By Germán A. Quimbayo Ruiz
Amidst the covid19 pandemic, in the busy Latin American metropolises like México City, São Paulo, Santiago, Lima or Bogotá, the public has not been exempted to comment on social media about the pandemic’s “unintended” effects and “return of nature” to cities, or the sudden improvement in air quality due to the forced halt caused by the general lockdown in urban centers. Yet, nature has always been there, especially in Bogotá, the capital of a “megadiverse” country. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Colombia is listed as one of the world’s “megadiverse” countries, hosting close to 10% of the planet’s biodiversity, but this exceptional biodiversity context is mutually intertwined with a volatile socio-political setting.
While I am writing this text, there are more than 3,100 confirmed cases of covid19 in Colombia, almost 1,300 of them in Bogotá. The last week state forces deployed excessive repression against several populations in the poorest neighborhoods in the south of the District (in particular the area of Ciudad Bolívar), who desperately rejected the local lockdown measures set since the last month, and went to the streets to protest and perform “cacerolazos” due to the lack of humanitarian aid promised by the state amid the covid19 situation.
The lockdown and quarantine measures are not an option for people who work in precarious jobs or make a living on a daily basis. It is common to hear people claiming that they are going to die first for hunger than for the coronavirus. Although in Bogotá the coverage of drinking water supply is close to 100%, and the authorities have granted full access to the most vulnerable sectors of the population, this is not enough. Stay at home for these populations is not a safe option, because the housing conditions are precarious, full of resource shortcomings, and often the shelter is the center of domestic and gender-based violence. It became common to see in Bogotá and several other Colombian cities and towns red flags hanging in places where vulnerable people live desperate claiming for aid. Acts of xenophobia towards vulnerable migrants from Venezuela are increasing. Many of these migrants are in tension for the reception of state aid with the rest of the marginalized people like homeless, street dwellers, or even transgender sex workers who also suffer from stigmatization and are often targets of police brutality.
How all this dramatic scenario amidst the coronavirus pandemic is related to urban environmental injustices? Most of these populations in Bogotá are the most exposed to the worst environmental injustices in the city-region, living in areas where the effective access of green public spaces is lacking; and particularly in areas like Ciudad Bolívar, the environmental conditions of neighborhoods and settlements are extremely impoverished due to the allocation of extractive activities for building materials or waste dumps and land-fills (the most extreme case is the metropolitan landfill “Doña Juana”). Prior to the coronavirus emergency, several communities in urban Colombia were living already in a state of environmental emergency and have lived under conditions of restricted mobility and forced confinement.
The state repression against vulnerable communities in Bogotá happens when Mayor, Claudia López, has been praised by some sectors of the public opinion as a national leader during the covid19 emergency, above of President Iván Duque. In fact, in Colombia, a sort of leadership has been taken by local and regional governments to tackle the covid19. López even put the city under an obligatory quarantine drill last month, before the nationwide measures were enforced, besides some arguable measures such as restricting outings by gender during the quarantine (pico y género). Despite measures enforced by the Mayor, the state capacity within a context of historic and deep inequality is not yet the fastest to cope with the current situation.
Although the national government has reacted way better compared with countries such as Brazil or Chile, since the beginning the government has taken several bad decisions. Besides a “Trumpian” approach to favor privileged sectors of the national economy, among the decisions there was a serious issue regarding an app for humanitarian aid that ended up deviating money to ghost bank accounts. Likewise, some emergency measures have had to drawback in their enforcement such as forcing all health-care personnel in the front lines to provide services without full guarantee to exercise their essential jobs.
Since the last fall, workers, students, environmentalists, women, feminist and LGBTQ movements, peasants, and Afro Colombians, were mobilizing in biggest protests the country has ever seen in more than 40 years against multiple injustices and accumulated grievances of a long political and armed conflict, systemic corruption, and the lack of the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. However, the covid19 situation has put a harsh break on this springing of democratic uplifting. Moreover, during the pandemic, the genocide against social and environmental activists continues, and some measures taken by the covid19 emergency are facing the resurgence of state and criminal violence (often intertwined with drug trafficking and paramilitarism), reinforcing the paths of violence and impunity in both rural and urban settings. As scholars Diana Ojeda and Lina Pinto García recently pointed out, the current situation in Colombia is legitimizing the (para)militarization and warfare state of the everyday life in the name of hygienic and public health and contrary to promote a more solidarity path of democracy and social justice.
Unlike a common belief that the war and conflict have only been set in the countryside, urbanized areas, especially in marginalized places, have also been taking part in this warfare state even in very subtle ways. Although Bogotá has great potential in urban nature reflected in a local system of protected areas, many of them have encountered multiple institutional difficulties to guarantee a good state of conservation and enjoyment by citizens. One of the most vulnerable sectors of the population are homeless and street dwellers, who usually end up making spaces like creeks, hills and wetlands their home in the absence of housing. However, instead of being cared for by the state, they are usually stigmatized and harassed in the name of keeping things “in order”. And when the aid from the state comes, it is not enough.
Many of the urban environmental injustices in the context of the pandemic in cities like Bogotá are worsening and it is not very clear what collateral effects will be unleashed. This is a huge challenge to rethinking spatial and urban planning practices in Latin America and elsewhere. Environmental conflicts are not the result of a cause-consequence effect, but the product of a long process of environmental injustices, which in the framework of a pandemic are just reinforced.
Bio: Germán A. Quimbayo Ruiz is a researcher and Ph.D. candidate in environmental policy from the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies at the University of Eastern Finland, Finland. His research interests are focused on the political ecology of urbanization and urban environmental history.