Thursday, March 30, 2006

Mumbai's land mafia

This report, from the 24-hour news channel NDTV shows how squatters are forced to pay off politicians and their cronies to get a foothold in the city. Here are some chilling words: "occasional demolitions make it easier for slumlords to make a profit."

demolition in Istanbul

Police sprayed tear gas and used water cannons against against squatters in the Sariyer/Derbent neighborhoods, Hurriyet reports. This is interesting, as Sariyer is a reasonably well-off neighborhood, and not the kind of far-flung area where squatters normally thrive.

Young slaves of Mumbai

Hidden in the squatter communities of Mumbai: workshops that depend on the slave labor of thousands of children. The Indian newsweekly Frontline reports.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

One every second

That's the number of people moving to squatter communities in the world's cities, according to this piece by Jennifer Rowell, the urban adviser for Care International, in The Guardian. It's a shocking statistic (though I've done the math, and it's actually too low: the reality is that 2 people become squatters every second.) Rowell writes: "People in many slums are treated as though they have no rights to education, to clean water or to fight eviction. But those rights are theirs. And, as their numbers grow, so too does the need for urgent solutions." I'd second that, with this proviso: the people themselves are the root of the solution.

Rowell's piece was a response to a heartfelt piece on urbanization in China, which you can read here.

[thanks to Edesio for the link]


A UN official has endorsed secure land rights for squatters in Africa. "For the majority of our people, land is vital for survival," Abdoulieh Janneh, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa said in a speech at the opening of a four-day workshop on 'Land Policy in Africa.' "Therefore, a meaningful structural economic transformation that results in employment and improved living standards for the majority of Africans will partly depend on securing land rights to millions of our people."

Demolition drive relaunched in Mumbai

Twenty-four hour TV new channel NDTV reports that the state government is again demolishing home in India's commercial capital. This is simply unconscionable. The city must respect squatters -- and that means, at the very least, not engaging in summary demolition and, instead, working with squatters to come up with alternate plans. Even the reporter understood: "Clearly, the problem of encroachments in the long run requires a much deeper solution."

Where are the leaders?

One Small Project

Archinect offers a terrific interview with Ball State U Architecture professor Wes Janz.
The leftover is a potent category; synonyms include waste, debris, rubbish, as well as surviving, unconsumed, and outstanding. Someone or something typically seen as worthless can be understood simultaneously to be worthwhile.

I like this shifted perspective. Is a "slum" a place of poverty and pain, as well as a place of vibrancy and life? What will the self-builder teach me, an architect? Am I the homeless one? Have I lost my way?

Now, I’m working bottom-up, one person and one small project at a time, taking seriously the displaced family, the claimed space, the scavenged brick. It’s the cascading energies of small responses and helping moments that interest me.

For more on Wes Janz and his approach to development, visit his group site: One Small Project.

rip off

Hundreds of squatters in Berhampur, India were chiseled out of their meager savings by unscrupulous operators who promised them a chance at 'free' land--for a fee. Read all about it in The Statesman.

I saw a similar cheat take place in Kenya -- where people handed over large amounts of money to be assured a place in a United Nations-backed redevelopment plan. It was, of course, pure thievery.

These kinds of things happen in areas where governments are corrupt and ward bosses regularly take money. When corruption is the norm, people are more apt to believe that these criminal 'pay to play' schemes are legit.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Gentrification in Istanbul

After a ban on foreign ownership was lifted, the price of property in Turkey's largest city jumped 85 percent last year. This year prices are predicted to almost double again, according to this Reuters article . And here's something that ought to concern all gecekondu residents: "potential redevelopments of Istanbul's shantytowns and earthquake-vulnerable buildings could also fuel growth."

Redevelopment is one of those great real estate code words. It means eviction and replacement with high priced housing.

a pretty good trick

Sixty squatters are studying at Cape Town's College of Magic, the International Herald Tribune reports.

In another South African news story, squatters in Durban have sued after their homes were bulldozed by a private developer.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Police torch 1,200 squatter homes

In Kenya, police are moving against squatters who have built their homes on the margins of national parks and forests. The East African Standard (via has the details.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Displacement fears

Squatters in Ahmedabad say a riverfront development project, intended to beautify the city, will destroy their homes and livelihoods, Express India reports.

"We have been living here since before the country got its independence," squatter leader Mohan Bundela told the news agency, adding that luxury development in the area came long after the squatters had taken the riverbanks. "Leaders and politicians want us here for their votebanks. But we are not supposed to seek proper relief and rehabilitation. This has to change,"

score one for Rhino

The squatters of Rhino can sleep easier now, as the Federal Tribunal rejected the landlord's argument for a provisional eviction. Swissinfo reports (in French.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

misery loves company

Squatters aren't the only ones living without water, sewers and electricity. In Nairobi, the Inter Press Service reports, middle class housing is going up all around town without any infrastructure at all. "Developers are erecting buildings before authorities have laid on certain basic infrastructure," the news service says. "Besides an absence of piped water and electricity, there are no access roads; developers simply create their own - while finding ways of tapping water and electricity from miles away."

It seems that true power lies in the hands of the real estate developers.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Shootout in Rio favela

Less than a week after the army occupied the city's favelas, a gunfight between the cops and bandidos in a Rio squatter community leaves eight dead, BBC NEWS reports.

Delhi squatters protest demolition

It's about time: Thousands of Delhi squatters take to the streets to protest demolition. "I have been living in my house for the past 30 years and now the authorities have asked me to vacate the place," a fruit vendor told

Squatters say they account for 2/3 of the city's population--and in a democracy, that ought to give them some power. India is a democracy, isn't it?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

City Vision

After the elections at the beginning of this month, the Democratic Alliance outmaneuvered the African National Congress to take control of Cape Town's City Hall. This letter to a South African news agency tells why:
the ANC has failed to deliver on its promises....You cannot ask people after many years of struggle and ten years of freedom what needs to be done.
The issue now is doing it.
In Cape Town we want land, we do not have land.
We want decent houses or flats and not just toilets and shacks.
We want to stay around Cape Town, not in marginalized squatter camps anymore. We want free education, jobs and grants for unemployed people, grants for all sick people and children under 18 years. People want a fighting government that is committed to redistribution of wealth and not just promises about economic development.
Economic development is a liberal theory which serve the interests of the very same white people who stole our wealth.

These are words local governments in every mega-city in the developing world should take to heart.

latest favela chic: classical music

Now planned for Heliopolis, a Sao Paulo favela: a $6.6 million classical music center. As a former French Horn player, I'm all for music training. But I wonder whether a massive investment like this is the way forward. In tandem, there should be some concrete benefits for all Heliopolis residents.

Perhaps sewers, water, legal electricity would be good ideas. The community should organize to demand these things in concert with the new concert facility.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Former soldiers confess to stealing weapons

The skinny from Rio: two ex-soldiers confess that they helped steal 11 guns from a military depot. They told authorities they were working with some drug traffickers from the notorious Complexo do Alemao favela. But here's an odd detail: ten days after the theft, the guns were rusty. Sounds like a comedy of errors to me. The traffickers have lots of guns. They don't need eleven more. And if they did need them, they wouldn't let them rust. The details just don't add up.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Treating More Than Just HIV/Aids

The UN's IRIN News Service offers a peek at AIDS treatment and counselling in Kibera. I hope this story is not just wishful thinking, because when I was in Kibera, there was an incredible amount of stigma regarding AIDS. I urged a good friend of mine to get tested after his cousin died of AIDS. He refused, saying that he did not want to become "a walking coffin."

"We have come to take your souls"

There's a local arms race in Rio de Janeiro.
"Imagine an official armored vehicle, emblazoned with a skull and a sword, with police who come in shooting – first at the streetlights, then at the neighbourhood’s residents… this is the caveirão. An eleven-year-old boy had his head torn off his body by shots which came from the caveirão – and we, the residents, still have to prove that it was the police."

That's a resident of Rio's Caju community, quoted in Amnesty International's report trashing Brazilian authorities for using caveirões--armored vans turned into military assault vehicles (the word itself means 'big skulls')--in their operations in the densely populated favelas.

Amnesty says that the use of caveirões is creating an arms race, which ratchets up the violence in the favelas: "In response to the caveirão, drug gangs have reportedly been buying sophisticated grenade launchers and high-powered rifles to penetrate the caveirão’s armor.

In a related story, here's the latest on the guns stolen from the military and recovered after an armed siege of several favelas: two soldiers have confessed that the heist was an inside job. Note, though, that the guns were not found in a favela, but rather in the woods off a road in ritzy Sao Conrado.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

my god martha, they're stealing electricity!

One of the sad facts of life as a squatter is that it's extremely difficult to get legal electrical service. Though this BBC NEWS article begins by pointing the finger at squatters in India's capital, a power company official says that the firm actually loses more money from middle class Delhi residents who tamper with their meters that it does from unauthorized squatter hook-ups.

I applaud Tata power for offering a flat rate for squatters to be able to get legal electricity, but 179 rupees a month is expensive for many squatters, particularly if it will only power a light bulb and a fan. I knew Mumbai squatters who worked two jobs and earned as little as 800 rupees a month. How can that family justify paying more than 20% of their income for electricity?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

favela farce

The Brazilian army ended its siege of 10 favelas without having recovered 11 guns that sparked the massive military incursion into several Rio de Janeiro squatter communities, The Independent reports. (See also: Reuters and the Associated Press.)

As I have noted before, the fact that the drug gangs get their weapons from the military has been well-known for years. As I report in my book, a military policeman with decades of experience in the favelas, told me that his squad routinely seizes crates of brand new weapons--assault rifles, grenades, handguns, etc.--that have come straight from the military.

It's also true that 99 percent of favela residents are not involved in the drug trade. Still, they prefer the traffickers to the cops or the army because the drug dealers are communitarian and invest in their hillside neighborhoods. I'm sure that the celebrations as the army pulled out involved more than jubilant drug dealers.

Now that the tense confrontation is over, here's a question I'd like the Brazilian media to answer. With all the guns that have been commandeered by the drug gangs over the years, why did the military suddenly go crazy over 11 guns that were stolen ten days ro so ago? There's got to be more to the story.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Great idea, one caveat

The government of the island paradise of Domenica has promised that it will sell land to squatters for 37 cents a square foot. "Every Dominican will have a piece of Dominica," vowed Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit.

Terrific! My one caveat: with 30 percent of its people living in poverty and 23 percent unemployment, even that discounted rate might be prohibitively expensive for the average squatter.

Shantytowns as a New Suburban Ideal

New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff meets Teddy Cruz, an architect who thinks of Tijuana's shantytowns as a new suburban ideal.

Here's a representative quote
As Tijuana has expanded into the hilly terrain to the east, squatters have fashioned an elaborate system of retaining walls out of used tires packed with earth. The houses jostling on the incline are constructed out of concrete blocks, sheets of corrugated metal, used garage doors and discarded packing crates — much of it brought down by local contractors and wholesalers from across the border.

Once such a settlement is completed, it is protected from demolition under Mexican law — and the government is eventually obliged to provide plumbing, electricity and roads to serve it. In Mr. Cruz's view, the process is in some ways a far more flexible and democratic form of urban development than is the norm elsewhere.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

search for stolen guns

With checkpoints on Rio de Janeiro's highways and a stormtrooper presence in nine favelas, Brazil's army pressed its search for eleven guns stolen from a local army depot, the Associated Press reports.

But, as the article notes, this "massive sweep to recover a handful of weapons" is, to put it mildly, "unusual" and, despite the presence of 1,500 troops, the army has yet to find any of the stolen guns.

That the traficantes have serious weaponry--often stolen from the armed forces--is nothing new. It has been known for years. The question is, why all the fuss now, particularly over ten assault rifles and a 9mm pistol?

Why isn't the army looking inside itself? The thieves were dressed in army regulation camouflage uniforms. How did they get them? And they apparently moved in and out of the arms depot with ease. How did that happen?

Given that the military is looking in favelas controlled by the Comando Vermelho, including Morro do Providencia and Mangueira, this would lend credence to rumors that the authorities actually favor a rival drug gang called Amigos dos Amigos.

So far, one teenager has been gunned down, caught in the crossfire between the army and the drug dealers at Morro do Providencia, not far from Rio's famed central railway station.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

with organizing, the future is now

Thirty-two squatter communities in Pune (outside Bombay) have gained a degree of legitimacy by organizing. Now they have a public budget and can avoid the petty corruption of local officials. Express India has the details in this brief story.

soldiers search favelas for lost weapons

The Brazilian military has sent 1,500 soldiers into Rio's favelas to search for a dozen weapons that were stolen late last week. Bloomberg has details. There's something strange here. At the same time that people in the favelas are opening hotels catering to tourists (see previous post), the news is full of shootouts between Brazil's drug gangs.

So Mangueira is barricaded in. Morro do Providencia is full of unrest. The army is using armored personnel carriers against Brazilian citizens. An ugly, ugly scene. As one cop confessed to me, the army is in on the arms trade and the drug trade. So all of this is perhaps a charade.

asfaltização, 2

Now it's a home in Chapeu Mangueira, on the hill overlooking Leme and Copacabana Beach, that has been transformed into a hotel. The Guardian reports.

Check out the price: £13.40 a night. That's about $23. Sure it's cheaper than Copacabana. That means that renting one room for a week, this family would earn more than my landlord in Rocinha charged me for a whole apartment for a month.

Perhaps it's inevitable but there is a risk to this profiteering--that it will ultimately make the community less affordable.

Monday, March 06, 2006

a different conception of property rights

You might not expect a real estate article in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine to offer much of interest about different conceptions of property rights around the world. But Steve Hendrix's entertaining piece on how he became the owner of a seaside villa in Guatemala offers some items that might make people rethink their fiendish devotion to the right of property in land.

Forget the colonialist implications (he's aware of them) and revel in the joys of customary ownership:
It is, as it turns out, illegal for foreigners to own waterfront property in Guatemala. Armand [who functioned as his real estate agent] said not to worry. "It is an old law," he said. It came out "Eeet eeeze zan old law" in his beguiling Grenoble accent. The regulation traditionally has had more to do with coastal defense than with lakeside properties.

We also would not get a deed to the land, or any of the other ironclad niceties that are such a comfort to American property owners and their nervous-Nellie bankers. The land would remain officially "owned" by the local village; we would get something called a "transferable right of possession." Land title reform is just beginning in Guatemala. Armand said not to worry. "Here it is normal," he said. "It is a small village. Everybody will know it is your property."

In the United States, a modern real estate transaction contains within it every transaction that ever went before -- and went wrong. Every lead-paint lawsuit, disputed deed and property-line catfight is reflected in the hours of certificates, waivers and addenda you are forced to sign at the closing table. There are dozens of them, culminating in the ultimate litigious absurdity, the form that pledges you to come back and sign any forms they may have forgotten to give you. The overwhelming emotion of new homeowners in America is writer's cramp.

Not so in Guatemala. The contract that indentured us to a tiny piece of Latin America came as a single Word attachment and was about four pages long, double-spaced. We couldn't read it, of course, but we ran it through a free Internet translation engine and assured ourselves that our names were spelled correctly. Otherwise, it remained gibberish. ("Both comparacientes declare, one after the other that in the terms briefed in this writing the obligations accept for himself that of the same one are derived.")

invisible to the decision-makers

The Voice of San Diego shows how degraded conditions in the colonias of Tijuana are directly related to environmental degradation there and miles away in San Diego. A welcome change: the environmentalists working on cross-border issues do their best not to blame the residents.

the right way to relocate squatters

The Venezuelan government is taking an active role in relocating squatters who live in areas where landslides are a risk, the Daily Journal reports. Though replacement housing may not be available right away, at least the government is working with people to provide a mechanism for getting them out of homes in gullies and other areas that will likely wash out in rainstorms. In 1999, 50,000 people may have died in a round of terrible landslides on the outskirts of Caracas.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

when the dump is the key to life

Picking through the refuse of Manila's garbage dumps is an industry that employs 150,000 people, most of them squatters.

Gangs fight for Brazilian slum

KnightRidder reports something contrary to what my Rocinha friends say. In previous posts, Rocinha residents said that the six people who died in the Comando Vermelho invasion were all bandidos--the bad guys. This article suggests that five were simply innocents caught in the crossfire.

Could my Rocinha readers please respond?

And here's something revealing: "The day of the shootout, hundreds of state police officers responsible for patrolling slums such as Rocinha were at a pre-Carnaval beach barbecue about an hour away. Law enforcement officials admitted days later that they'd received tips about the planned invasion but had been unable to prevent the fighting, even though the invaders had crossed much of the city in a heavily armed convoy of vans from another slum above the tourist-packed neighborhood of Copacabana."

In other words, the cops didn't want to intervene, which only serves to fuel people's suspicions that the cops are on the take from the drug gangs and thus are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Rio readers: let me know what's going on.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


An enterprising Rio de Janeiro favela resident has created a hotel in Pereira da Silva, a favela that is above Rua Pereira da Silva in the the middle class neighborhood of Laranjeiras, according to this Reuters report.

While this may bring money to the favela, it's part of a process that favela dwellers call asfaltização--the asphalt world coming to the informal world of the favelas. It's the favela version of gentrification--and some feel that it does not bode well for the future of the favelas. After all, if five people stay at the hotel for $15 a night, it would only take two nights for the hotel owner to earn more than what my landlord in Rocinha charged for a whole month.

I'm not against individual gain, but given that math, it may be tough for favelados to keep their homes.

Friday, March 03, 2006

DEVELOPMENT-KENYA: Portrait of a Shantytown

A somewhat overdone portrait of Kibera, from Inter Press Service News offers the view of one family. Still, it's a rather privileged example: if Paul Opiyo truly earns $20 a day at his job, that would be ten times more than many Kibera residents earn. The descriptions are a bit over the top (Kibera does not stink from the moment you walk into the community) but there's much here that's shockingly accurate.

The article ignores the potential power in incrementalism. If, as it notes at the end, residents are skeptical of all the NGOs because they haven't made a damn bit of difference in the community, it's also because those groups concentrate on these big ideas like upgrading. A single paved road in Kibera would save dozens of lives because ambulances and emergency vehicles could get into the community (today, if you're sick, you have to be hauled out of the community in a wheelbarrow). Laying city water pipes, even in one part of the community, would mark a huge improvement in people's lives. Going in and doing an official and totally transparent analysis of structure ownership would reveal the network of payoffs and corruption that allow the shantytown to flourish and permit rich people to own the mud huts and rent them to Kibera residents for a massive profit. For instance, I know for a fact that an official of the federal justice ministry owned a number of huts in Kibera, and was busily involved in evicting people who were not from his tribe and gauging tenants for too much in rent. That man simply ought to be given this choice: 'give the huts to their residents or you will be fired.' What he is doing is incompatible with justice.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


UN-Habitat chief Anna Tibaijuka reveals that her agency is changing its focus from improving conditions in slums to preventing them altogether. Scoop has the scoop. It's a worthy goal. But how? Master planning (which essentially involves criminalizing any deviations from the plans) simply shunts poor people to less valuable turf. Perhaps the world has to confront a tremendous fiction we've all come to accept: the idea that there's actually something called a housing market, fueled and regulated by supply and demand.

a different view of the police

Kibera residents in danger of losing scarce open space for a police substation take to the mud streets. The East African Standard reports.