To save Bogotá’s green belt, attack the issue not the person

Thomas Van Der Hammen Reserve in Bogotá
Thomas Van Der Hammen Reserve in Bogotá

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] suppose, if you take a step back and put the Reserva Van Der Hammen into perspective, this protected area of grassland and untold ecological importance spanning some 1,395 hectares in northern Bogotá is really the Colombian equivalent of a green belt.

Not sure what a green belt is? In the U.K. a green belt is the natural buffer zone between towns and the countryside offering an environmentally significant territory free from construction and urban expansion.

And while there may be little more than five hectares of actual woodland in the Reserva, as the whole tract of land in question extends essentially from the Río Bogotá to the Cerro Conejera, there is no doubting the importance of this natural space. Let’s make the Reserva Van Der Hammen a miniature green belt for Bogota.

Now, let me concede that this is neither an opinion piece about our Mayor Enrique Peñalosa nor the underhand tactics of an opportunist attacking the Secretary of Planning Andrés Ortiz.

No, these words are composed in reference to the Reserva Van der Hammen and how to go about protecting it and nothing more.

So, having worked for an environmental NGO in a different lifetime all those years ago, and aware that in admitting this I have condemned myself to never achieving any serious platform of objectivity, I find myself asking the question; why would anyone want to build here and create “environmental corridors” to try and channel nature according to man’s behest?

Our city is not an overwhelmingly green one. We may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise just by looking up at the Cerros Orientales, but take a step back and look around at street level.

The precious few trees lining the central berm of the Carrera Septima struggle to combat the updrafts from continual traffic and those wretched examples on the Avenida Caracas are in a pitiful state. We in Rosales, Chico, Suba and Chapinero live a privileged existence, others are not so fortunate.

It seems to me that all the Capital’s government is trying to do is to build its way out of congestion. Considering this, it will do us no good to vilify the people behind the proposal to bulldoze the Reserva Van Der Hammen, so the issue itself must be attacked, not the decision maker.

The only way to save the Reserva is to make our politicians reach conclusions which are based on facts, not on emotions nor petitions — these mean very little to politicians in truth — and then get them to cede.

My concession to the “progress” movement is that there exists a clear argument for significant weight to be placed on the need to support “economic growth.” Those in this camp will come forward with suggestions that planning controls like green belts are an impediment to such growth.

Additionally, and rightly so, they will argue that protectionist and political-economic barriers to house-building can cause negative effects on the supply, cost/prices, and quality of new homes available.

But no one comes out looking good taking on the environment. It’s a lose lose situation.

If we are in agreement that the Reserva is indeed a green belt, then there are several arguments in our favour. A strong protection for green belts helps the economy by promoting urban regeneration and keeping housing and businesses close to services and transport links.

Aren’t these all of the issues about which Mayor Peñalosa is passionate?

In short, environmental battles have been won by reframing them as “financial” or “human health” issues and this is the way in which we can come to the Reserva Van Der Hammen’s aid. Not by naming the public officials with ties to the land or levying hateful campaigns against the politicians in power but by constructing a robust and watertight campaign that cannot be faulted.

This may be a struggle of David and Goliath proportions but all the environmental camp requires is the strong backing of a legal approach, fortified with a political approach in terms of applying pressure on decision makers and building a grassroots constituency that can organize and mobilize in key moments on an issue.

When you put the combination of legal, political and grassroots together the result can be startlingly effective.

So, in a plea for common sense, I call upon Bogotá’s environmentalists to go hard on the issue and do everything possible to show why it’s harmful, unhealthy and ultimately costly to break ground in the Reserva Van Der Hammen. You must emphasize that your appeal is to decision-makers to make the wise and right choice.

Attack the issue, not the person.



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