Colombian capers

The client, an agency tasked with overseeing the functioning of various government ministries and other public sector bodies.

Some nine years ago, I did a small consulting job in Colombia, as part of a team advising that country’s central auditing body on issues related to mining environmental governance. An organisation in the difficult position between the development-minded mining ministry and the ministry tasked with protecting the environment. Both sides were very passionate about their point of view, leading to some interesting and heated discussions.

This was my first (and so far, only) assignment in South America. One of the challenges was that my knowledge of Spanish is limited to a few polite phrases and the ability to order a beer or two. Our clients generally had a much better knowledge of English, but were not comfortable to deliver presentations in this language. Fortunately we had a solution in the form of Jan Wybe, a Dutch chap who’d grown up in Peru and who is fluent in Spanish and English. And who rapidly proceeded to learn mining and environmental concepts! So whenever someone presented in Spanish (accompanied by a Spanish language slideshow), he would type the spoken words in English on his laptop. We could then watch the presented images and read the English text typed by Jan Wybe. This worked surprisingly well and it’s a method that I can recommend!

Steaming ahead with an English presentation to a Spanish-speaking audience

At one point, I had to deliver a presentation to a national forum in the large hall of a posh hotel. Bearing in mind the language issue, we had arranged to have my presentation slides translated into Spanish, and there was simultaneous translation arranged too. What could possibly go wrong? The only problem was that I was talking to my (English) slides and at one point forgot to mention when the operator of the projector was to progress to the next (Spanish language) slide. So while I was moving through successive slides, the audience was left to look at one page and the simultaneous translator lost track of where I was. I only realised the problem when I saw my colleagues in the back of the hall frantically waving their arms at me, miming the turning of pages. Not my finest moment, but we recovered.

A view onto Laguna Guatavita, showing the slot that was cut into the rim (in the year 1580!) to lower the water level so as to recover the submerged gold. This was largely successful and a number of golden artifacts were collected around the rim of the lake.

We spent most of the time in meeting rooms in Bogota, the capital city, but did get a couple of opportunities to see some countryside. One such excursion was to the Laguna Guatavita, a lake high up in the eastern cordillera of the Andes, with an interesting history: Apparently the chiefs of the Muisca people used to have their bodies anointed with honey and then coated with gold dust, and would then immerse themselves in the lake, thereby fertilising the womb of the earth with the golden “seed”. Golden artifacts would also be offered into the lake, some of which have been found by divers and now reside in musea, including this one.

When the Spanish conquestadors arrived in this part of the world, they heard about the sacred lake and all this helped to give rise to the legend of El Dorado. Fascinating story, well described by National Geographic too: El Dorado.

Good question: Are we “good seeds” or maybe some of us are just avoiding to be weeds?

For the geologically inquisitive: the lake is not a volcanic crater, nor was it formed by a meteorite impact. Sited in a limestone formation, it is a “karstic collapse crater”, (better known as a sinkhole) that was formed due to the solution of salt deposits lower down. We visited one such salt deposit that has been mined underground and has now been turned into some sort of underground church-museum-tourist attraction. The entire area is presented as a cultural heritage area, very interesting to visit.

I remember ending that day with a barbeque at the farm house of the head of the Contraloria, a very nice evening where we enjoyed good food, very nice wine and some pleasant conversations in broken Spanglish between all of us. It’s really amazing how much you can understand when you focus on people’s faces and body language and if everyone makes an effort. A glass of red wine also helps!

A little furnace apparently recovering lead from used car batteries. Not a shining example of good environmental performance. From the look of the stunted vegetation on the hillside to the right, the little smokestack obviously does not manage to distribute the polluting smoke too far away…. The Eucalyptus trees appear to enjoy the spicy air, however.

On another occasion, we visited some small coal mines and of this excursion I can only remember that the mines were small and old, that the road was so bad that we all had to get out of the bus and walk for a distance, presumably so that only the driver’s life would be at risk… Oh and we had a terrific rainstorm that afternoon.

“Sheltering” from the rain
One of our meetings with a wide spectrum of stakeholders, including government officers, representatives of indigenous groups, mining companies and journalists. Some lively discussions that stopped short of insults, but only just.

After one particular meeting or training session, when we left the building it was raining heavily and the traffic was completely snarled up. Faced with a long wait for a taxi, or a very slow ride in an overfull bus, Jan Wybe had a better suggestion: He knew an old-fashioned bookbinder where he used to buy his (individually made!) notebooks. The owner was a friend, who could probably offer us a drink. This sounded like an excellent idea after a day of talking and we dodged through the streets of Bogota, between bits of cover from the rain, until we reached this bookbinder in a back street. Fascinating place, the handful of employees were sticking together and trimming pages, building up elaborate covers and making beautiful notebooks in all shapes and sizes, real works of art. One side room was essentially a bookbinding museum, with all sorts of equipment on display.

Somewhat surprising beer to be offered by a bookbinder in Bogota, Colombia, to say the least!

As promised, we were offered a drink. To my great surprise, when we asked for a beer, we received bottles of “Het Elfde Gebod“, a beer brewed in the border region of The Netherlands and Belgium. We duly obeyed the eleventh commandment (“Thou shalt enjoy!”) and even a second round. The rain continued to pelt down and so we were forced to hang around until the man’s beer supply was exhausted, after which he offered us some “whisky”. I place that word in quotes, because he produced a bottle with a label showing the not-so-famous brand of “Something Special“. The occasion was certainly special, the whisky not so much. One of our number was a Scot, who was certainly not too impressed. Anyway, we each finished our glass, thanked our host, bought a few notebooks and somehow managed to get back to our hotel.

The life of an international consultant is stressful and from time to time one needs to rebuild energy levels with good local food and good conversation!

Little footnote: We did actually provide some decent environmental advice related to the mining sector, covering topics such as effects on critical water resources, pollution by dust, environmental bonds and so on. Just in case you think that it was just a great party!

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