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#MedeHollín: The Campaign Against Pollution That Changed the Name of a Colombian City

Como parte de la protesta, varias de las esculturas distintivas de la ciudad fueron intervenidas y cubiertas con tapabocas. Fotografía de Sergio González. Publicada con permiso.

As part of the protest, a number of different sculptures in the city were covered with face masks. Photograph by Sergio Gonzalez. Published with permission.

Since March 2016, the city of Medellín, Colombia, has been affected by air pollution. The environmental problem is caused by different factors, including the El Niño weather phenomenon, a rise in the number of car parks, and the geographic location of the city itself (located in a valley) which causes the smog to stay trapped between the mountains.

Medellín, which has historically held the nickname of “City of Eternal Spring,” was quickly and sarcastically renamed by web users #Medehollín, “hollín” meaning “soot” in English. Spanish-language Wikipedia defines soot as:

…partículas sólidas de tamaño muy pequeño, desde unos 100 nanómetros (100 nm) hasta 5 micras (5 μm) como máximo. En su mayoría compuestas de carbono impuro, pulverizado, y generalmente de colores oscuros más bien negruzcos resultantes de la combustión incompleta de un material (madera, carbón, etc). Su aspecto es similar a la ceniza pero con un tono más negro.

…tiny solid particles, from 100 nanometres (100 nm) to 5 microns (5 μm) maximum. Mostly composed of impure coal, crushed, and generally dark in colour or blackish resulting from the incomplete combustion of a material (wood, coal, etc). It looks similar to ash, but blacker in tone.

The incident caused such a stir, that one of the country's national newspapers, Revista Semana, published a piece explaining the origin of the hashtag.

How the hashtag ‘#MedeHollín‘ came to be

However, while some find it all amusing, the city's mayor, Federico Gutiérrez, was quick to issue a call to stop “degrading” Medellín by naming it as such:

Ladies and Gentlemen @RevistaSemana, with all due respect, we are experiencing an environmental emergency. We are #Medellín NOT #Medehollín. We will get through this too.

Citizen commentary ranges from calls to protect the environment, use of masks to protect yourself and opt for a bicycle, to the publication of up-to-date figures on the situation as its happening.

Medellín responds

Those living in Medellín like Juan Herrera thought that the problem is caused by a lack of care for their environment by the residents themselves:

No need for words. #Medehollin I'm so sorry, these people don't love you as much as they say.

Meanwhile, Daniel Urrea published a photo on Instagram reluctantly wearing a face mask:

El nuevo juguete. Cero divertido: muy necesario. Indignación. #Medehollín

A photo posted by George Falconer (@danielup_) on

New toy. Not fun: very necessary. Indignation. #Medehollín

Daniel Suárez shared that deaths due to respiratory causes in the city have increased:

In #Medehollin deaths from respiratory illnesses are going up, caused by pollution.

A Change.org petition is also channeling residents’ responses to the situation. In the petition's explanation, its creator Pablo Montoya unpacked the environmental, economic, governmental and societal reasons which are behind the pollution crisis in Medellín:

Para mí, una de las razones principales de esta crisis, no solo ambiental sino también social, es la gran cantidad de carros y motocicletas que entran a Medellín y sus municipios aledaños.

Cantidad que hace tiempos excedió, y con demasía, las capacidades mismas que tiene nuestro espacio para enfrentarla. Se sabe que el arribo del flujo automotriz se hace sin ningún control, o con controles pírricos en los que están directamente comprometidas la empresa privada y las autoridades estatales. No es necesario describir ahora este contubernio corrupto que solo funciona en aras de enriquecer a algunos.

For me, one of the biggest reasons for this crisis, not only environmental but also social, is the large number of cars and motorbikes which come into Medellín and its neighbouring towns.

It is a number which exceeds, by a long way, our capacity to deal with it. It is known that the flow of traffic happens without any control, or with controls which come at too great a cost in which private businesses and state authorities are directly compromised. This corrupt conspiracy which only serves to make a few people richer goes without saying.

‘Please don't make us live in Medehollín’

By way of protest, face masks were added to various sculptures:

I love this! The city is asking the mayor to make real and brave decisions.

Similarly, some buses were stuck with a message: “Please don't make us live in Medehollín”:

#Medehollin is moving through the city.

And the group SiCLas are campaigning to promote the use of bicycles:

Get out the bikes, we don't have to live in #Medehollín. Let's go #PedallingThroughTheAir away from our polluted cities.

Finally, the environmental emergency provoked a question: How do we think of current transportation in the city? A response came from the transport secretary by way of a tweet:

“Our priority is: First the pedestrian, then cyclists, then public transport, and finally private vehicles.” @FicoGutierrez

In the face of high pollution levels on 1 and 2 April, the government has taken measures such as No Car Day, free entry on the city's metro system, and a halt on open-air activities. Although by the time this post was published, the environmental emergency was over, it is certain that the subject will have to be included on the public agenda in a permanent way, as Twitter user Kenny Valenzuela pointed out:

@FicoGutierrez Look, We are still living in #MedeHollin measures cannot be temporary for a crisis that is already here.

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