out today to watch the partial solar eclipse. We found a crowd near the planetarium, which people told me was packed today - for no clear reason, since the institution has no observatory.

I didn't see any fancy observation glasses, but instead pinhole cameras, smoked glass - and even old floppy disks. Good to see that those things are still good for something.

Floppy disks are still around. These make good viewing filters.

A pinhole observatory.
Looking up.
What eclipse?
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Colombia's Own 'Confederate' Problem

Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada stands in all his glory on the Plaza Rosario. Thief, mass-murderer, committer of cultural genocide...and hero.
In the United States, they're removing monuments to Confederate 'heroes' because they fought to defend slavery - generating, in many cases, controversy and even violent riots.

Bogotá, in contrast, just renovated a statue of conquistador and founder of Bogotá Jimenez de
A heroic Quesada painting hangs
in the presidential palace.
Quesada. We live in an era of supposed respect for indigenous cultures and human rights. But Quesada conquered indigenous peoples, undoubtedly enslaving and committing massacres in the name of the Spanish crown and Catholicism. In what is today Bogotá, he decimated the Muisca people, stole their treasures and executed their rulers.

We try to respect human rights. Quesada hung his own soldiers, because, to avoid starvation, they killed and ate horses.

Today, Colombia venerates indigenous artworks in museums and cultural sites. Quesada stole indigenous peoples' gold and emerald treasures and sent them to Europe.

Not satisfied with his treasures, in 1568 Quesada set off on yet another conquering expedition, this time to Los Llanos, in search of gold. He started off with an army of 1,500 Indians and 400 Spaniards, of whom only 4 Indians and 64 Spaniards returned home.

Quesada doesn't seem to deserve much admiration. But there he is glorified on the plaza Rosario and in the presidential palace. And I haven't heard anybody, including even indigenous people, question the situation.

And why even mention the idolizing of liberator Simon Bolivar, who unquestionably accomplished an immense amount: He freed about 6 nations from the Spanish empire and liberated his own slaves (which is more than George Washington can say). But the war involved massacres and other grevious human rights violations on all sides, including the revolutionaries'. And at the end of his rule, Bolivar, the supposed democrat, tried to make himself dictator for life.

Go figger.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Troubles with Doña Juana

Trash piled high on Jimenez Ave. today. 
Few Bogotanos have ever seen Doña Juana, and many probably haven't even heard of her. But every one of us interacts with Juana every day, many times, each time we discard a piece of trash.

Doña Juana is the city's landfill,

Recycling bins outside the Paloquemao market.
The market does actually compost its organic wastes,
but I suspect that other 'recyclables' end up in the landfill.
In case you thought you've seen even more trashpiles on the streets than normal, you're not hallucinating. Doña Juana's neighbors have blocked the landfill's access roads in protest against the profusion of flies and rats around the landfill.

The neighbors also want the city to build a trash classification facility by the landfill, where recyclable materials could be recovered - and which would mean employment for them. Bogotá recycles only a tiny amount of its waste.

Recycling is good, but better still would be reducing the amount of material sent to the landfill in the first place. The recent law taxing disposable plastic bags seems to have made some difference. A similar tax on other disposable packaging, such as plastic bottles, would be another good step.
A typical scene: Trash inside '
recycling' bins. 

Instead, since land is cheap, the city will just once again expand the dump's boundaries, and these environmental conflicts will repeat themselves.

These plastic bottles will become trash after one use, and fill up the landfill.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, August 14, 2017

Pence (who?) Comes to Colombia?

Yankee go home! Out with Trump/Pence!
United States Vice President Mike Pence visited Bogotá yesterday, causing little polemic - probably because nobody here's heard of him. In contrast to Pence's restraint, U.S. Pres. Trump was meanwhile busy threatening North Korea and Venezuela with military attacks and making news by failing to condemn neo Nazis and white supremecists who staged a violent protest demonstration in the state of Virginia.

Yankee Go Home! (Say the communists)
Pence reportedly talked with Colombian Pres. Santos about the boom in cocaine production and the economic and democratic  in Venezuela, whose violence might spill into Colombia. The U.S. government would like Colombia to resume using aircraft to spray Roundup on coca leaf plantations and to more strongly condemn Venezuela's authoritarian government, which is rewriting its Constitution to its pleasure.

Colombia said that it stopped using the glyphosate herbicide in mid-2015 because of concerns about it causing cancer, although many analysts considered it a conciliatory gesture to the FARC guerrillas, who make a lot of their money off of drug sales. The FARC recently signed a peace deal with the government and are in the process of demobilizing. Whatever the value of aerial spraying, the coca leaf boom was caused by more fundamental factors, such as supply and demand. As for Venezuela, its government is corrupt, incompetent and growing more and more authoritarian. But a military invasion could turn into another Vietnam and would generate tremendous sympathy for the Venezuelan government - and anger toward the U.S. Better to hope that the Maduro government collapses from its own incompetence.

About the only ones criticizing Pence's visit seem to be the communists, who plastered downtown poles with 'Yankee go home!' posters. But the communists are awkward defenders of democracy.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The End of AirBnB?

A new law requiring (as I read it) every person who wants to offer a room on AirBnB to register as a tourist agency is an ill-designed attempt to benefit the hotel industry by prohibiting competition.

It's understandable that hotels and hostels, which undoubtedly pay lots of taxes and suffer under reams of regulations, see AirBnB as unfair competition. But the 'sharing economy', which also includes Uber, has become a big part of our culture and economy, enabling an untold number of Colombians to earn extra income while putting a vacant room to use. As a person who runs a tourism business myself and has to pay lots of taxes and comply with often unreasonable - and sometimes impossible - laws, I can assure you that nobody will suffer thru this bureacratic nightmare just to rent an extra bedroom. Instead, if the law is enforced, it will either shut the sharing economy down (as taxis are attempting to do to Uber) or push it into illegality.

The magic of the Internet has made it possible for people with excess resource - such as an empty
Rooms for rent: Should this home's owner
have to register as a tourism agency?
room or apartment - to hook up with others seeking that resource, such as travelers. In the Internet ages, this is not likely to go away, no matter what hoteliers and taxi drivers may wish. By banning AirBnB, Colombia would hurt itself by turning away travelers who don't like staying in hotels. Those people will instead go to Argentina, Mexico or some other jurisdiction which does permit room sharing, and Colombian travel agencies, handicraft makers, restaurants and bus companies will all lose out for the sake of defending the hotels' obsolete monopoly.

This is all particularly true of a nation like Colombia which is just establishing itself as a tourist destination. Eliminating a whole category of lodging won't help its case.

AirBnB-type services creat real concerns, such as a neighborhood losing its character, or becoming unaffordable to its traditional residents, altho these things can happen anyway. Ways to handle these concerns are to limit the number of days per year which a property can be rented out, or prohibiting an individual from renting out multiple properties. And taxes can much more easily be collected from the company than from each individjal property owner.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours