Interior of a Bogota bus (Photo: Julian Castro)

Spend a little time on Bogota’s streets, and one thing becomes obvious: Air pollution regulations here are a dead letter.

Author Mike Ceaser publishes a number of blogs about Colombia.

That’s bad enough, since dirty air causes thousands of premature deaths annually in Colombia’s capital alone, as well as lots of economic harm and immeasurable suffering for older people, asthmatics and others.

But even worse is that, according to the Chicago Tribune, Colombia’s own environmental authorities seem to value foreign companies’ profits more than Colombians’ health and environment.

The Tribune reports that Colombian authorities had planned last year to require pollution filters on all new trucks. Emission filters are a basic environmental and health measure, required in Europe and North America. However, United States truck manufacturers, many located near Chicago, complained that the filter requirement would hurt their truck sales.

The US companies appealed to their senator, who said he ‘educated’ Colombian officials about the new regulation’s impacts on jobs in the U.S. state of Illinois. And the ever-malleable Colombian authorities reversed course. They postponed the filter requirement until 2015 – and we’ll see what happens then.

“The Colombian government is on the (industry’s) side, and it’s allowing the import of technologies that are considered obsolete in the country where they were created,” Eduardo Behrentz, engineering school dean at Los Andes University, told the Tribune.

Colombian authorities’ willingness to protect foreigners’ profits at the cost of Colombians’ health is only one of many failings in air quality policies here. During my six years in Bogotá I’ve never seen sanctions for either polluting industries or the smog belching vehicles, known as ‘rolling chimneys,’ which we see on our streets and avenues every day.

El Espectador recently reported that Bogotá’s air has higher concentrations of tiny, deadly suspended particles than does any other Latin American city – including even smoggy Mexico City and Santiago, Chile. And Bogotá doesn’t have those cities’ excuse of being surrounded by a ring of pollution-trapping hills. But those cities apparently do enforce air quality laws. I recently had the honor of talking to several officials in Bogotá’s Environmental Secretariat – and found no motivation at all to enforce air pollution laws.

Colombia’s air will continue sickening and killing its citizens until environmental authorities take real action – which means both requiring emissions controls such as filters and actually enforcing environmental laws. Those steps may cost businesses money, but they’ll save much more in medical expenses for all of us who breathe Colombia’s urban air.

But environmental authorities won’t likely act until Colombians shake off their apathy and demand change. Sadly, however, we who suffer from dirty air keep quiet, while the businesses which profit by polluting scream every time someone threatens to limit their right to poison our air.

Behrentz, the Andes professor, seems to have been left a bit cynical by the episode.

“I don’t praise my own government that chose (foreign companies’) interests over the interests of the Colombian people,” he told the Tribune.


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