Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Alex makes it to the game - but not to age 18.

Alex at the game.  (Photo: El Tiempo)
The incident was certainly novel and entertaining: Alex, age 17 and victim of a fatal shooting in the border city of Cucuta, had been a great fan of the local football team.

The mourners spent barely a half hour in the funeral home before leaving for the city's stadium, where Cucuta was playing against Envigado. Attending this game had been Alex's final wish. After circling the stadium unsuccesfully the mourners crashed thru a gate and carried the coffin inside, fulfilling Alex's final wish. In Alex's presence, evidently bouyed by the dead youth's moral support, if not his enthusiasm, Cucuta scored the tying goal. It's all quite heartwarming, really.

The incident has generated news stories about other strange things which have entered stadiums and discussions of whether this security breach was caused by the failings of the police or stadium management. Alex's mother said she was happy to see her son's wish fulfilled.

Few appear to have reflected over what must have been Alex's much greater wishes: to survive to adulthood and be able to attend many more football games with his eyes open and heart beating.

Colombia has a horrific homicide rate, particularly in poor neighborhoods. Such killings are so common that nobody seems to have found the details of Alex's death important enough to report. Murder is too routine, unlike post-mortem stadium visits.

By Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Happened to Angelica?

A fruit kiosk in the National Park where Angelica once worked. 

Angelica was a shy young woman who worked in a fruit and juice kiosk in Bogotá's National Park. Bogotá Bike Tours often passes thru the park often during our tours, and we sometimes stop at the kiosks for a snack. I used to tease Angelica sometimes, but I finally realized that she was sensitive about it, and I laid off of that.

For the past several weeks I haven't seen Angelica at the kiosk, and so I asked the others there why.

"She disappeared," they said, and then made weak jokes about her having maybe run off with a gringo.

Angelica in better days. 
Finally, they told me that Angelica, 22, had just stopped coming to work. They didn't know where she was. How about her family? No, her family didn't know, either. 

But then, slowly, more details came out: She lived in a dangerous South Bogotá neighborhood near the La Picota prison. There was a rumor that Angelica's husband had stabbed her, perhaps on a bus or at the South Bogotá bus terminal. I didn't understand where that rumor came from.

Then they told me more about Angelica.

I asked whether "Angelica's husband had always been violent?" Yes, they said. "Why hadn't she left him?" Maybe because she was scared - or he threatened her.

"What about Angelica's family?" She had two brothers and one sister, but they worked little and were criminals, Angelica's ex-coworkers told me. And Angelica's mother had become hostile toward Angelica because the daughter had stopped giving her money.

Angelica's family hadn't bothered to look for her. They hadn't even filed a police report, as far as the coworkers knew.

Angelica also had three children, something I hadn't known. They were in a state orphanage, called Bienestar Familiar.

I had had no idea that this young woman was surrounded by so many crisis. And I wonder how many other people I know casually might also be enduring such situations. I come from a middle class background in the United States, where the disappearance of a relative would mean a crisis, police searches, newspaper stories, internet campaigns, photos on milk containers and on and on. In fact, when my dog Parchita disappeared here in Bogota, we searched for her, posted flyers, alerted the neighbors, who worried, until someone eventually spotted her in North Bogotá and we got her back. Another time, when a neighborhood kid took her, the police recovered her. For that matter, when we've had bikes stolen, we've filed police reports and searched for them at the pawnshops.

But when Angelica disappeared, nobody seems to have cared enough to do anything. Does that mean that a dog or a bike are worth more to society than Angelica is?

Perhaps society has made that judgement. Dogs in wealthy nations certainly get more money spent on them and enjoy many more luxuries than the very poorest people do. And I've seen lots of bicycles in Colombia which are worth more than a poor Colombians can earn in several years.

Of course, it's possible that Angelica is doing okay. She and her husband might have reconciled and gone off to another city. Or, she might have finally left him and her family and gone to live with a distant relative. Let's hope that's what happened. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, March 28, 2011

Colombians Honored in Spain

Manuel Patarroyo
Manuel Patarroyo, a Colombian scientist who has worked to develop an artificial vaccine for malaria, has received the Principe de Viana award from the Spanish province of Navarra

From what I've read, Patarroyo is a pioneer and his work is considered ingenious, but controversial - and, so far of limited results. Altho Patarroyo says his vaccine has been effective in monkeys and that artificial vaccines could be developed for many other diseases, 

Malaria infects some 225 million people every year, and kills close to one million. But nobody's ever developed an effective vaccine. That's because the disease is caused not by a virus or bacteria, but a far more complex eukariotic parasite. Even tho Patarroyo donated his vaccine to the World Health Organization, the WHO has not considered it effective enough to use. Others are also working to produce a synthetic malaria vaccine.

Nobody doubts Patarroyo's dedication and selflessness. However, some other Colombian researchers have asked whether the Colombian government has given him too much funding, for efforts which haven't yet produced concrete results. 

Also, less than a week ago, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a young Colombian novelist, won the Alfaguara prize for his book 'The Noise of things falling,' (El ruido de las cosas al caer), which starts out with the only-in-Colombia saga of Pablo Escobar's escaped hippopotamuses. I unfortunately haven't read any of Vasquez's novels, but they sound interesting - dealing with history, Colombia's violence, the drug trade and difficult moral decisions. A previous novel, The Informers, dealt with left over secrets in Colombia from World War II.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Colombia - World Cup Champs!

Of course, that's in futsal, not football/soccer.

Colombia pounded Paraguay 8 - 2 Saturday to win the Futsal World Cup. Sure, it's not the BIG World Cup, and playing at home might have made a little bit of a difference. But, for a soccer-crazed nation which didn't even classify for the last real World Cup, the victory's a boost.

(Foto: Minuto 30)
Futsal's a bit of a strange creature. It's basically indoor football. But nine of its ten World Cups have been won by South American teams. From Europe, only Portugal, which won the 1991 Futsal World Cup, Spain and Russia have placed in the top four.

I read in Semana that this sport shouldn't be called football or futbol, because the FIFA holds a monopoly on that word when related to sports played with round balls, and has created its own rival league with slightly different rules.

Across Bogotá you see young guys kicking round balls around on concrete courts with small goals at either end. So it makes sense for Colombia to continue to do well in this sport, and hopefully Colombia will do well again in the next World Cup, which likely won't be played in Colombia.

Colombia overwhelming Ecuador 14-0 (Photo: La Cariñosa)
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Changes and Challenges for the Public Universities

A casket in the National University's student-named
'Lenin Plaza,' warning about the U's supposed fate.
The Colombian government has proposed fundamental reforms for the country's public universities. Government officials say it's crucial to bring more financing and expand access to the universities, but some students and officials fear that the changes will lead to privatization of the public university system. 

The proposed reforms include quality control systems, cuts in drop-out rates, the acceptance of private financing and the creation of for-profit public schools.

All of that sounds great. But in Colombia the public universities have a special status as bastions of leftist politics and protests again the establishment, ranging from university reforms like these to the existence of capitalism and the state itself. (Take a look at the graffiti on the National University campus in Bogotá, and you'll see for yourself.) Still, the public universities provide good educations.

A new Ché Guevara mural in La Nacho. 
More concretely, the public universities are heavily subsidized for low-income students, providing many Colombians of modest means with their only opportunity for higher education. For students from the poorest families, a university education can cost as little as $50 or $100 per semester, compared to the several thousand dollars which a private education at a high-status private university can cost. However, there aren't enough places for the all of those who want to study. And university officials complain that they've expanded enrollment and services greatly over the last decade, but haven't received budget increases to match.

Government officials also believe that universities play an important role in occupying young people who might otherwise join one of the illegal guerrilla or paramilitary organizations. (Of course, a look at the pro-guerrilla graffiti in the National University in Bogotá suggests that higher education can convert some students into guerrillas.)

In the United States, where many public universities accept money for research projects, sports financing and other purposes, the policy has been controversial. Private universities can influence the type of research that is done, and whether or not the results are published.

Privatize this! A communal meal being prepared in La Nacho's Ché Plaza. 
See also: Students march against Ley 30.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, March 25, 2011

Nature and Indigenous People Party on Plaza Bolívar

Arahuaco and Kogi elders, from the Montes de Santa Maria
I went down to Bolivar Plaza this afternoon to see an indigenous cultural event. Even some indigenous people I met told me this was an indigenous cultural celebration. But Bolivar Plaza was full of young people dancing and singing to rock and reggae bands, few of in the crowd showing much interest in the prefabricated white tents distributed around the plaza, each with a smokey fire in front and a carefully arranged pile of fruit and chocolates. The first two tents I visited, in fact, had not indigenous people, but some hippy kids in front of them. Others, dressed in indigenous clothing, appeared suspiciously light skinned.

The main attraction - partying.

Photographing Indios behind bars
Finally, I found some indigenous people. Arauhuacos and Kogi from the Santa Maria Mountains and several Amazonian ethnic groups, inside iron barriers, in front of prefabricated white tents. They resembled sideshows, or even zoo animals, behind their railings.

Plaza Bolívar turned into a bigger, bohemian Plaza del Chorro. 
In fact, the event was staged to promote a Constitional Referendum for the Rights of Nature. A young woman collecting signatures told me the referendum would "prohibit the cutting down of trees." That's certainly a wonderful, and utopian idea. Colombia has one of the world's highest biodiversity rates, but loses a mind-boggling 2,000 square kilometers per year of forest every year. That's a tragedy for the world, for all Colombians, and particularly for the nation's indigenous people, who often depend directly on the forest for their survival. But, unfortunately, passing more laws isn't likely to solve the problem. Colombia needs to enforce the laws it already has against practices such as slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging and cattle raising, limit megaplantations of African palm and other plants cultivated by big corporations and impose some sort of rationality on the War on Drugs. Deforestation happens both when illegal coca bushes are planted and when they're erradicated.

Ati Quigua, the indigenous representative on Bogotá's city council attaches a protective bracelet, called an aseguranza
Spiritual leaders, called mamos, of the Kogi people.
Later on at the event, indigenous peoples did perform traditional eremonies, so they did get real attention. And they also carried out Mayan rituals - a bit strange, since the Mayans live in Central America. But part of the event's message was unity among the Americas' indigenous people, it made sense. And it turns out that the pile of fruits and sweets in front of each tent was a Mayan altar.

Colombia has some 86 different indigenous peoples, according to Wikipedia, most of whom live in the tropical lowlands. Many indigenous peoples here have their own territories and dedicated representation in parliament and city councils. Afro-Colombians have the legal status of 'indigenous peoples.'

Common sight in Bogotá. An Embera
woman in dowtown.
However, Colombia's indigenous peoples are generally poor and isolated, and many of them have suffered the worst impacts of Colombia's armed conflict - displacement from their lands and forced recruitment by armed groups. Indigenous people, begging or vending handicrafts, are a common sight on Bogotá's streets.

Some Colombian indigenous peoples seem to do pretty well in modern western society. In particular, many Wayuus, also known as Guajiras, have thrived as merchants and traders (altho their territory has been wracked by paramilitary violence.). But others, whose traditional lifestyles ae less sophisticated, often cannot cope in western society.

Kogi elders. 
Behind tape, placing an aseguranza.
Smoking traditional pipe, called a rapé.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Emberas in Bogotá: End of the Road?

Recently, it seems to me that more and more indigenous Embera people have been appearing on Bogotá sidewalks, where they generally sell small handicraft works.

A traditional Embera community. 
The Emberas, small farmers who live in western Colombia as well as parts of Ecuador, Costa Rica and Panama, have been in the news recently for the wrong reasons: They've been driven off their lands by drug bands, guerrillas and paramilitary groups.

I spoke to two young Embera women who, with their infants, were selling woven wristbands and other handicrafts on the Seventh St. sidewalk. To me, their situation seemed tragic, but they said they were happy in Bogotá - altho their limited Spanish made me wonder how well we were communicating.

Here's an El Tiempo article about Spanish classes for Emberas in Bogotá. I was surprised to see they're not encouraging them to return to their communities.

But how happy can the Emberas be having traded their lives in the jungle for crowded and bare rented rooms in Bogotá's violent, drug-saturated San Bernardino neighborhood? Am I romanticizing the Emberas' traditional lifestyle by saying that quiet, fresh air and clean water are better for them than Bogotá's chaos, noise and pollution? Is it presumptious and selfish of me to say that they're better off lacking TV and Internet, where their children are unlikely to find much education?

Certainly, indigenous people have the same rights as anybody else to pursue the advantages of civilization. But this isn't the way to do this. The young Embera women, who looked like teenagers but said they were 18 and 25, are losing their culture and family structures. Both said that the fathers of their infant daughters' had left them for other women. One told me that her father had been murdered by guerrillas. The babies were munching on packaged junk food, perhaps given to them by well-meaning passerby. But processed foods are bad for all of us. And these children, used to fresh fruits, vegetables and meats and lots of exercise, are going to be sickened by these foods and likely to become obese and diabetic. I see lots of young indigenous people in Bogotá, often studying in universities. But the great chasm between a simple farming/hunter-gatherer existence and city life is too great, and I'm afraid that these people are doomed to ill health and to fall prey to exploitation by criminals.

From the jungle to a Bogotá sidewalk
In Bolivia I visited a slum occupied by indigenous people who until a few decades before had been hunter-gatherers living in isolated bands. Then came a war, railroads, alchohol and missionaries who took away their traditional owl worship and taught them to pray to Jesus. The people I met were formally Christians, but they lived in miserable shantytowns of tin and cardboard and survived off of prostitution and theft.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Trash Resurrected into Art, by Jesús!

Bob Marley and Jesús, his maker
During a bike tour, we met Jesús in the National Park, where he was showing off the sculpture of Bob Marley he'd made out of objects salvaged from the trash.

Jesús told us he'd made about 40 such works over the past several years, including Michael Jackson, Policarpa (a Colombian independence heroine, who is on the 10,000 peso note) and vehicles, including even tanks. He's an ingenious guy - and determined, too. He said that each work took a month or two to finish.

Besides accepting contributions in the street from folks like us, Jesús also sells his sculptures - for about 350,000 pesos each, or almost $200. That seems like a lot for folk art in Colombia. But perhaps he quoted a sum he considered a start for bargaining.

Bob Marley in May - with decorations.

By Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Glimpse of Historical Tragedy

Sometimes, people with the right knowledge can turn a curiosity into a window on historical tragedy.

This tomb in Bogotá's Central Cemetery stood out because it might be the only one whose text is not in either Spanish or Latin. How did a lone Pole end up in this city with few immigrants? It looked to be one of many stories lost to history. Then a young Polish couple did the bike tour, and opened up a window for me.

The man's title on the tomb told the couple that Mieczysław Chałupczyński had been a member of the Polish government - yet, Bogotá was an unlikely place for a Polish politician to end his career. However, from the tomb's text and the place and date of death, 1946, the Polish couple inferred that his was not just any Polish government. The man had evidently been a member of Poland's government in exile which operated in London during the Nazis' WWII occupation of their country.

A bit of googling told me more: just before World War II, Mieczysław Chałupczyński had been Poland's charge de affaires in Slovakia, were he tried desperately to find allies against the impending invasions by giant neighbors Germany and the Soviet Union. His efforts failed, and Slovakia participated in the German invasion of Poland - only to be itself swallowed up by its totalitarian neighbors.

Chałupczyński presumably escaped to London and joined the government in exile, which called itself Free Poland. He became his government-without-a-state's ambassador to Colombia, which had broken relations with Germany in 1941. Colombia declared war on Germany in 1943.

In 1944, Chałupczyński undoubtedly participated in the creation of the Association of Poles in Colombia

However, after Nazi Germany's defeat, Chałupczyński's hopes for an independent Poland were shattered again. The Soviet Union occupied his homeland and imposed a new type of totalitarianism on the country which had just suffered through five years of war, Nazi occupation and the Holocaust

For Chałupczyński, returning home would have meant suicide. The Soviets tried to stamp out all traces of Polish nationalism, and a patriot like Chałupczyński would have been murdered or shipped off to a Siberian slave labor camp. Then, in December 1945, insult followed injury when Colombia recognized the 'Provisional Government of National Unity' in Poland, a Soviet-created puppet. Two months later, Chałupczyński died, perhaps of a broken heart, an ambassador whose nation had disappeared. He was only 53. 

But the Polish community who buried Chałupczyński so humbly did assert their national pride in one subtle way. The Soviets had removed the crown from the white eagle on Poland's coat of arms, but the eagle on Chałupczyński's tomb still wore it. 

Sadly, sometime during the last 65 years, the coat of arms was stolen, probably by a drug addict who sold the metal for a few pesos. Chałupczyński apparently has been forgotten by the Polish-Colombian community as well. Also, beside Chałupczyński's tomb is an empty one. Was this intended for his wife? Where did she die? That's a mystery which is probably lost to history.

As for the Polish couple, who are from Krakow, they described their nation as divided between younger progressive people and strict religious and cultural conservatives, but independent and moving forward as a member of the European Union. 

Perhaps from somewhere above Chałupczyński is looking on from somewhere above, proud that his nation is finally free and independent. 

A plaque placed in the Central Cemetery in 2012 by the Polish Embassy commemorates an earlier Polish immigrant, who fought for Colombia's independence.  

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Nukes is...more coal, and more deaths in Colombia

Colombian coal country. A legacy of Japan's disaster?
In the wake of Japan's ongoing nuclear disaster, many nations are putting the brakes on new nuclear power. But nuclear's gotten bad P.R. Besides three notorious disasters: Three Mile Island, which killed nobody, Chernobyl, which is still killing people, but was a badly-designed reactor whose accident was handled terribly, and now the Japan disaster, whose impact hopefully will be limited - nuclear has produced lots of power with relatively little impact. 

In the U.S., more than 100 nuclear reactors provide 20 percent of the country's electricity, without causing deforestation, mining disasters air pollution, global warming or any of the long train of natural disasters and human tragedies which fossil fuels have brought us.

Nukes didn't kill these guys.
(Photo: America Economia)
Here's a sampling of what a single Google search about coal turned up:

Colombia coal mine blast kills 20 - 17 Jun 2010
Colombian Coal Mine Blast Kills at Least 18 - - 26 Jan 2011
Colombian Coal mine blast kill at least 5  - 24 Nov 2010
21 workers killed in Colombian mine blast - Nearly 100 coal miners were killed in work-related accidents across Colombia in 2010, 

And that's just in Colombia, and only the disasters which made the international news. I bet that right now someone's dying in a Colombian coal mine, and others are dying of coal dust-related diseases. And, all over the world, people are dying of coal pollution - 30,000 per year in the U.S. alone, according to one study. And, less nuclear energy will mean more deaths from coal: you can bet your life, and death, on that!

And that's without mentioning the coming impacts from global warming. 

But the tragedies caused by fossil fuels are so numerous and frequent that we barely notice them anymore. 

The Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 men and injured 17 others, as well as devastating the Gulf and innumerable other lives. The Japanese nuclear disaster hasn't killed anybody...but I don't hear many people calling for an end to oil production.

Well-meaning dreamers talk about large-scale wind, solar and wave-power projects. All of those would be wonderful, but they aren't coming soon enough to head of serious climate change. Nuclear power is the only source of proven, carbon-free power we have, and we'd better keep using it, or we'll regret it. 

Nuclear power makes little sense for Colombia, which has plentiful hydroelectric power and also a terrorism problem. But Colombia is paying the price for the rest of the world's reliance on fossil fuels, especially coal. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

From Disaster - Generosity

Instead of self pity - generosity
A lot's been written about the maturity and fortitude with which the Japanese people have handled the triple earthquake/tidal wave/nuclear disaster which has battered the nation. There've always been plenty of reasons to admire the Japanese (as well as lots of ugly things in Japanese history): from a nation in ruins after World War II, with few natural resources except their people, they came back to create the world's second-largest economy. 

A few years from now, this mega-disaster will be a bad memory and Japan will come back better and stronger than ever (and, hopefully, nuclear power will too.)

Amidst all of these needs at home, the amazing Japanese people are still sticking to their foreign aid commitments. Even while Japan's own hospitals are overwhelmed, Japan just donated 700 million pesos in equipment - about US $380,000 - to four Colombian hospitals. 

Of course, Japan can still use help, and here's how:

More than money or equipment, people across the developing world ought to look toward Japan as a model for building a strong democracy and economy, without reliance on natural resources - which inevitably become exhausted.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, March 20, 2011

More from Wikileaks - Colonialism or cooperation?

Continued releases of U.S. Embassy cables by Wikileaks and El Espectador newspaper are still making news here - without any great surprises.

Many Colombians do, of course, feel embarrased and disappointed by recent relevations of the closeness - some would say abjectness - with which their leaders worked with the U.S. Embassy:

Uribe - Who's the boss?

Pres. Alvaro Uribe once visited U.S. Ambassador Brownfield and then from the embassy called a top Colombian official for an update on an investigation into the DAS (Secret police) scandal. That was an internal Colombian investigation into an internal Colombian problem. But Pres. Uribe seemed to relate to the U.S. ambassador as a schoolkid to a school principal. "Yes sir, we really are working on it."

Just ask me what to do.
And then there was Gen. Oscar Naranjo, head of the National Police, going to Ambassador Brownfield and telling him suspicions that high government officials were directing illegal wiretaps by the DAS. Why does that remind me of one schoolkid tattling on another to the principle, or rival siblings appealing to daddy for support? Naranjo may have been correct, but the U.S. Ambassador wasn't the man to deal with the issue.

The Colombian government so lacked confidence in its own institutions that officials asked for the FBI's help in investigating the wiretapping scandal.

I suppose that things like this are probably the inevitable result of a very unequal power relationship between two nations, as well as Colombia's still frail government institutions. To the U.S.'s credit, it seems that the ambassador was wary of inserting himself into Colombia's internal affairs, and did urge investigations into alleged human rights abuses.

In fact, the U.S. even deflected Colombian suggestions that a war was brewing with neighbor Venezuela. Other cables have revealed Uribe's paranoia about Venezuelan Pres. Chavez, whom Uribe even compared to Hitler. Chavez has never hidden his own paranoid ideas about a U.S./Colombian conspiracy to invade his country.

Colombia's dependance on the U.S. suggests that's it's good that the country's becoming more independent. Hopefully, it's own institutions will continue maturing and its internal checks and balances will work, eliminating any reason to go running to the U.S. ambassador.

That is, if the whole Wikileaks affaire hasn't already scared Colombian leaders away from La Embajada.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has also claimed that the U.S. aid for Colombia is motivated by a desire to finance U.S. corporations. Really, Julian? Anybody who's ever paid attention to Washington knows this isn't news. But the issue of motivations is really separate from that of results, and Plan Colombia has helped Colombia. The question is whether or not it'll last.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Death from the Sky! Return of the Cylinder Bombs.

Lethal weapon (Photo: Colmbian military)
In recent weeks, the FARC guerrillas have brought back perhaps their most horrific and unethical weapon - the cylinder bomb.

Aftermath of attack on a police station (Photo: El Nuevo Dia)
These are home-made bombs made out of the sort of cooking gas cylinders which restaurants commonly use. The guerrillas fill the cylinders with shrapnel, stick them into tubes and launch them in a primitive mortar. They are simple, deadly, and worst of all, terribly inaccurate.

Of course, the FARC's is a futile, wrong-headed, destructive drug-financed effort which inflicts most of its damage on Colombia's poor. The guerrillas' tactics - planting land mines, extortion, displacing civilians, drug trafficking and recruiting children are as a rule reprehensible. But the group's cylinder bombs have received particular condemnation from human rights organizations because of their arbitrariness and the toll on civilians. (The same can be said of land mines, which don't distinguish soldiers from child goat herders.)

Aftermath of the 2002 Bojayá bombing. 
In 2002, the FARC were fighting against their paramilitary enemies for control of a small town in Choco, an impoverished Afro-Colombian region near the Pacific Coast. The town's women and children believed that they'd found safe refuge in the town's church. But a FARC cylinder bomb aimed at the paramilitaries landed instead - you guessed it - on the church's rooftop, killing 130 people.

And now the FARC have brought this horrific weapon back.

In recent weeks, these weapons have damaged a school, attacked a police station killing civilians, and killed three members of a family, including a two-year-old girl, when a bomb fell on their house while they were sleeping.

"The FARC-EP’s continued use of gas cylinder bombs shows this armed group’s flagrant disregard for lives of civilians," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "The FARC must immediately cease these horrific attacks, which violate the most basic principles of the laws of war."

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Two Wins for the Environment

Gold mountain?
Colombia's environment scored two wins the other day:

In one, Canadian mining company Greystar backed off of its plan for a huge open-pit gold mine near the city of Bucaramanga, after environmental authorities said the project was unacceptable. Colombia is experiencing a gold mining boom as the metal's price has soared - with its related environmental impacts: jungles and wetlands destroyed and rivers poisoned with mercury and choked with silt.

The proposed Greystar Mine might have been better than most - the company had promised to reforest six acres for each one destroyed and to carefully manage the cyanide it used. And, the company argued, much of the area planned for its mine had already been damaged by illegal, informal miners, who use even-more-damaging mercury.

Illegal mining's devastation - the worst of all worlds. (Foto: Dinero magazine)
Certainly, Greystar's project might have been less bad than others, but the project would have made a travesty of Colombian law prohibiting mining in paramos: high-altitude wetlands which produce much of the country's fresh water. To have approved this project would have made a mockery of the law and set a terrible precedent.

Map showing mining concessions overlaid on
forest areas in  the Serrania de San Lucas.
Foto: Geominas
Besides, Colombia still has time to escape from the long list of 'developing' nations which have sold off their natural resources and been left with only poverty and a devastated environment to show for it. Tragically, raw material production often feeds corruption and outlaw groups and does little to develop the kind of skilled jobs which build sustainable economic growth.

Now, Greystar is talking about building instead an undergound mine, which would cause much less environmental impact, but produce less gold and be more dangerous for miners. That could be a reasonable compromise, and would demonstrate that Colombia's environmental laws do mean something.

If Colombian officials respect the spirit of the laws protecting paramos, these critical wetlands could be preserved for more future generations - or at least until they fall victim to global warming.

Jumping for joy?
The second win for the environment was Colombia's decision to join the International Whaling Commission. Why this was an issue at all is a mystery to me. After all, Colombians do not either hunt or eat whales, and the country's relations with whale-hunting nations aren't particularly close. But Colombia is increasingly marketing itself as a whale watching destination. Every year between July and November, humpbacks meet and mate off of Colombia's Pacific Coast.

In 2009, the Dominican Republic joined the IWC, leaving Venezuela as the only Latin American nation outside of the organizaion. (Some small Carribean nations have joined apparently at the behest of Japan and defend its whale hunting.)

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours