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1 Colombia Bans Asbestos! (July 12, 2019)

On July 11, 2019, Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez signed into law asbestos prohibitions endorsed by both houses of Congress in a frantic rush to beat the June 20, 2019 adjournment of Congress after which all proposed legislation would have been vacated.1 The ban, which prohibited not only the mining,2 commercialization and distribution of all types of asbestos – including chrysotile (white) asbestos – in Colombia also banned the export of asbestos. This is the first time that asbestos prohibitions have been approved by a legislature in an asbestos mining country; in 2017, the Brazilian Supreme Court, in the face of continuing federal support for the asbestos industry, declared the commercial exploitation of asbestos unconstitutional.3 The new Colombian law will take effect on January 1, 2021 and permits a five year transition period for companies currently using asbestos.4 The fact that this law managed to overcome substantial political as well as legislative hurdles with just days to go before Congress adjourned was testament to the determination of civil society groups, politicians and ban asbestos campaigners who mounted a high-profile nationwide campaign to mobilize support for an asbestos-free future.

Various ban asbestos ban bills had been debated in the Colombian Congress over the last 12 years; the one which succeeded was named after Ana Cecilia Nio, a journalist who died of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma in 2017 aged 42; as a child she had lived in the city of Sibaté, home to Colombia’s first asbestos-cement factory.5 Although she had never worked with asbestos, she was exposed to deadly fibers liberated by the factory. Despite undergoing major operations and extensive radiotherapy and chemotherapy following her 2014 diagnosis, Ana Cecilia campaigned assiduously for Colombia to ban asbestos. In 2016, she and her husband brought a lawsuit against the Colombian State before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for failing to protect citizens from the asbestos hazard.6 Over the last 50 years, 1,700 people have died from asbestos-related diseases, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, in Colombia.7

The Ana Cecilia Nio Ban Asbestos Law was adopted months after the Administrative Court of Bogotá (March 4, 2019) ordered the State to implement a policy phasing out the use of asbestos within five years. The Court issued orders that the Ministries of Health and Labor implement specific measures to ensure that the switch to safer technologies was progressed including the right to impose criminal and administrative sanctions, such as substantial financial penalties, for non-compliance.

Senator Blel stressed that Ana and other asbestos victims who had fought for a “Colombia without Asbestos,” had done so to protect future generations.

1 Hincapie, L.P. Presidente sanciona Ley que prohíbe el uso del asbesto en Colombia [President sanctions Law that prohibits the use of asbestos in Colombia]. July 11, 2019.

https://www.larepublica.co/economia/presidente-sanciona-ley-que-prohibe-el-uso-del-asbesto-en-colombia-2883938

Also see: Kazan-Allen, L. Asbestos in Colombia. October 2, 2012.

http://www.ibasecretariat.org/lka-asbestos-in-colombia-2012.php

4 Alsema, A. Ahead of most other countries, Colombia bans asbestos. June 12, 2019.

https://colombiareports.com/after-12-year-debate-colombia-bans-asbestos/

5 Ramos-Bonill, JP, Cely-Garcia, MF. An asbestos contaminated town in the vicinity of an asbestos-cement facility: The case study of Sibaté, Colombia. May 6, 2019.

6 Murió la mujer que buscó una Colombia libre de asbestos [The woman who sought an asbestos-free Colombia died]. January 8, 2017.

https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/asbesto-en-colombia-murio-ana-cecilia-nino-mujer-que-demando-a-la-nacion-ante-cidh/511742

7 Colombia’s Congress passes law for complete ban on asbestos. June 12, 2019.

https://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/colombias-congress-passes-law-for-complete-ban-on-asbestos/22306

2 Eternit’s Global Asbestos Crimes (June 6, 2019)

Asbestos-cement manufacturing operations by Eternit Colombiana S.A., a subsidiary of the Swiss Eternit Group, began in Sibaté, Colombia in 1942; nearly 80 years later, elevated levels of malignant pleural mesothelioma, the signature cancer associated with asbestos exposure, have been recorded and many of the injured were diagnosed at “unusually” young ages.

“The situation they [the people in Sibaté] are unfairly facing could happen to any community living nearby an asbestos cement facility. This situation could have been of lesser magnitude if Colombia had banned asbestos when other countries began this process

more than 30 years ago. We emphasize once again that the best way to prevent asbestos exposure and ARD [asbestos-related diseases] is to stop the use of this material. Although an asbestos ban in Colombia will not solve the adverse health and environmental impacts derived from the legacy of asbestos use, it would halt the use of asbestos and the introduction of new ACM [asbestos-containing material], a preventive measure urgently needed and recommended.”

Generations of workers in Lebanon, Colombia and Italy regarded the Eternit companies as beneficent employers and were proud to serve their employers. Little could they have known how their trust was being betrayed and their lives and those of their family members were being put at risk by occupational and environmental exposures to asbestos.

Will Eternit executives be hauled into a Brazilian court and forced to answer for the crimes they committed in their ruthless pursuit of profits? Will the company decontaminate the mining town and support the community to diversify in the post-asbestos era? Judging by what we have seen in Colombia and the Lebanon, it seems unlikely.

An asbestos contaminated town in the vicinity of an asbestos-cement facility: The case study of Sibaté, Colombia. May 6, 2019.

3 The Rotterdam Convention 2019 (May 10, 2019)

delegations which supported listing chrysotile were: Australia, Colombia, Norway, Canada, Peru, Georgia, Uruguay, Gabon, Nigeria, Bahrain, the EU, Japan, Iraq, Togo, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Moldova, Switzerland, Vanuatu, Congo, Senegal, the Maldives, Kuwait, Benin, Saudi Arabia and Cameroon;

4 2018: From Protest to Progress (December 13, 2018)

December 2018: On December 4, the “Ana Cecilia Nio law,” which would ban asbestos nationwide, was approved by the Colombian Senate; companies will have five years to make the transition to asbestos-free technologies if this legislation is approved by the House of Representatives.26 On December 6, Dr.

26 Senado aprobó ley que elimina el uso de asbesto en Colombia [Senate passes law that eliminates the use of asbestos in Colombia]. December 4, 2018.

https://www.lafm.com.co/politica/senado-aprobo-ley-que-elimina-el-uso-de-asbesto-en-colombia

5 LKA Blog (April 3, 2018)

After multiple attempts over twelve years to outlaw the commercialization of asbestos in Colombia, the Ana Cecilia Nio ban asbestos bill was finally green-lighted by the Colombian Congress on June 17, just days before Congress adjourned; once the bill is signed by President Duque, asbestos users will have until January 1, 2021 to make the transition to asbestos-free technologies.4

El presidente Duque sancionará la ley que prohíbe el uso de asbestos en Colombia [President Duque will sanction law that bans asbestos use in Colombia]. July 3, 2019

https://www.asuntoslegales.com.co/actualidad/el-presidente-duque-sancionara-la-ley-que-prohibe-el-uso-de-asbestos-en-colombia-2880736

On April 18, ban asbestos activists in Colombia staged a dramatic demonstration calling on Congress to shut-down the asbestos industry;1

As if by a fortuitous alignment of the planets, between November 21 and 28, 2017, the actions of a British campaigner, a Brazilian engineer, a Colombian Senator, an Australian physician and an Indian school teacher highlighted multiple facets of the global struggle for asbestos justice at places as diverse as the British Parliament, universities in Rio de Janeiro and Bogota, a monastery in the West Australian capital of Perth and a United Nations hearing in Geneva.

Giannasi’s knowledge, another asbestos information session was taking place in Bogota, Colombia. The public hearing was addressed by medical and scientific experts including: Luis Ernesto Gómez, Deputy Minister of the Interior, Dr. Adriana Estrada from the Ministry of Health, Dr. Fabián Méndez Paz, Director of the School of Public Health, Associate Professor Dr. Juan Pablo Ramos of the Department of Civil Engineering, Silvia Gómez, Director of Greenpeace Colombia and Cecilia Riao, sufferer of an asbestos disease.

Although the six developments reported are but fragments of a global jigsaw puzzle seen together they reinforce the feelings of public revulsion at the ongoing damage caused by historic and continuing asbestos use. The October 27, 2017 verdict by the Tokyo High Court should put national governments on notice that they will be held to account for the damage done by their failures to act on the asbestos hazard. The Indian Parliament, the Colombian Congress and the People’s Consultative Assembly of Indonesia might do well to consider how they will afford to pay compensation to thousands of future victims whose lives will have been sacrificed for the profits of the asbestos industry.

6 The Fall of the Asbestos Empire (September 17, 2017)

Support for the ban asbestos movement has reached new civil society sectors and geographical locations this summer with important asbestos awareness initiatives held by asbestos victims’ associations, health and safety activists, trade unionists and politicians in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Colombia, Myanmar and Nepal.8 While the repercussions of activities such as these take some while to become manifest, significant media coverage of asbestos issues has already been generated.9

7 LKA Blog (August 8, 2016)

Today (June 9, 2016), I saw the photo below which was taken on June 7th moments after vested interests blocked an attempt by the Senate to ban the “production, marketing, export, import and distribution of any variety of asbestos in Colombia.” The people in the photograph include politicians and workers from the asbestos mine in Capamento who are clearly jubilant that they succeeded in protecting their financial interests.

Although the veto orchestrated by Eternit Colombiana S.A., Eternit Pacifico S.A., Eternit Atlántico S.A and other commercial and governmental asbestos stakeholders was not unexpected, the news of these developments reminded me once again about the complex dynamics involved in progressing the campaign to protect human beings from the asbestos hazard.

When Colombia eventually bans asbestos, and it will, those people who celebrated the June 7th vote will be left high and dry and, more likely than not, sick and abandoned by the industry’s supporters who are pictured alongside them in the photo above. Politicians, trade unionists, workers and residents of Campamento would be better served in seeking to attract alternative industries and safer employment to the region rather than supporting this out-dated and deadly technology.

8 Columbian Senate Debates Ban Asbestos Bill (April 8, 2016)

On Tuesday, April 5, 2016 the Colombian Senate had its first debate on Bill 97 which seeks to introduce a comprehensive ban on the production, marketing, export, import and distribution of all forms of asbestos and products containing it.

The next speaker was the Mayor of Campamento, in the Department of Antioquia – where Colombia’s main asbestos mine is located. The Mayor exhibited a document issued by the manager of the Campamento Hospital which stated that there were no medical records showing any asbestos-related diseases amongst patients.

Mr. Daniel Pineda, whose wife Ana Cecilia Nio has mesothelioma, presented a petition signed by 22,000 Colombians via the platform change.org calling for a national asbestos ban.

Subsequently, artist and campaigner Guillermo Villamizar, speaking on behalf of the foundation Free Colombia of Asbestos rebutted the arguments of the Ascolfibras representative highlighting the current positions of the WHO and IARC (The International Agency for Research on Cancer) which categorically agree that exposure to all types of asbestos can cause cancer and that there is no safe threshold of exposure.

Former President of Colombia Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez, expressing concern about the fate of the town should a ban be introduced, highlighted the need for a just transition whereby the government would provide financial and practical support to help the town create new employment for residents.

The Colombian political spectrum is fairly conservative and this initiative faces a tough challenge to win votes in the current political climate. Former President of Colombia Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez has three members of his party in the coalition, and although two of them support the ban bill, Mr.

In a debate dominated by Colombia’s powerful asbestos vested interests, the fact that there is no epidemiological data documenting the incidence of deadly asbestos diseases is used to good advantage by those supporting the status quo. The Government must actively engage with the injured to quantify the asbestos challenges and provide assistance to those people suffering.

9 Challenging Colombia’s Asbestos Status Quo (September 7, 2015)

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

10 Report from the Asbestos Frontline: Update from Geneva (May 13, 2015)

Those with vested interests attending COP7 come from Russia, India, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Canada, Vietnam, Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.2 The propaganda they have brought with them to the meeting is available in English, Russian and Portuguese and comes under such headings as: People for Chrysotile, No Chrysotile Ban, Chrysotile Forever and Science – Basic Facts.

 
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