On 11 June 2019, the Colombian House of Representatives unanimously voted to ban asbestos as of 1 January 2021. A historic victory for the unions and victim associations, the vote took place in an unfavourable political context.

On 11 July, Colombian President Duque ratified the law. Various transitional measures are planned to enable substitution plans to be developed, to help asbestos miners find other jobs and to ensure proper monitoring of the health and social rights of the thousands of victims of asbestos-related diseases.

Colombia is a country both producing and consuming asbestos. Asbestos is used in many different branches, with the main use being in the production of asbestos-cement building materials for housing and pipes. Workers in the automotive sector are also greatly exposed to asbestos in the production of brake linings and in vehicle maintenance and repairs.

Unions and victim associations have been fighting for some fifteen years to get asbestos banned, backed by environmental organisations. Back in 2007, Colombian senator Jesús Bernal Amorocho (Polo Democrático, a left-wing opposition party) put forward a bill banning asbestos. Although he managed to gain a majority in the initial debate, intense employer lobbying persuaded MPs not to conclude the legislative procedure. This scenario has been repeated at least seven times over the past twelve years, blocking the parliamentary initiatives. Various bills have been presented, often with majority cross-party support in the initial debates only to disappear from parliamentary agendas thanks to the industry's lobbying and its links to the traditional political establishment.

Over the last ten years, data on the negative health effects of asbestos has swelled, with the number of deaths recorded as being caused by asbestos rising to 1700 in the course of the past five years. This figure is much lower than reality, reflecting the fact that the majority of deaths are not declared as being associated with asbestos. One particular study carried out since 2015 in Sibäté in the province of Cundinamarca some 30 kilometres from the capital Bogota has revealed mortality levels due to mesothelioma (a cancer of the pleura caused by asbestos) more than ten times higher than those observed in most Colombian towns. Sibaté is the town where the Swiss-Belgian multinational Eternit built its main asbestos-cement plant in 1942. Other studies published between 2012 and 2015 have documented the fatal effects of asbestos among workers responsible for maintaining and repairing vehicles due to the presence of asbestos in brake linings.

Both the extraction of asbestos and the production of asbestos-based materials used to be dominated by multinationals, though with growing Colombian involvement. The main asbestos mine located in Campamento in the province of Antioquia was opened in 1972 by the US corporation Johns Manville. Named “Las Brisas”, this mine has a chequered history. While the resurgence of the civil war in the late 1990s caused the company to abandon its operations there, the mine continued to operate, more of less chaotically, until production stopped briefly in 2011. Operations restarted the following year, this time at the initiative of the Colombian company Bricolsa.

Eternit also played a crucial role in the massive use of asbestos-based building materials, opening further plants in Colombia (in Calí and Barranquilla) in 1944. Although the multinational gradually stopped using asbestos in its European operations, it continued using it in Colombia until 2015, as evidenced by the 300 million square metres of roof tiles produced by Eternit. Some 40,000 kms of pipes for water and sewerage also feature asbestos cement. This situation naturally leads to great health inequality, with the majority of homes containing asbestos (estimates speak of 1.5 - 5 million) inhabited by the poor or people on low incomes. High-priority social housing programmes developed by successive governments in a context marked by cronyism and corruption are one cause of the very high use of cement asbestos. Slowly but surely, the use of such materials is releasing asbestos fibres into the atmosphere, constituting a danger in particular for the inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods.

Employers disseminated “fake news”, claiming that the controlled use of the chrysotile variety of asbestos did not constitute a health risk and that a general asbestos ban would be too radical. This position was backed by leading Colombian politicians. In 2016, the then minister of health Alejandro Gaviria stated that there was not sufficient proof of chrystolite causing deaths in Colombia. To prevent the bill being adopted, senator Alvaro Uribe (Colombian president between 2002 and 2010) argued in defence of jobs in the “Las Brisas” mine which happened to be located in his constituency. Uribe remains a leading figure in the Colombian political scene, with the current president, Ivan Duque, featuring among his protégés.

Right up to the session on 11 June, various right-wing and ultra-right-wing MPs tried to get a compromise adopted, under which the use of asbestos would be banned in Colombia but its extraction would be allowed to continue for export purposes.

The asbestos ban is all the more of a victory considering that it was adopted in a very unfavourable political context for the world of work, following the victory of the pro-Uribe candidate in the second round of the presidential elections in June 2018. The new government contains a large number of ministers coming from the employer side. Assassinations of union activists are commonplace in the country, with the majority going unpunished. Colombia is one of the “ten worst  countries for workers in 2019” according to the Global Rights Index 2019 published by the International Trade Union Confederation.

The activism of four women played a major role in achieving the ban on asbestos in Colombia, with the new law bearing the name of one of them, Ana Cecilia Niño. Suffering from an asbestos-caused cancer, this journalist devoted the final years of her life to mobilising the country in favour of a ban on this fatal fibre. She died in July 2017, well before the vote adopting the ban.

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Photo Credit: Camara Colombia