Saturday, May 28, 2011

End of the Road for Bogotá's Horsecarts?

Leonardo and Nana head toward Seventh Ave. 
For the last eight years, Leonardo has worked with his horsecart, or zorra, scavenging things from the trash and wood and metal from construction sites to sell for reuse.

But now his lifestyle is in danger: By January, 2013, Bogotá intends to outlaw the thousands of horsecarts which now rumble thru the city's streets.

When I asked Leonardo, who is 17, about what his family would do instead, he first smiled brightly.

"They're going to give us a motorized tricycle," he said.

I asked him whether they wouldn't have to pay for the new vehicle.

Yes they would, he acknowledged, suddenly glum. And most of the city's zorreros, who are poor people, likely won't be able to afford the machines.

Leonardo climbed into his cart, pulled by his horse Nana, and plunged into Bogotá's traffic.

A horse and cart wait outside the city's Central Cemetery.
For visitors, horsecarts are a surprising sight clopping down Bogotá's congested avenues among the city's skyscrapers and SUVs. But they also serve a purpose, recycling lots of materials which would otherwise end up in the dump and providing employment for thousands of poor families. A recent survey counted some 2,500 people working in Bogotá with horsecarts - and undoubtedly there are more that they missed.

Traffic jams: horse carts' fault?
Those who want them gone argue that the horsecarts worsen traffic congestion and are cruel to the animals. The first argument strikes me as absurd. Look at any traffic jam in this traffic-clogged city and the cause is obvious: too many cars, trucks and buses. Sure, horsecarts don't move fast - but what traffic does on Bogotá's streets? On the other hand, horsecarts don't pollute - the air, at least - and a horsecart doesn't cause drunk driving accidents - horses are too smart and sober for that. Anyway, are even more polluting vehicles the answer to Bogotá's traffic and pollution problems?


Bogotá could do much more to reduce traffic congestion by restricting private vehicle use and junking some of those old, polluting buses. 

A zorra rolls home thru the Los Martires neighborhood. 
The problem of animal suffering is much more real. Often, I've heard, zorreros buy aged horses and put them to work. Imagine the stress on an animal used to the peace of the countryside suddenly subjected to the city's noise, rush and pollution. And many zorreros, poor and uneducated, overwork and underfeed their animals and don't provide them veterinary care. On the other hand, I have met several zorreros who really loved and cared for their horses. 

I do also wonder about city officials' sincerity, because they've shown little concern about the suffering of other animals, such as bulls and roosters killed in public spectacles and the thousands of animals raised and slaughtered every day to feed bogotanos' stomachs.

It seems clear to me that officials' strongest motive for wanting to ban the zorras is cosmetic. For a city which wants to create an image of modernity and progress, horse carts on the street just do not fit in the picture.

Nana enjoys a bite while ignoring the 19th Ave. traffic.
Bogotá has tried several times before to eliminate the horsecarts. But the zorreros organized, hired lawyers and sued for their right to work. This time, officials plan to offer zorreros work in recycling plants. But that recycling program doesn't even exist yet, and zorreros used to freedom and independence aren't likely to take to working in a plant.

Police also find themselves at a loss when dealing with zorras in violation of laws. After all, you can't tow a horse and cart, and the city has no place to care for hundreds of work animals.

Most likely, horsecarts won't disappear from Bogotá for a while yet.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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