02 March 2005
by Raúl Pierri
There was no shade in "El Monarca" when Angel "El Viejo" (Old Man) Martínez arrived, only a few dried-up bushes and a blazing sun.
But soon the empty field began to fill up with shacks, and in time it turned into a neighbourhood where trees grew alongside cinder block houses with electricity and running water.
It all began on Good Friday in 1995, the local residents remember, when a group of four or five homeless families decided to occupy this land on the outskirts of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.
The property belonged to a landowner who had died, and was abandoned by his descendants in a tangle of red tape after they decided to move to Spain.
The new occupants cut the surrounding fence in an almost ceremonial act, and put into practice what they had been planning for weeks.
They used yarn to divide the area into 12- by 30-metre lots for each family, and "moved in" with their few belongings, building shacks with boards, corrugated iron sheets and plastic bags.
"At the start, this looked like a cemetery," recalls El Viejo as he looks out at El Monarca settlement, where he plans to spend the rest of his days, even if he never becomes the legal owner of his home.
Word of the new precarious settlement quickly got around to many homeless people in Montevideo, who joined the desperate bid for a place to live. Evicted families, unemployed men on their own, and rural workers trying their luck in the city began to flock to the area.
The original families realised they had to begin organising. They created a neighbourhood commission, drew up a list of local residents, began to charge each family a "social fee", and placed red flags on the empty lots, to keep families from occupying more than one.
With the money from the fees, donations of building materials, and community labour they built roads, houses and a small community centre that carries a sign: "The needs of the poor are met through participation, action and determination".
The boards and iron sheeting slowly began to give way to cinder block and brick houses. Residents contributed whatever they could -- labour, sand or tools -- and together they began to create their new community.
The labour power and financing for each task came from the efforts of the families themselves. The community does not have the support of any non-governmental organisation.
On some of the lots, like Marta Casanova's, the remains of the old shacks can still be seen in back of the new houses. "It was the first home of my own that I ever had," she explains to IPS.
In the meantime, the land went to judicial auction, and when no bids came in, it was left in the hands of the Housing Ministry. The El Monarca neighbourhood commission is still working to gain formal property rights to the area.
The local residents successfully pressed for the installation of electricity, piped water and telephone lines.
Their aims now are to build a local health clinic, come up with a solution to the problem of garbage collection, and get a public bus line to run to the area. To go to school, local children must now walk on the shoulder of the main highway, a risky undertaking.
El Monarca is an example of a self-managed new settlement, that is home to 2,500 people living on 272 lots. Forty percent of the residents are unemployed or only have precarious work.
"It's not easy to get the residents to be committed when they have to think about how they're going to feed their families. Nevertheless, practically everyone takes part in the projects in the settlement," El Viejo, who is now the president of the neighbourhood commission, told IPS.
Building a neighbourhood out of nothing is an enormous ongoing challenge for people who often can't even afford to put food on their table, says El Viejo, who planted his "Garden of Dignity" next to the stream that marks the edge of the community as well as the Montevideo city limit.
In this South American country of 3.2 million people -- 1.45 million of whom live in the capital -- the number of new slums or precarious settlements is growing at an average annual rate of 10 percent, according to the Peace and Justice Service's (SERPAJ) 2004 human rights report.
The phenomenon is leading to a growing shift of the population from central areas of the city to the periphery.
Between 1985 and 1996, when the last two national censuses were carried out, 62 of Montevideo's most central neighbourhoods lost over 10 percent of their population, while the number of inhabitants grew 13 percent on the outskirts of the city, and 35 percent in the metropolitan area (outside of the city limits).
Urban sprawl on the periphery contributes to segregation of the population and to the isolation of broad sectors of society, who lack access to basic services, said the SERPAJ report.
A total of 153,000 Uruguayans live in 412 precarious settlements, 300 of which are in Montevideo, according to the latest figures from the National Institute of Statistics, from 1998.
Few of these settlements are like El Monarca. Most of them grow up chaotically as slums on the edges of the city, consisting of squalid wood, cardboard and tin shacks. Ironically, they are known locally as "cantegriles", after the exclusive Cantegril Country Club in Punta del Este, a world-class resort.
As in slum neighbourhoods worldwide, Uruguay's cantegriles are plagued by problems like overcrowding, domestic violence, young people trapped in drug abuse and crime, low educational levels, marginalisation and a total lack of access to basic services.
The country's recent economic crisis aggravated the shortage of low-income housing, which had been growing since the 1973-1985 military dictatorship.
Uruguay was caught in the grip of a recession from 1999 to 2002, the year the financial system collapsed, unemployment soared to a record high of 20 percent, real wages plunged, and the country's foreign reserves shrank to almost nothing.
Today, thanks to the steady economic recovery seen since 2003, the unemployment rate has dropped to just over 13 percent.
But SERPAJ estimates that for the poorest 20 percent of the population, the proportion of household income represented by rent has increased 30 percent since 1987. Meanwhile, the number of evictions has skyrocketed, according to court statistics.
Uruguay's public university estimates that the housing shortage amounts to 80,500 units, and that annual investment of 270 million dollars would be needed over the next 20 years to solve the deficit.
The last census also shows that overcrowding is a problem in nearly 20 percent of the country's 775,499 households.
In 1999, the government signed an agreement with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to create the Programme for the Integration of Irregular Settlements. The goal is to improve the living standards of those who live in shantytowns, and promote their "physical and social integration" into their urban surroundings.
Another aim is to regularise the situation of slums that are home to a combined total of around 10,000 families, through land titling efforts and the installation of public services.
However, not all precarious settlements are eligible to take part in the programme, because they must have existed prior to 1996 and be located on public, rather than privately-owned, land that is not prone to flooding, in cities of more than 10,000 people.
So far, 70 slum neighbourhoods have been regularised, at a cost of 26 million dollars.
Representatives of Uruguay's incoming government, which will be led by leftist President-elect Tabaré Vázquez starting on Mar. 1, have promised to relocate people living in slums to low-cost housing in underpopulated areas of the city, where they will have access to water, power, sanitation and public transport.
A total of 924 million people were living in shantytowns and slums worldwide in 2001, a number that could rise to 1.5 billion by 2020, according to United Nations projections.
One of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted by world leaders at a special session of the UN General Assembly in September 2000, is to "have achieved by 2020 a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers."
The MDGs also include achieving universal primary education, and halving, from 1990 levels, the proportion of people living in poverty, suffering hunger and lacking access to potable water, by 2015.
El Monarca, meanwhile, seems to have found a solution in self-management and solidarity.
At least that is the conclusion reached by El Viejo. Leaning on an improvised cane, he points to a sign at the entrance to his garden, which he believes captures the spirit of the local community: "Men of work and respect".