Thursday, June 30, 2005

Tsunami as excuse

The poor, who were the most horribly impacted by the Asian tsunami six months back, are being victimized again by the rebuilding, reports Scott Leckie, executive director of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.

"Thailand, India and other affected countries have restricted the right to return but Sri Lanka stands out as the tsunami-affected country which has sought most dramatically to re-shape its residential landscape through the reconstruction process," Leckie writes in a piece called The Great Land Theft. Essentially, poor people are being denied the right to return to their ancestral holdings within 100 or 200 meters of the shore (for those up on Sri Lanka's coastline, the buffer zone is 100 meters in Kilinochchi, Mannar Puttalam, Gampaha, Colombo, Kalutara, Galle, Matara and Hambantota and 200 meters in Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara), while rich private owners are being allowed to rebuild in the same risky areas.

"The re-building process has been painfully slow with almost no new homes yet constructed in the most severely affected areas," Leckie writes, adding, "In Sri Lanka, hundreds of thousands of tsunami survivors continue to live in temporary shelters or tents some six months after the disaster. Reports indicate that the government has plans to build new housing four or five – in some cases even 14 – kilometres from traditional coastal villages. This will have a serious impact on peoples’ livelihoods, especially fishing families dependent on the sea and immediate access to it. When one visits temporary resettlement sites in Sri Lanka, it is not difficult to get the feeling that tsunami survivors are going to be waiting for many years before all of the housing that is needed is actually in place. "

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The UN is coming, the UN is coming

UN Habitat chief Anna Tijaijuka has arrived in Zimbabwe to assess the evictions there.

It's interesting that Zimbabwe's Operation Murambatsvina is first translated as 'Operation Restore Order' but further down in the article is rendered as 'drive out trash.'

Some other interesting items in this press release:
# a new UN report indicates that around the world there are about 6 million people who are being evicted or threatened with eviction.
# the building of the Lyari Expressway in Pakistan is threatening 250,000 families
# thousands of squatter families are threatened with eviction in the state of Para in Brazil
# in some of the Indian Ocean tsunami-stricken areas, authorities are preventing displaced persons from re-entering previous settlements under the guise of the future risk of another Tsunami [note: I recently heard from some members of the US affiliate of Engineers Without Borders who confirmed that locals are being prevented from returning to their homes in coastal areas but that tourist hotels are rising on these sites. This blatant land grab is an absolute outrage.]

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Organized squatters can claim land ownership

Here's a nifty trick. Mumbai's squatters actually have the right to force the government to give them the land they live on, as long as 70% of them come to the table and agree. It's all in a 1976 law that most people have forgotten. That's what architect Chandrashekhar Prabhu tells The Hindu Business Line. If this is true, it's a bloody scandal that more communities haven't petitioned the government for land. Does anyone out there know anything more about this?

Something for squatters in Mumbai

After months of living on the rubble of their former homes, Mumbai's squatters will get some relief, NDTV, India's 24-hour TV news channel, reports. Maharastra's Chief Minister, who had previously ordered tens of thousands of shanties demolished and proposed pushing the newly homeless families outside the city limits, is now offering to allocate them temporary plots within the city. Still, as the TV channel notes, with the monsoon rains already started, "it could be too little too late."

Planting trees to prevent landslides

In Rio de Janeiro's favelas, residents have planted 4 million trees to save their hillside homes from landslides and erosion, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Sewers are Sensational

Canadian Business has an interesting article on a topic much on peoples' minds in the developing world: sewers. Did you know this: "Mumbai delivers an estimated 2.2 billion litres of largely untreated sewage into its harbour and the neighbouring Arabian Sea every day."

No shit!

Well, actually, yes shit.

Sewers can be life and death matters for the poor.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

UN: let's study the problem

UN-Habitat head Anna Tibaijuka will journey to Harare soon to study the evictions in Zimbabwe, the Mail & Guardian reports (see also this dispatch from the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks.)

UN Habitat is usually quite genteel and seldom offers firm criticism of any country's strategies towards squatters. So I'm not sure what this study can do. Still, if it can make a difference in people's lives, I'm all for it.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


Vislumbres, the blog of Vikrum Sequeira, who is volunteering as a teacher in a Mumbai community center, offers a compelling tour of the Gazdar Bandh slum, located in Mumbai's Santa Cruz West neighborhood.

(thanks to Dilip D'Souza for sending me the link.)

Even Condoleeza Rice finds Zimbabwe evictions awful

The most recent horror: in Harare two children were crushed when authorities tore down their homes. This wide-ranging BBC NEWS dispatch gives the sorry details.

Condoleeza Rice calls the evictions "tragic." A state department spokesman calls them a "tragedy, crime, horror." But what are they willing to do to support the squatters?

Sanity in Rio

I inexplicably missed this gem from yesterday's New York Times (thanks to BC for calling it to my attention.)

The governor of Rio de Janeiro has revoked a plan approved by the state legislature to build a wall six-and-a-half-feet high along some main thoroughfares in the city of Rio to block them off from squatter slums. Lawmakers had endorsed the proposal in order to shield motorists from the gun battles that often break out between drug trafficking gangs in the slums and to obstruct robbers who take to the roads and assault commuters. But the governor, Rosinha Mateus, said in her veto of the measure that the plan "would be a form of discrimination against good citizens who make up the vast majority of these communities."
It's great to know that some politicians understand that you can't wall off one-fifth of a city's residents.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Zimbabwe Slum Dwellers Are Left With Only Dust

This dispatch from the LA Times starts with an amazingly vivid and harrowing story: a family forced by police to destroy their shanty only to have their two-week old daughter die of exposure overnight. Read it and weep. Actually, no, read it and get angry.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Institute for War and Peace Reporting

A strong piece on the Zimbabwe demolitions from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Consider this: "As police in full riot gear moved in to torch shacks using petrol, many residents tore down their own homes to salvage some of the building materials." Victoria Muchenje, whose shack in Mbare, a densely populated township just outside Harare, was destroyed in the government pogrom, told the IWPR, “We are suffering, we have nowhere to go. Our children are not going to school, we are sleeping outside everywhere. If you walk, everywhere you see people sleeping in the road.”

The site also features some absolutely crushing photos. See them here.

If this doesn't convince you of the evil of this demolition drive that concerned Zimbabweans are comparing to Pol Pot's "Return to Year Zero," nothing will.

Another Zimbabwe Outrage

According to this article from the Zimbabwe Independent, the Mugabe government is blocking non-profits from offering assistance to the 300,000 squatters whose homes and businesses were destroyed early this month.

It's an interesting but little-known fact: in countries around the world, humanitarian groups have to ask the government for permission to assist the needy. Without official permission, there's nothing to be done.

All the more reason, then, for squatters to form strong local organizations. Local action is the key to squatter survival.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The man says the right thing

So strange I had to click to it twice to make sure it was true: New World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz has labeled the evictions in Zimbabwe 'a tragedy.' I hope he'll be consistent and find all squatter evictions wrong -- and not just those in countries whose governments he doesn't like.

Coke. Guns. Booty. Beats.

Alex Bellos, who covered Brazil for The Guardian, gets the skinny on the bailes funk, all night dance parties that run in many of Rio's favelas and are sponsored by the local drug gangs.

Friday, June 17, 2005

What lies behind the Zimbabwe demolitions?

The Zimbabwe government's drive to evict squatters is political, because the opposition had deep support in urban squatter areas, the BBC reports.

Shacking Up

Carol Lloyd, who writes the 'surreal estate' column for sfgate and the San Francisco Chronicle, spoke with me last week and in this column, titled Shacking Up, she confronts the idea of communities that are, as she puts it "doing the unthinkable: inventing cities without speculative real estate."

The article also features a few of my photos from inside some of the squatter communities.

Lawyers Charge Zimbabwe with Human Rights Violations

A group of Zimbabwean lawyers has accused the country of human rights violations in the mass eviction of squatters. The numbers are staggering. The lawyers say 1 million people are affected. The government shouts back that its less than 20,000. Of course, either number is incredible and horrific.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Zimbabwe Squatters Go to Court

Residents of a small squatter community in Harare have filed a lawsuit challenging their eviction. The judges of a lower court have ruled that the squatters forfeited their claim that they were given the rights to build by the government when they failed to file building plan applications for their homes. This case is now being appealed.

Of course, if successful, this case would only affect the small group of squatters who were explicitly relocated by the government. And, in a country where the ruling party influences all branches of government, it may be difficult to get a fair hearing.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Zimbabwe's False 'Cleanup'

In an important mainstream acknowledgment of an ongoing tragedy, The New York Times has discovered Robert Mugabe's war against Zimbabwe's squatters. Times reporter Michael Wines writes: "In shattered Harare-area townships like Mbare and Mabvuku, a slum of about 100,000 people 10 miles east of Harare, the homeless sit beside furniture and clothes rescued from the destruction. There and elsewhere thousands sleep in the open, on farms and urban streets, in Zimbabwe's near-freezing winter nights." The Times labels the massive demolition of squatter shacks, "a sweeping recasting of society, a forced uprooting of the very poorest city dwellers, who have become President Robert G. Mugabe's most hardened opponents."

Also, the BBC notes that what I noted in my last post was true: the general strike was poorly organized and did not cause the Mugabe government to pause in its drive to root out urban squatters.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Mugabe speaks on squatters -- incoherently

Squatters have called for a general strike in Harare to protest Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's drive against them. Mugabe, as detailed in a prior post, has made 200,000 people homeless and arrested 30,000 after demolishing their homes. This Associated Press dispatch quotes Mugabe as calling the demolition campaign "a vigorous cleanup campaign to restore sanity."

It is, rather, Mugabe who is acting insane, if he thinks that destroying the homes people have lived in for years will improve their lives.

Sadly, the article also notes that, since only about 6 percent of Zimbabwe's 12 million people work in formal sector jobs, a general strike might wind up being impossible to implement and thus a failed protest strategy.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Should favelas be open source?

Hmmm. Wiring the favelas with open source software (thanks to Matt Hall for sending this BBC clip my way) seems to be a case of poetic justice. Thus intellectual property mirrors private property.

Question: thought it's fine for favela residents to have Internet access, why does this kind of infrastructure always seem to take precedence over organizing and empowerment?

Sunday, June 05, 2005

World Vision Radio

World Vision Radio, a feature show that airs on Christian radio stations in the United States, featured Shadow Cities on its broadcast this weekend.

Patriotic and worthy

The Hindu, a fine paper based in Chennai (aka Madras), India, reviews Shadow Cities.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

$9 million for Kibera from Sweden

The Embassy of Sweden is putting 67 million krona (approximately $9 million) into the upgrading of Kibera. Almost one-third of the money (or $3 million) has been allocated to non-profits, the rest to the Government of Kenya for construction.

Though the Swedish government argues for "participatory and pro-poor methods" and for "residents of informal settlements to actively participate in upgrading processes," I've been told that so far most people in Soweto Village (the area of Kibera slated for new construction) have not been clued in to what's going on for fear that any news will spark violent tribal confrontations over who will get the newly built apartments.

So the government and the NGOs get the money. I'm not against harnessing outside investment for Kibera, but I wonder whether an 'upgrading' project could be fashioned that would work with existing residents to figure out how they want to improve their homes rather than imposing a building plan from outside. True empowerment would be a wonderful thing.

Trouble with Kibera plan?

A recent report in the Kenya Times alleges that rich outsiders are trying to scam the UN-sponsored upgrading of a portion of Kibera by registering as residents so they can get the free or low-cost apartments that will be built.

Though the Kenya Times is not always the most reliable paper (it is the house organ of KANU, the political party of former strongman Daniel arap Moi), real estate interests have long been trying to grab a portion of Kibera, and it's not farfetched to think that they're at it again.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Swiss squatters?

No, not a contradiction in terms. Squatting is a universal phenomenon. I was in Geneva back in April and found that, though the city's squatters don’t live in shantytowns or mud huts, they have a long history. What’s more, like so many others around the world, their homes are being threatened.

It’s fair to say that, compared with the developing world and even with their brethren in New York, Geneva’s squatters live in pretty high style. Their buildings seem indistinguishable from the legally occupied houses around them.

Perhaps this is because its Switzerland—well organized, clean and orderly.

But it may also be because Geneva’s squatters took control of buildings that were in reasonably good shape when they moved in. Geneva scrupulously honors property rights, but has many laws regulating development. From what I’m told, many of the squatters took advantage of development disputes to grab buildings that were not vacant due to abandonment but primarily because of political wrangling, zoning conflicts, and speculative warehousing. In New York, by contrast, many squatters on the Lower East Side took over buildings that had been abandoned and rotting for years. Most had fallen into city ownership through foreclosure. In some cases, the squatters had to rebuild their buildings from the inside out—replacing beams, installing new staircases, and even rebuilding bulging brick walls that were about to collapse.

In Geneva, I visited a squat called Rhino (the name comes from a giant red rhinoceros horn hung on the facade.) It was late at night and we (Olivier Talpain, who used to live there, brought me there, with a few other friends) and cafe/club on the ground floor was booming. A rock band had set up in the corner and was pounding out tunes to an appreciative audience. I expected hard core, the kind of rowdy, beer sodden, punk extravaganza I’ve seen in squats in other cities, but Rhino was mellow and inviting.

Sadly, however, though the squatters started as radicals, they seem resigned to the fact that their days may be numbered. A decade ago, there were 2,800 squatters occupying 120 buildings across Geneva, according to Romed Wyder’s 1995 documentary called, simply, Squatters. But, for the past few years, Daniel Zappelli, the local District Attorney, has been on a drive to evict squatters. Apparently, once a building plan has been approved, the government can petition the court for the right to evict squatters. Though there were protests early on (see this story from 1993), it now appears that most will not resist. The owner of a skate shop in a squatter zone told me he would relocate when ordered to do so. He said he was prepared to test the property market and find a new, legal space. The squatters of Rhino, too, have been told they will have to vacate – and they, too, seem resigned to leaving without a fight. The number of squatters that remain -- perhaps 1,200 -- seems destined to fall.

It’s sad that the city's squatters no longer seem inclined to organize. They have created homes and businesses which have become integral and exciting parts of the city. Geneva will be less interesting and less dynamic without them.

Why not allow squatters to stay?

Squatters in Cebu City in the Philippines have petitioned the government to allow them to settle legally on lots owned by the government. If successful, this would be a great step forward and a model for squatters in other countries to pursue. Without such an innovative strategy, the squatters would be forced from their homes and the lots fenced in. Not so different from the calamity that hit a small squatter community elsewhere in the region: demolition.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Thousands homeless as Zimbabwe police raze shanty communities

As this report from The Guardian shows, the Zimbabwe government has embarked on a drive to crush squatters in the country's cities. Perhaps 650,000 people could become homeless in Harare if the demolitions continue (other newspapers suggest that the true number of Harare squatters is over a million.) It's a humanitarian disaster (see the Zimbabwe Star) And the government is vowing to intensify the demolition drive (see The Herald.)

Imagine having the home you have lived in for decades destroyed on a whim of the government. Squatters may be living in substandard conditions, but they are ready to work in partnership with willing governments to improve things. As the Guardian reports, thousands of families are sleeping in the open as winter sets in, taking temperatures down to 4C (39F) at night. Brutally destroying homes and telling families they should go back to the rural areas ("where they belong," Harare's top police official said) is simply bully behavior and should outrage anyone who cares about human rights.