8 August 2016

Meet Gabriela Acosta

Gabriela Acosta lives with her family in one of the areas worst-affected by noise from El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, Colombia. She suffers grave hearing loss that negatively affects her speech and her academic development. This is her story, told to us by her father:

“My name is Julio Ramón Acosta Téllez, father of Gabriela Acosta. I was born 51 years ago in a neighborhood called Puerta de Teja (Fontibón), which is within the zone worst-affected by the operation of the second runway of the El Dorado International Airport. There was a time in which we lived in complete harmony with the airport, when the second runway didn’t exist, when we could enjoy a healthy environment, peaceful sleep, and communicate with our families and neighbors in a normal way without noise pollution.

Gabriela was born on March 13, 2007. When she was five years old and didn’t talk, it was found that she had 40% hearing loss in one of her ears and 20% in the other. This has caused problems in the development of her speech, affected her cognitive function, and delayed her academic development.

Since the moment that these problems were diagnosed, we have had to pay for specialized physicians, such as otorhinolaryngologists [ENT specialists], speech therapists, psychologists, and for specialized therapies in order to provide her with complete treatment. We initiated this process six years ago and it will continue in order to avoid major damage.

Currently, Gabriela is nine years old and is studying the first grade of primary school at a specialized kindergarten in order to level her academic knowledge in relation to other children of the same age.

Until now, and with a big effort, we have been able to pay for the medical treatments. However we wonder about other families that could have the same situation with their children. If they don’t have the economic means to pay for the treatments, this will affect them for the rest of their lives.”

(Translated from Spanish. Puede encontrar la versión española aquí)

As mentioned in our blog last month, we are supporting Comunidades Unidas to demand that the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) investigate the noise-related risks and impacts faced by the Fontibón community. Since the IDB-funded expansion of El Dorado International Airport, Fontibón is experiencing more severe noise pollution than ever before.

This past week, Comunidades Unidas wrote to the IDB’s accountability mechanism, the Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism (MICI), which is investigating Comunidades Unidas’ complaint that the IDB failed to comply with its environmental and social safeguards when it funded the airport expansion. MICI is expected to finalize a report with its findings later this year. When it produces that report, MICI can include recommendations to the IDB Board of Directors, of steps that the IDB should take to resolve the noncompliance. Comunidades Unidas proposes that MICI recommend:

1. The IDB should finance an Independent Health Impact Assessment, investigating the actual and anticipated health impacts associated with El Dorado International Airport, for the following reasons:

  • An increase in airport noise was a real risk of the project, as identified by the IDB itself, in its early due diligence documents. This risk has eventuated, with air operations increasing by 22% between 2008 and 2014 and noise now impacting 16% more people.
  • The levels of noise and their potential health impacts are a matter of significant concern. The IDB acknowledged that noise levels were superseding normal limits for residential areas, and evidence is accumulating about negative health impacts associated with air traffic noise, both in Bogotá and elsewhere.
  • The Bank should have commissioned such a study during its due diligence. Given that, the IDB should have investigated the actual and potential health impacts of El Dorado International Airport, as part of its obligations (under its own policies) to identify, mitigate and manage the negative risks and impacts of its projects.
  • The lack of a Health Impact Assessment continues to prejudice the Fontibón community. Although reports of health harms experienced by that community already exist, airport authorities have been dismissive of them on the basis that they do not establish direct links between the airport and quantified health impacts. The IDB is in a position to rectify this lack of technical information.
  • Despite the recent repayment of its loan, the IDB has justified and important interests in the realization of a Health Impact Assessment. By financing this study, the IDB could remedy its earlier due diligence failure and help restore the reputation of this project. It could directly support positive development outcomes, by helping to inform decisions about the management of air traffic noise and by helping to reduce social conflict relating to the airport. It could also help improve future airport expansion projects, in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America, by providing a model for those projects, identifying the types of risks they generate, and identifying potential strategies to mitigate those risks.

2. The IDB should encourage OPAIN, the airport concessionaire, to consider providing more opportunities for community participation in the benefits of the project, including by:

  • Making a space within the international terminal available to the worst-affected communities to allow them to promote local goods and services. Members of those communities are willing to voluntarily serve the space (without pay), but they request the collaboration of OPAIN on training in customer service (and related matters); and
  • Giving priority to job candidates that live in the worst-affected communities.

Benefit-sharing is an important feature of sustainable development. In this case, the neighboring communities are suffering, acutely, the negative impacts of the airport expansion with few opportunities to participate in its significant benefits; and

3. The IDB should encourage the key parties to re-engage in constructive dialogue with community representatives. Comunidades Unidas acknowledges that the IDB cannot resolve all of the issues associated with air traffic noise. However, MICI’s report could clarify a number of concerns and create a space for new, constructive discussion. Comunidades Unidas wishes to participate in such discussion.

You can read the full letter here (in Spanish). For more information about the case, see our case page here.