Challenging Colombia’s Asbestos Status Quo 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



In August 2015, campaigners in Colombia took the ban asbestos fight into new forums and destinations; raising the profile of the country’s asbestos scandal at academic conferences and art exhibitions, and in public spaces. On Thursday, August 20, a conference investigating the relationships between art, politics and economics – entitled: Heterodoxy: Reflection on Aesthetics – was held at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia. During his presentation artist Guillermo Villamizar considered the case of asbestos entrepreneur, billionaire, art collector and “philanthropist” Stephen Schmidheiny, formerly head of one of the world’s largest global asbestos conglomerates. Mr. Schmidheiny was, he said:

“the owner of one of the largest asbestos multinationals in the world: Eternit. He retired from this business in the 1990s and began to reinvent himself, putting his asbestos era behind him. Imitating Schmidheiny’s attempt at metamorphosis, Colombit, formerly a part of his empire, stopped using asbestos in 2002 and adopted a positive public persona all the while disregarding former workers suffering from asbestos-related diseases.

In 1992, Stephan Schmidheiny wrote Changing course - a global business perspective for development and environment; this book was published in partnership with the Council for Sustainable Development, founded by Stephan Schmidheiny, in the run-up to the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio (1992). The book analyzed the compatibility of economic growth and environmental protection and suggested solutions which maximized industry’s profits while protecting the natural environment.

Can we truly believe that someone who presided over a commercial asbestos empire which spread environmental pollution and occupational death the world over can be trusted with the air that we breathe and the products we consume? Hard to believe.”


Guillermo Villamizar speaking at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Cali, August 20, 2015.

The next week on August 27th an art show opened at the Chamber of Commerce in Bogotá called “The law of diminishing returns;” set to run until September 25. The free exhibition was curated by Guillermo Vanegas and included work by artists Linda Pongutá, Pablo Lazala, Braulio Ruiz, Christian Rodríguez and Guillermo Villamizar. On opening night, 300 people attended.


The show has proved popular not only with visitors to the building but with members of the public and specific groups – e.g. medical students who have a particular interest in the capacity of asbestos, still widely used in Colombia, to cause deadly cancers and debilitating diseases. The installation at the exhibition by Guillermo Villamizar entitled ASBESTOS: Lungs of capitalism1 is accompanied by a range of resources from the UK, Italy, Spain and the U.S. including footage, data, artwork and graphic material to expand viewers’ knowledge of the subject.

On August 31, asbestos was also on the agenda of a Labour Studies Congress for Colombia and Latin America – Results and Challenges – which was hosted at the National University of Colombia, Bogotá by the Network for Labor Studies of Colombia. This event was a pre-cursor to the VIII Latin American Congress of Labour Studies that will be held next year in Buenos Aires. In their presentation, Jairo Ernesto Luna, Carlos Julio Castro and Guillermo Villamizar undertook an exposition of the double standards of the asbestos company Colombit, part of the Etex global group, which while profiting from the commercial exploitation of asbestos also proclaimed its commitment to the concept of corporate social responsibility.

Commenting on the recent activities, Mr. Villamizar said:

“Until very recently, vested interests dictated Colombia’s national asbestos dialogue. The result of their dominance has been a total disregard for the hazards of living and working with asbestos as a result of which many Colombians are suffering from asbestos cancers and diseases. As an artist and a citizen, I have a part to play in ridding my country of the asbestos scourge. There is a growing public commitment to end the use of asbestos in Colombia and expose the crimes of those who have profited from this deadly trade.”

September 7, 2015


1 This title alludes to an art show of the same title which was held in the UK in the 1970s by artist Conrad Atkinson.



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