BOGOTA, Colombia — They are not your average car buyers.
At an outdoor showroom featuring Chevrolets and Hyundais, many customers look like they could barely afford to ride the bus. Some lack driver's licenses. And rather than gasoline efficiency they’re more versed in carrots-per-kilometer.
That’s because these potential customers are horse-cart drivers. Nearly 3,000 of them ply the streets of Bogota every day, collecting bottles, cans and cardboard. But while recycling is a civic good, the horse carts are a citywide danger.
In this supposedly modern South American capital of 8 million people, the plodding horse carts contribute to Bogota's nightmarish traffic jams. They have no rearview mirrors or blinkers and motorists sometimes crash into them. Pedestrians step in piles of manure. And animal rights activists claim the horses are mistreated.
As a result, Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro has launched a program to remove all the horse carts from the city by the end of the year. For turning in their horses, drivers are eligible for a $12,000 credit to help them buy new vehicles so they can continue working.
“These people have served the city for many years by picking up trash and by recycling and have never received any social benefits,” said Ana Luisa Flechas, Bogota’s transportation secretary. “That’s why the mayor has made this program a priority.”
Yet past efforts to rein in horse carts failed, in part because it was unclear what would become of their drivers.
In 1994 the national government decreed that horse carts must gradually be removed from the country’s largest cities. But the recyclers have long argued that the move would deprive them of their right to make a living, since nearly all of them are poor and cannot afford motorized vehicles. And in the absence of a formal, citywide recycling system, the horse carts were often viewed as a necessary nuisance.
The dilemma is partly the result of Colombia’s massive rural-to-urban migration over the past century. Many of the drivers grew up in the countryside and took their animals with them when they moved to Bogota. Often destitute and illiterate, these newcomers found that the only way to make a living was to rig up wagons to their horses and scour the city’s garbage cans and dumpsters.
“I arrived here with my wife 30 years ago,” said Jorge Sanchez, who operates a fleet of five horse carts. “We came here seeking new horizons. But we didn’t know what to do so we started recycling.”
But horses don’t mix well with speeding taxis, SUVs and tractor-trailers.
During a recent outing on a horse cart, a white mare with black eye patches took up a full lane on one of Bogota’s busiest roads even though horse carts are supposed to be confined to secondary streets. Motorists honked, swerved and cursed. It took two people to manage the cart — one to hold the reins and the other to frantically signal or plead with motorists to make way.
Not surprisingly, horse carts have been involved in many accidents, leaving a handful dead and dozens injured.
Another problem is that the horses have turned into urban beasts of burden. Martha Ciro, president of the Colombian Animal Defense Association, said horses cannot legally carry more than 800 kilograms (more than 1,700 pounds) but said their owners often load their carts with twice that amount then flog their steeds when they falter.
Asphalt is extremely hard on a horse’s hooves but sometimes they go without horseshoes which can cause infections. In addition, the ideal diet for horses is a mix of grass and animal concentrate. But the recyclers usually just feed them several pounds of carrots, which Ciro said are too sweet for constant consumption and can cause tooth decay.
“These horses are being tortured,” Ciro said.
Growing awareness about animal cruelty as well as frustrations over the city’s traffic jams helped convince Mayor Petro — a leftist former guerrilla fighter who took office last year — to set aside about $40 million to phase out the horse carts once and for all.
The first step was to conduct a census. That meant installing electronic chips in the animals to prevent cheaters from rounding up horses and getting in line for city assistance. Legitimate horse owners have the option of trading them in for the $12,000 vehicle credit or seed money to start a small business.
“This is a very good program for both the horses and their owners,” said Ciro, who is involved in lining up farmers to adopt the horses. “It will allow them to improve their labor conditions.”
This time around there appears to be wide support for the program among horse drivers, most of whom deny mistreating their animals.
Alexander Rozo, who was born on a horse cart 37 years ago when his mother went into premature labor, plies the streets with a black horse named Alice. He earns about $30 a day but thinks his profits may increase once he secures a vehicle and can move around the city at a faster clip.
At the outdoor showroom, set up to allow the horse-cart drivers to check out their options, Rozo inspected pickups and panel trucks. Though they cost more than $12,000, the idea is for drivers to pool their resources and work together. Even so, Rozo described Alice as “part of the family” and said he would miss the horse when she’s put up for adoption.
“It will be very tough,” said Daniel Moya, who heads an association of horse-cart drivers. “On the day we have to turn our horses in we will all be crying.”