MEDELLIN, Colombia – The sculptures of Colombian artist Fernando Botero, permanently installed in a square in this northwestern city’s downtown, were partially covered with beaked plague doctor masks on Wednesday as part of a protest against elevated pollution levels.
Environmentalists symbolically protected figures such as “Sphinx,” “Maternity,” “Rape of Europe,” “Dog,” “Sleeping Venus” and “Woman with Fruit” with the masks to encourage people to reflect on the poor air quality.
“The artistic intervention was carried out at this emblematic site because lots of people come here and it’s one of the most polluted areas of the city, with negative indices all year long,” Diego Zapata, a member of the Air Medellin collective and the Citizens for the Air movement, told EFE.
A pollution red alert was declared on March 22 in Medellin after reports from the Early Warning System for Medellin and the Aburra Valley found that the concentration of PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter) – an air pollutant that is considered to be extremely harmful to health when levels in the air are high – was found to exceed 55 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
In response, authorities imposed vehicular traffic restrictions for five days to reduce the number of cars and motorcycles on the roads.
As part of the protest, air-pollution masks also were handed out to people visiting the square.
“People are very worried about the air quality. They’re tired of breathing soot. This is a public health problem,” Zapata said.
The environmentalists, who also wore the plague doctor masks, referred to the results of a University of Antioquia study that found that 3,000 people die of pollution annually in Medellin.
“We have to do something. Eight people can’t die every day,” the environmental leader said.
The protesters also criticized authorities’ decision to lift the restrictive measures, warning that the problem has not been solved and that local residents are breathing polluted air.