Saturday, November 26, 2005

Water inequality

This study from Kenya shows why squatters don't get adequate water. Only 5 percent of the people getting municipal water service are poor. The bulk of the poor must buy their water from private kiosks. And check this out: "Kiosks receive water from the public utility at a subsidised price of US$ 0.15 per cubic meter but charge their customers, on average, 18 times that price."

Hmmmm. Sounds like when water is made a profit center, you get high prices and controlled scarcity.

The Kenyan government could do more for the poor by piping their neighborhoods for water than all the rebuilding plans currently on the drawing boards.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Kokata politicos try to have it both ways

Politicians in Kolkata vow squatters will be out by the end of the month, even as they have no idea where the people will go if their communities are torn down, The Statesman reports.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Brooms and firecrackers vs. the police

Kolkata's Gobindapur Rail Colony squatters are still negotiating for resettlement, but they are remaining vigilant against any sudden police action, The Statesman reports. The squatters are insisting that they be relocated within 3 kilometers of their present location, so that they can keep their jobs in the neighborhood. With a Nov. 30th deadline for ejectment inching closer, they are maintaining all night vigils while their leadership and local politicos attempt to sort out a solution.

Is a corporation entitled to human rights?

The European Court of Human Rights thinks so, according to this article from the Guardian.

On a 4-3 vote, the court ruled that a British real estate corporation was deprived of its human rights when a squatter family was granted title to a disputed parcel after a dozen years of using the land for grazing its herd. Despite the longstanding tradition of adverse possession, or squatters rights, the court, based in Strasbourg, ruled that because the company was not notified of the adverse possession claim against it and was not compensated for the loss of the land, its human rights had been violated. The court ruled that two British laws--the Limitation Act 1980 and the Land Registration Act 1925--created "an individual and excessive burden and upset the fair balance between the demands of the public interest on the one hand and the applicants’ right to the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions on the other."

It's hard to see how any form of squatters rights, no matter how narrowly construed, could meet the majority's test, since it seems to have judged that private ownership is in the public interest while squatter ownership is not. The four judges do not say why the family using the parcel in question for grazing was not entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of its possession, while the fee owner was.

The dissenters suggest that there was absolutely no human rights issue in question, because the realty company could have taken action at any time to show its intent to keep the property. "The real "fault" in this case, if there has been any, lies with the applicant companies....[T]he applicant company was not a private individual or an ordinary company with, one could assume, limited knowledge on relevant real estate legislation. They were specialised professional real estate developers and such a company had or should have had full knowledge about relevant legislation and the duties involved....Possession (ownership) carries not only rights but also and always some duties."

The European Court's jurisdiction dates from 1950, when the Council of Europe met in Rome and signed an agreement that included this phrase: "Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principle of international law."

For more information, visit the web site of the European Court of Human Rights. The full court decision and dissent is available here.)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Fire guts a Metro Manila squatter community

A weekend fire tore through a squatter community in Makati City, part of Metro Manila. There are few details, according to this Manila Times brief. Makati is a divided city, home to Manila's central business district and many flashy shopping streets (Makati alone boasts a half dozen 5-star hotels), but also to extremely poor squatter areas on the east side of town (see the city's official website and wikipedia.)

Saturday, November 19, 2005

What's a little Murambatsvina among friends?

Beijing tries its hand at Zimbabwe's game, and bulldozes Suojiacun, a landmark artist's colony.

The artists are not squatters. They bought their studios from a developer, but the homes turned out to be illegal. Beijing is not prosecuting the developer, only ejecting the residents.

Interestingly, the city's official website recommends that travelers visit Suojiacun. Oops.

[thanks to Michael Ashkin for alerting me to this story]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Kolkata confidence

Squatters in Kolkata are extra vigilant now that the court ordered time for them to sign eviction papers has passed. They have urged all residents of the Gobindapur Railway Colony to keep their lights on, so they have advance warning if the police make a sudden push to drive them out. The squatters hope the state government will find new land for them before Nov. 30th, the final date set by the court for their eviction, The Statesman reports.

World Toilet Day

One third of the world's population doesn't have access to proper toilets--although the situation is actually quite a bit more bleak, as the statistic counts pit latrines (a seat is placed over a deep hole) as adequate. That means that Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya, where more than 500,000 people live with only shared pit latrines, might not even be included. The Guardian has the scoop.

A sensible stand

This sounds fair: Squatters in Kolkata are being required to provide written documentation of their willingness to move--so they have adopted a sensible response: they will not provide their written promises until the government promises in writing to provide them with new homes. Read about it in The Statesman

In Italy, a leftist takes on immigrant squatters

Squatters can't even trust progressives to be sympathetic anymore. The leftist Mayor of Bologna, Italy has destroyed a riverside squatter village, according to this Reuters dispatch. The politico, Sergio Cofferati, is apparently playing to the city's rising anti-immigrant sentiment after a massive influx of new arrivals over the past two years--an 18 percent jump from 2003 to 2004, and another 20% jump through October 2005. Immigrants now account for 8 percent of Bologna's population. Cofferati called in the bulldozers to raze a squatter encampment set up by immigrants from Romania. He claims he wants to provide better housing for immigrants, though many of those whose homes he destroyed are being deported.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Politics and the promised land

The Kenyan government is promising land to rural squatters throughout the country, in an effort to win their support for a new constitution that would reduce democracy, The East African Standard reports. The proposed constitution, up for a vote on Monday, Nov. 21, would consolidate power in the office of the president. A constitutional review commission had suggested a more democratic structure, requiring the president to share some powers with parliament and the judiciary. The governing National Rainbow Coalition split over the proposal. President Mwai Kibaki and his allies want to keep centralized power. Opponents within the government suggest that the plan is a power grab and will return the nation to the dictatorial strongman tradition of former president Daniel arap Moi.

Rail Roko

Squatters in Kolkata did blocked commuter rail tracks for two hours yesterday, and, in response, the state urban development and municipal affairs minister promised that the government would try to find land where the squatters can relocate. But that's still far from a firm commitment of no eviction without relocation. Things are set to climax Nov. 30th, when a court order requires the squatters in the Gobindapur Rail Colony to clear out or be moved out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Squatters gear up for civil disobedience in India

Kolkata's Gobindapur Rail Colony squatters are ready to engage in civil disobedience in their fight to avoid being summarily evicted next week, according to his report from The Statesman.

Though I can certainly imagine what the words mean, if anyone out there is fluent in Hinglish (Hindi-influenced English), could you please help me pin down the exact meaning of the two things the squatters say they are going to do: rail roko and dharna.

Monday, November 14, 2005

More squatter evictions in Zimbabwe

In violation of a court order barring evictions without proper relocation housing, 300 squatters, who were roughing it in crude encampments in the poor Mbare neighborhood of Harare have been packed into trucks and relocated out of town, according to this report from Cape Town's Independent newspaper.

Also, International Herald Tribune reports that, though the squatters have been scattered, the scorched earth policy followed by Mugabe is still quite evident. The paper cites Killarney, a former squatter neighborhood of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. What once was an impoverished but vital community of 800 families is now a forlorn patch of dirt. "Before the demolitions," writes reporter Michael Wines, "it was dirt-poor but thriving, subdivided into three villages with stores and services. All that has been razed and burned." This description is telling: "Today, Killarney is a moonscape of sunbaked dirt, scrub and burned-out rubble."

Sunday, November 13, 2005

New American Squatters?

A colony of 50 on the edge of the suburbs in Solano, California, as profiled in the San Francisco Chronicle. Unlike squatters in the developing world, who head to the cities to get a piece of the action, these rural revolutionaries present themselves as rugged individualists at a remove from the trappings of commercial society. It'll be interesting to see if their community survives, and even grows.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

United Front

Not a single one of the 20,000 families in the Gobindapur Rail Colony in Kolkata has signed up with the police to indicate their intent to vacate their homes, reports The Statesman. The court ruling mandating eviction requires all community residents to be gone by the end of this month. And where are they supposed to go? The police and the politicians and the judges don't care.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Rhino squatters headed to court; Kolkata squatters headed to street

Residents of the well-known Geneva squat Rhino have approached the federal courts to annul the order mandating their eviction by Nov. 22. If I understand the French of this swissinfo article correctly, the squatters argue that the eviction deadline was created by executive fiat, whereas there should be a court ruling before such a final action is enforced. Therefore, they argue, the high court should stop the ejectment plan.

Halfway around the globe, Kolkata's (that's Calcutta for those not initiated to the non-colonial spelling) Gobindapur Rail Colony squatters took to the streets today to protest the court decision that is forcing their eviction. According to this article from The Statesman, the squatters vowed to carry brooms and chili powder as defensive weapons against potential police violence.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Demonstration to support Rhino

A thousand people demonstrated over the weekend in Geneva in support of the squatters at Rhino, the Swiss news service Edicom reports (in French). The squatters have collected 11,000 signatures on a petition against the eviction. The government claims that it is attempting to find replacement housing for the approximately 70 people who live in the building, which has been squatted in for 17 years.

65,000 Manila cops are squatters

That's 56% of the police force, reports The Manila Times. The newspaper reports that the cops will get a pay increase next year. But don't count on that to make them move. I knew cops in India, Brazil and Turkey who were squatters. It's a question of how much apartments in legal neighborhoods cost.

Can governments across the developing world please think: if cops are squatters, then squatting is not breaking the law. If public servants are squatters, then squatter communities are not blight, but are simply affordable neighborhoods. Sometimes they're the only affordable neighborhoods in cities that otherwise make no provision for the poor.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Statesman

Squatters in one Calcutta community don't intend to move, though their homes border a busy railway line, the Statesman reports. Gobindapur Rail Colony is a neighborhood of 20,000 families who have all been given until Nov. 10th to pull up stakes by the Supreme Court. But the squatters are adament about fighting the eviction. The residents have demanded replacement housing be provided close by, as their jobs, family networks, and schools are all in the area.


An interview with a martial arts teacher from Rocinha, from Gringoes, a web site about things Brazilian. A sensible excerpt:

What are common mistakes that foreigners make in Brazil?

They think the life here is all about playing and not working. Play is important but, we all need to live, so work is important. My American friends who come to visit me always ask about the women. Women are strong here. Never underestimate women.

They think where I live in a favela, is always dangerous, this is not true. I think there is more danger in the asfalto because tourists stay there. The thief will find you there, not come to my neighborhood. There is no crime in my neighborhood. The only crime is when the police come to invade.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Government Alone Can't Solve the Housing Shortage

Another example of why government programs alone are not the answer to the housing shortage: Halfway through an ambitious 1.3 billion rand ($194 million) program to build affordable housing in Alexandra, South Africa, the program seems an abject failure, report The Star. Only 639 of 22 250 planned housing units have actually been built.

It's time for governments everywhere to stop scratching their heads. The solution to the global housing crisis is to figure out how to work with squatters. It's more cost-effective, more realistic, and can be achieved at a greater scale, than pushing squatters out and building new social housing.

Squatter Microbes

This BBC dispatch about the impending eviction of the squatters who have lived on St. Agnes Place in London for better than 30 years features a revealing quote from a local politico:

Lambeth councillor Keith Flitchett said the squatters had been living "as parasites on council tenants for years, and the sooner they are out the better".

When the facts and morality aren't on your side, call 'em names. Isn't it the politicians who are the parasites? The squatters are just people attempting to live in self-sufficiency.


This short dispatch, in French, reveals a municipal offer to relocate Geneva's Rhino squatters elsewhere in the city.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Supply electricity to squatters, Mubarak orders

Now this is just way too sensible to believe: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak wants the government to supply electricity to squatters. Amazing what a bit of political opposition will do: turn a dictator into a populist.

Rasta squat

The squatters of St. Agnes Place in London have been in their homes for better than 30 years. This alone ought to qualify them for permanent residence status. But the local council in Kensington wants them out.

Officials of the Lambeth council are making contradictory arguments in support of the eviction. The Guardian claims that 22 of the squatter-occupied buildings will be replaced by social housing. But it also notes the argument that redevelopment is necessary to regenerate a rundown area plagued by crime and asserts that on the open market the homes, surrounded by parkland and close to the mass transit, could each fetch around £500,000.

Many of the squatters are Rastafarians, but there are also Brazilians, Moroccans, Poles, Germans, Spaniards, Indians, and, of all things, Brits.

Why can't they just stay in their homes. Thirty years ought to qualify as a possession right, if not a property right.


More on the eviction order at Rhino, a Geneva squat that has been in existence for 17 years, from swissinfo.

It's the classic political strategy. The public prosecutor says the "illegal tenants" must be evicted by Nov. 22nd to allow the landlord to build large, low-cost flats. Yeah right: the building's privately owned and, as this swissinfo article on the housing crisis in Geneva notes, landlords contend that they cannot make money because of a governmental regulation that two-thirds of all new homes built in the canton (the swiss version of a state) be cheap and affordable.

Yet that's exactly the route this private owner says he's going to take.

Think about it: the squatters saved the building after it was abandoned. For 17 years, they prevented it from decaying. And now they're willing to pay rent. "We have always been prepared to pay rent since the beginning," one of them told swissinfo. "The goal has been to have a communal lease, but the offers that have been made to us have been crazy."

The landlord bought the building in 1998. He knew there were squatters there. He knew they had been there for a decade. Their occupation was open and notorious. Why is the government now doing his bidding?

China Drops Residency Restrictions -- but does it really matter?

Rich cities, poor countryside, open migration, no squatters. China seems to think it can have it both ways, according to this article from The New York Times, about the plan to end the hukou system that tied residents to their rural areas. But it seems like a game of bait and switch, for the government may revoke residency restrictions in 11 of the country's 23 provinces, but it expects that cities will assume greater control over the inflows. Migrants will still have to register and be accepted by municipalities. Thus, historian Qin Hui, of Qinghua University in Beijing, tells the paper: "The cities will become places where the relatively well off live. Beijing is not going to look like New Delhi, or even like Bangkok."

The move comes in response to growing social disparities and unrest in the rural areas. In addition, China boasts a floating population of 140 million migrant laborers, who are still counted as rural residents even though many of them have resided in cities for a decade or more, working on some of the country's mega-development projects. How will the rule change affect them?

Why the sudden attacks on Europe's squatters?

Why are several European cities, which have great histories of tolerance, suddenly going after squatters? The two squats mentioned in a previous post--Rhino in Geneva and Christiania in Copenhagen--are everything people say they want squats to be: orderly, long lasting, well-run, communitarian, good neighbors. Christiania, in particular, is a huge and stable community. Over the decades, it has become part of the city's fabric, even serving as a tourist attraction, pulling in an estimate million visitors a year.

So why are the authorities moving to wipe these communities out?

Here are some thoughts. Please feel free to argue with/extend/add to this is comments. Let's have a robust political dialogue.

1. A loss of spirit: The original squatters, who were political, communitarian, and highly motivated have largely lost that fervor. More and more, the squats became simply places to live, and squatters themselves more individualistic.

2. Losing a public profile: The squatters also have ceased to have a high profile public presence and have mostly lost the support of the rest of the city. We are in an acquisitive, consumerist time, and people see the squatters as getting something for nothing, rather than as standing for a noble cause of a better life for all.

3. Fear of violating public order: Politicians like keeping people fearful of terrorist attacks and threats to public order, because with fear they will turn naturally to the security of concepts such as the strict adherence to property rights. Anyone standing counter to that is, in this thinking, a kind of terrorist.

4. Property values: Cities have become much more expensive (we should also be thinking about why this is, and why we accept it) and increasingly people are buying into the landlord-led argument that apartment buildings that are held out of the market (squats, rent control, public housing, etc.) are actually making rents higher for the rest of us. This is nonsense, of course (my landlord is illegally overcharging half the people in the building, but he has yet to offer to lower my rent), but it seems to be seductive nonsense for many people.

A century and a half ago, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said property is robbery. Half a century ago, Andre Gorz modified him, noting that in the highest forms of capitalism, robbery is poetry. Today, property rights seem to be considered the route to salvation. Why? Come on guys: pile on. Just what is going on in the developed world that has made these communities suddenly so undesirable?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A Rocinha photo essay

Evocative Photos of Rocinha by Brooklyn's own Gabriel Ponce de Leon (a great guy and good friend, I should note) were on display in Rio's subway and have been posted in the online mag no minimo. What's nice is that these are not bang bang, shoot shoot shots. They show the simple things of everyday life. There's also an interview with him (in Portuguese) here at viva favela.

The Super Powers of a Superpower

This article from the Financial Times detailing the European Union's list of 150 changes in Turkish governance that would be required for Turkey to join the EU reminded me of my time trucking around Istanbul's gecekondu (squatter) neighborhoods. It was after September 11, 2001 and during the ramp-up of rhetoric before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and this is what I wrote at the time:

Istanbul, July 28, 2002—I’ve been here in the city of the sultans for almost three months, and America the superpower follows me wherever I go. You are American, people say. What do you think about September 11th?

I tell them all that I live in New York, that I stood on my roof and watched the Twin Towers fall. But that’s not what most people want to hear. They want theories, not facts. And regarding September 11th, the left, right and center all agree: It was an inside job.

To left-wingers, it was an act designed by the CIA to give America protective coloration for its imperialist doctrine of world domination. The U.S. is a superpower, my socialist friend Zamanhan tells me. Who else but the American intelligence services could fly a plane into the Pentagon, a building which has a defense system designed to shoot down anything that gets within three hundred meters of it (they have this system in Ankara, he notes, so how could they not have it at the Pentagon.) Besides, he adds, the U.S. covertly funded Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban when they were warring against Soviet occupation. Once an operative, always an operative: these were CIA agents at work.

The right believes it was economic at root: an act designed by the military to help rebuild the American economy by bolstering the war machine in the wake of the dot com collapse. The U.S. is a superpower, Mustafa, a soft-spoken fundamentalist who works for the municipal government in the deeply religious suburb of Sultanbeyli, tells me. How is it possible that this little group based in the mountains of Afghanistan could have penetrated America’s high tech air defense system? How is it possible they could have come and gone from the U.S. so freely. How could America not have known this was happening? It must have been planned by the military so that the government can spend billions and billions of dollars on new missiles.

And Ali, who is mostly moderate in his views, insists that the attack was engineered from within to give the U.S. a reason to invade Afghanistan, which he claims is strategically important because it gives the America a base of operations from which to control Asia, the Middle East, and even the former Soviet republics. The U.S. is a superpower, he tells me. It wants to control all these regions. And anyway, how could it not know immediately that four planes were hijacked and where they were heading? How could it not have shot them down? This was clearly an inside job.

Of course, some people also mention Israel. If the superpower didn’t do it, then its friends the crafty Israelis must have. The MOSSAD security service, they say, has the power to have made this happen, and is in league with the CIA anyway. What’s more, a fundamentalist friend added, everyone knows the Jewish ideology is for world domination and to make everyone else serve them.

In a conspiracy-laden world, the facts don’t matter—-and here’s my personal favorite, advanced by a very smart and sober man. I have read, he told me, that the World Trade Center was built by the Japanese and a rival firm wanted to prove that the technology used to build such skyscrapers could not withstand extreme heat. So it arranged this all to prove that the construction technology was unsafe.

Everywhere I go, I am America’s roving answer man. Why is America friends with Israel and not the Palestinians? Why does America want war with Iraq? Why are American cops always beating up black men? Why does America go around causing so much trouble in the world? Why does George Bush hate Muslims?

I remind myself that Istanbul was the capital of the world’s superpower 500 years ago. If a Turk had suddenly appeared in a working class area of London in the 16th century, it’s likely he would have been treated far more rudely than me and asked far more shocking questions.

Recently, I was sitting in the shade of a brick pile drinking tea with a group of ten or fifteen people—-family and friends who were recovering from a wedding that had taken place earlier in the week. We were silent for a while, and then a muscular man with a stylish goatee spoke up: What do you think about Turkey joining the European Union? I rejoiced: Finally, a political question that did not involve the U.S. and its super powers.

Tell me what you think, I said, because I think this is for the Turks and the Europeans to decide.

I think it’s a good thing, he said, but there’s one problem: I have heard that if we do join, America will seize Cyprus.

Why the hell would America want Cyprus? I asked.

He smiled and shook his head knowingly: America is a superpower, he said, and it will not let us do this without getting something in return.

Trading places

I've got a suggestion for the Zimbabwean judges who complain that they can't stop taking bribes to fix cases because they are starving and their lives are too hard: why don't you give your homes over to one of the many thousands of families who were made homeless a few months back by Operation Murambatsvina and try living on the street. Most magistrates are paid less than seven million Zimbabwe dollars ($270 US) a month, the Zimbabwe Observer reports. Hmmm. Most of my squatter friends in nearby Kenya lived on less than $40 a month. I'm sure the situation for hundreds of thousands of squatters in Zimbabwe is comparable. Each one of them would gladly trade places.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

End of Tolerance?

What happened to end a generation of tolerance of the squats in Copenhagen and Geneve, asks writerPhilippe de Rougemont (article in French). In Geneva, the residents of Rhino, a well-regarded squat, are scheduled to leave their homes on Nov. 22nd. Christiania, the hippie squat that became a tourist attraction in Copenhagen, drawing a million visitors a year, is apparently slated to give way to luxury condos now that a law mandating the privatization of public property has gone into effect. With scant political clout and a dwindling sense of cooperative organizing, the squats lost public support and seem to have little ability to protect themselves from the wrath of tough prosecutors and local governments.