Saving Bogota’s Mountains

deforested landA group of citizens wants to block the construction of high-rise buildings on the side of the city’s idyllic eastern mountain range

By Mike Ceaser

Should Bogotá’s mountains and their forests be preserved for all Bogotanos? Do Bogotá residents have a right to see the city’s iconic eastern mountains unobstructed? Does central Bogotá already have too many cars, pollution and traffic jams? We think so. Is it safe to build towers on a steep slope above the city centre? We doubt it.

For these reasons and many more, a group of La Candelaria residents have been fighting to stop the construction of two towers by a private university on Bogotá’s eastern mountains.

These eight-storey behemoths would really be vertical parking lots, with spots for almost 500 cars and with some classrooms on top. We believe that such a project damages the city and contradicts its supposed values of preserving open space and reducing private car use.

Bogota’s iconic mountain range, the Cerros Orientales – often called “the city’s lungs” – should be an enduring resource for the crowded Colombian capital’s 9 million residents: a place for hiking, for visiting nature, for de-stressing from the city’s pollution, noise and rush.

Courts and city leaders have repeatedly said so, and even designated part of the mountain range as a protected forestry reserve. However, over the years the reserve’s borders have been repeatedly shifted and its size reduced, enabling more cement and buildings to cover the hills. As a result, Bogotá residents, particularly the poor, have fewer and fewer opportunities to experience nature.

Instead, as in the case of this latest construction by the University Externado, the hillsides are being privatised for the use of an elite minority. The Externado University’s monstrous towers will replace city centre residents’ view of the mountains with a wall of cement. The project includes the cutting down of hundreds of trees. The university is supposed to replant some of those trees and plant native species – but mostly on their own privately owned land far from the city centre. That’s of little use for city centre residents who are losing green space.

In addition to the negative impacts on our quality of life, this university’s construction project may violate laws against building on steep slopes and at this elevation above sea level, according to a professor from Rosario University who has been advising us.

During our months-long fight against this project, we’ve also discovered apparent irregularities which make us ask whether undue influences are at work. Every construction project must be approved by one of the city’s Curadurias. These offices are a strange combination of public and private with a reputation for being corrupt.

The Externado University obtained its construction license from the Curaduria No. 3. However, before that, they had applied for a construction license from the Curaduria No. 2. We know this because the university – inexplicably – posted on a billboard announcing their original application on the property. Presumably, the Curaduria 2 rejected the application. However, we don’t know for sure, because we’ve requested the documents and, mysteriously, nobody can find them.

Even stranger is the story of an investigation of the project done by the Veeduria Distrital, a government agency charged with making sure that other city agencies are doing their jobs right. The Veeduria’s investigators interviewed us, studied documents about the project and finished their report last December. We understand from an internal source in the Veeduria that the report is very critical of the university’s towers. But that report, paid for with public money and done on public time, has  at the time of writing not been released – despite our multiple requests.

We can only wonder what possible reason there could be to hide a public investigation – except to protect a powerful institution’s interests. However, one public document we do have, dated June 2013, says that there were no studies of risks and threats for the project. This is despite the fact that the towers are being built on a steep slope, above a crowded neighborhood, and that recently the city spent a lot of money to reinforce the unstable hillside nearby.

Yet another concern is the traffic which this environmentally unsustainable project will generate, worsening noise, congestion and pollution in the centre and throughout the city.

This is far from the only questionable construction project on the Eastern mountains. If Externado University completes this project, we think it’s inevitable that it will spur more and more construction on the mountainside, until perhaps the poor Virgen de Guadalupe statue will be surrounded by condominiums and fast food joints.

The Externado is a respected university, known particularly (and perhaps ironically) for legal education. We support higher education and love to see universities expand – but responsibly and sustainably, without deforesting the hills and worsening traffic congestion. Why can’t the Externado build near public transit, using the area’s many empty lots and vacant buildings instead of encroaching on Bogota’s greatest green space?

Mike Ceaser writes and runs the Bogota Bike Tours. He has lived in Bogota for nine years, and previously lived in Caracas, Venezuela; Asunción, Paraguay; La Paz, Bolivia; and Viña del Mar, Chile.

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