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Evidalia´s tale: the tanners of the river

Today, I was a mere observer before the power of womankind. I stood, my mouth wide open, as history unveiled in front of me, simple part of the public. This is not my story. This is the story of human struggle to survive, the story of traditional productive activities, the story of Evidalia. Untold Colombian stories, it´s maybe the time to speak.

The precise timing of the beginning of this story is not clear. Some say 50 years, others insist on 100, whilst a third party measures time in generations and maintain 3 have passed since people in Villapinzón started working in the tanner industry. This is a little town north of Bogotá with both the curse and the blessing of being the birthplace of the Bogotá River.

Originally, traditional tanning techniques used vegetal extracts to eliminate hair and strengthen the fibers in the skin. Leather was produced and natural tannins were naturally degraded. This simple system enabled the productive activity to occur at small scale. People would have a small tannery on the back of the house, usually managed by women when domestic duties allowed. Unfortunately, the best source of tannins in the high Andean forest is the bark of the Encenillo tree (Weinmania tomentosa). Over the years, Villapinzón´s population grew and more people learnt to tan, producing high quality leather and dangerously reducing the Encenillo population in the region.

To address this pressing matter and protect the Encenillo in our mountains, the environmental authorities banned the recollection of its bark and, instead of closing the emerging tanning industry down, it encouraged the use of commercial compounds to process the skins. This new system requires an aqueous medium to expose the skins to chromium salts and sulphur, removing the hair and toughening the collagen fibers. However, when the tanning waste waters are discarded, these chemicals go along with them. As happens with 95% of Colombia´s domestic water, tanneries wastewater is added to the river with no treatment. The Bogotá River thus has received 50 years, 100 years or maybe 3 generations worth of chromium and suphur.

The Bogotá River influences 46 other towns and Bogotá city itself and the evidence of chemical contamination is unsettling. Toxic levels were found in the water, in the soil, in the muscle of remaining fish and in the tissues of the vegetables hosed with the river´s water. The tanneries were to blame and the inhabitants of the whole basin held them responsible for the pollution that made our river unfitted to drink, to swim or to harvest anything from its dead waters. This is where Evidalia comes into her own story.

Leading a group of small tannery owners, this woman from Villapinzón approached the authorities with the willingness to improve their tanning systems in order to reduce their environmental impact. Evidalia and her community have endured 5 years of struggle, learning about law, about environment, about institutions. “We were walking blindly, our eyes shut by many drapes” she relates to a silent public, “We were asked to arrange a document on environmental management. We really tried to do it right, but with no real knowledge and no help whatsoever, our best effort was discarded and the closures began. We even had to pick up a dead person. Those were dark times”. Unknowing the reality around them, many tanners were removed from the land around the Bogotá River. “You are invading public property, go somewhere else” Evidalia mimics a deep, unkind voice, “Where would they go? Those are poor people! They have nothing except for their tannery!”

By 2005 every tannery was closed and unable to work, people grew restless. The tragic times seemed endless when Mónica came from the city. She was working on her PhD and was interested on these people´s situation. “At the beginning, it is very hard to make yourself heard. They have been mistreated and they don´t really understand how everything happened. They could not believe I was there to help them”. Mónica slowly got into their hearts, getting financial support from SWITCH (Managing water for the city of the future - http://switchurbanwater.lboro.ac.uk/), a round table with the environmental authorities and clean production workshops for the people in Villapinzón. “Thanks to Doctora Mónica, we were again in the game, playng cat and mouse with the authorities to finally reach the accepted standards”.

“The struggle isn´t finished”, Evidalia highlights, “we still need credit to get every tannery into the clean production methods”. “However, the banks won´t even consider us, stating tanneries are outside the law”. “Law should not start considering punitive measures before prevention and, I am embarrassed but I insist in the same subject, over and over again, because what else can we do?”

Evidalia, leader of ACURTIR (Small tanners association: Compromise for change), walks proudly amongst the representatives of the environmental authorities, shakes hands with foreign scientists from SWITCH and talks to the audiences with a firm voice. She has found dignity in a clean system of production, leaving behind the stigmata of the polluting illegal tanneries. There is still much to do, but everybody can learn a special lesson from the story. An environmental problem has a social and economic component. “Once you address them all together, very carefully, you learn from each other and improve the quality of life of people and river altogether” Evidalia, wisely concludes. “And I would like to bring to mind the tanneries that have not gone through this process and the other contributors to the Bogotá River´s pollution. While some clean others dirty it up. Motivation is needed for everyone to join our compromise”. “Thank you very much”.

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