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Air contamination & citizen monitoring



In 2019, an estimated 8.1 million people had been displaced by the internal armed conflict, with many of those families migrating from the countryside to large urban centers like Bogotá.

Displacement and Urban Growth: Uneven Exposures 


Bogotá, now a city of about 8 million people, has grown dramatically in both size and population since the 1950s. This growth happened in the wake of the Bogotazo, an episode of urban unrest following the assassination of leftist presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, which gave way to bipartisan violence across the countryside. The resulting violence -- and the internal armed conflict between the Colombian army, paramilitaries, and leftist guerilla groups that developed just a few years later in response to stark land concentration and political exclusion-- spurred an ever-growing stream of families and individuals to migrate from rural regions to major urban centers, especially Bogotá. At the same time, Colombia was experiencing significant growth in manufacturing and industrial activity, fostered in part by import substitution policies, which taxed and capped foreign imports in order to promote autonomy and self-sufficiency among national industries. Throughout Colombian history, migration propelled directly by violence has been nearly impossible to disentangle from economically motivated migration, and these coalescing trajectories of industrialization and migration at midcentury greatly shaped urban development and inequality in Bogotá in ways that continue today.

Excerpt from "Por qué cantan las aves," a film by Adrián Villa Dávila and Alejandra Quintana Martinez, staring Daida Elsa Quiñones Preciado, Luz Aida Angulo Angulo, and Virgelina Chará.

In this clip, the documentary's three protagonists -- singer-songwriters who have been displaced by the armed conflict from rural regions of the Colombian Pacific -- narrate their experiences arriving in Bogotá and settling in the south of the city.

The clip ends with a protest song denouncing the government's complicity in the violence and dispossession wrought be the internal armed conflict, written and sung by Virgelina Chará, the leader of a women's group that uses sewing to enact healing and simultaneously politically position the voices of victims.

We invite you to watch the rest of the film and learn about the experiences of displaced women, as well as their political and artistic protagonism in Bogotá. For English subtitles, select the closed captions icon in the player window.

The unrest of the Bogotazo also resulted in damage to Bogotá's existing system of public transportation, the Tranvia, a system of electrical trolleys that provided public transportation to most of the city in the first half of the 20th century. Just as Bogotá was experiencing a period of intensive growth in population and industrial activity, the transportation system was overhauled. The city government at the time made a decision to replace all of the electric trolleys with buses, and eventually to privatize the provision of bus service, which proved difficult and expensive for the state to maintain. A transportation system was then created in which private companies administer bus routes, but do not buy or maintain buses. Nor do they take responsibility for road maintenance or have to answer for the air pollution created by having an excessive amount of buses in circulation. These buses are often old and in poor condition because the privatized system does not provide incentives or resources for their maintenance to the precariously-contracted, working-class bus drivers who are responsible for them. These perverse incentives in public transportation provision have contributed to making Bogotá the "Most Congested City in the World,'' according to the INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard in 2019. This congestion in turn worsens air pollution in Bogotá since idling is one of the most highly polluting parts of the transportation process, and diesel vehicles are the largest source of air pollution affecting the city. 


Residents of neighborhoods on the periphery of Bogotá are negatively impacted by this system on multiple levels. Despite the overpopulation of buses circulating throughout the city, areas on the outskirts, which tend to be informal settlements, suffer from infrequent service. The lack of buses circulating among these neighborhoods does not, however, translate to less contamination exposure for residents. Residents are forced to wait longer for buses, standing along roads congested with other kinds of vehicles and therefore exposed to high levels of air pollution. In addition, their commuter trajectories are longer once inside public transportation vehicles, where PM levels are often dangerously elevated. The city government has begun to directly administer a growing proportion of the bus system, transitioning away from private buses to the newer TransMilenio system, but this has not eliminated the existence of heavily polluting buses known locally as buses chimenea (smokestack buses). These buses still circulate as part of public and private fleets. Citizens and academics have mobilized to put pressure on the government to invest in cleaner technology. 

The Sad History of Public Transportation in Bogotá

This video by the Engineering School at the Universidad de los Andes explains the history that has given way to the current inequities and inefficiencies of Bogotá's public transportation system, a key factor in air quality.

Low income neighborhoods in Bogotá are also disproportionately impacted by emissions from industrial activities, which cluster in the southwest and west of the city, as well as emissions from the diesel trucks that service these facilities. The highest levels of PM2.5 air pollution in the city's official monitoring network are regularly reported by the sensors in the Kennedy district in the southwest, and the Carvajal sensor at the intersection of Kennedy, Bosa and Ciudad Bolívar districts -- three of the poorest districts with high concentrations of informal settlements. Kennedy has the third highest number of registered industrial sites in the city -- after the neighboring Puente Aranda district and the Fontibón district. Kennedy is also home to Corabastos, Bogotá main wholesale food distribution site, which leads to a congregation of trucks and therefore high levels of pollution.  


These patterns of air contamination are layered onto long-standing modes of social and spatial segregation of Bogotá, with roots in the colonial organization of the city -- including the concentration of indigenous people in what are now the districts of Bosa and Fontibón. Since the 1920s and '30s, development on the then southern edge of the city catered to working class laborers employed in nascent industrial enterprises. When migration from rural regions intensified during and after La Violencia, many moved first to informal settlements that expanded the southern and western reaches of the city. When these areas were later incorporated into municipal development plans, they were sometimes slated for industrial development -- and de facto often combined mixed light industry and residential land use -- in contrast to the wealthier areas in the north of the city that were largely zoned for exclusively residential land use. These development patterns have led rural migrants and their families, along with other vulnerable populations, to live predominantly in areas with the highest levels of air pollution, and also many other environmental health risks such as flooding by polluted rivers, compounding the issues of environmental justice. 

During this meeting of the CanAirIO citizen science network for air quality monitoring, Laura Santacoloma, a lawyer for DeJusticia, explains the connections between environmental justice and the distribution of air contamination in Bogotá.


 Watch the full meeting here.







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Recommended Further Reading and Viewing:   


Learn more about environmental justice issues affecting communities in the south of Bogotá by exploring this multimedia environmental history of development and mining along the Río Tunjuelito. 


Learn in this illustrated atlas about the early 20th century growth of Bogotá, which lay the foundations for many of the development patterns that underlie the environmentally unjust distribution of contamination across the city today. 


Read more about the historical context behind air quality issues in Bogota along with other social-environmental issues in this timeline.


Watch the full documentary Por qué Cantan Las Aves about three displaced Afro-Colombian women who are using their art and activism to organize their neighbors and other victims of the conflict, bringing practices and environmental perspectives from the countryside into urban life and political activism. 

Air contamination & citizen monitoring


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