Thursday, December 24, 2009

fire in Sodom & Gomorrah

The Accra squatter community known as Sodom & Gomorrah has had its fourth fire of the year. This one claimed 2,000 structures, but no lives, Joy Online reports.

The squatters "had difficulty accessing water to bring the fire under control, because some of the [water] pipelines had been disconnected because they had been illegally connected," the article reports.

This, of course, is a form of official discrimination against these communities. Don't provide water and don't allow illegal connections to function either. This policy marks a war of attrition against squatters.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

a bridge too far

The Times of India asks if the 100-year-old Reay Road bridge, which was manufactured in the UK and assembled on-site in Mumbai, needs restoration.

The paper states, "Once the solid brick extensions and black plastic sheets covering the structure are removed, the bridge will seem more striking than the common wall of stone it appears to be."

Of course, for more than a generation, the bridge has also been home to hundreds of families. The Times of India calls it "a squatter's paradise."

But there is a history here. "My mother was born and raised on this bridge and now I am married into a family living here as well," one resident tells the paper. It may not be ideal to live in a makeshift shelter on a bridge, but you can't just trash homes people have lived in for generations in the name of historic preservation.

Monday, December 07, 2009

A new home in 1,178 years

That's how long it will take for all the residents of Kibera to receive new apartments in the current upgrading scheme if it continues at its current pace, Coastweek reports.

The article, by a reporter for the InterPress Service, also notes that the homes being built are actually shared apartments: two families sharing each two-bedroom apartment.

The article offers a sensitive portrayal of the complicated passions and position of the Nubians, Kibera's original residents, who have voiced some of the most vocal resistance to the UN's so-called upgrading project.

The Nubians were originally from North Africa and were conscripted into service in the British colonial armed forces. Ultimately settled in this valley on what was then the outskirts of Nairobi, documentary evidence suggests that the British government promised them title to at least some of the land on which they were living.

From the article:

The Nubian community has resisted moving into the new apartments and instead vowed to stay put in the informal structures until government gives them adequate compensation; the community is the most well-established in Kibera, with many families renting accommodation to other residents.

The Nubian community says they have never been consulted about the upgrade.

Yusuf Diab, secretary general of the Nubian Council of Elders, argues that the government and donors came into their community with a "know-it-all" approach and assumed all residents of Kibera live on less than a dollar a day and will eternally depend on handouts.

"We may live in this informal structures but that does not mean we do not have finances. We as a community stick to our culture of generations living together in one house. But this does not mean we are poor.

"If you come into our homes we have all the facilities that affluent people have and despite being informal we have enough room to accommodate our large families," he says.

He wonders how a household of up to five generations is expected to reside in one room sharing the toilet, bathroom and kitchen area with another family.

"This plan would turn us into government tenants for the rest of our lives."

Saturday, December 05, 2009

'from the inside'

Squatters in Buenos Aires have started their own newspaper, Inter Press Service reports. Desde Adentro (From the Inside) is written by residents of the community called Villa 1-11-14. Agustín Garone, one of the writer/editors, told IPS that the intent is to "generate an image that contrasts with the labels put on us by the big media outlets, which associate poverty with crime, and thus only generate negative views of the neighbourhood." Buenos Aires is a city of 13 million, and right now the paper has a tiny print run of just 3,000.

It's a great idea, and very necessary, even if they are starting small.

One caveat, though: IPS reports that Desde Adentro is financed by the Buenos Aires city government. So how independent can it be?

refugee camps are no refuge

There are now 160,000 Africans living in Yemen, the United Nations Reports. Awdal News Network has the story of the semi-permanent camps the UN runs outside of Yemeni cities. Many refugees report being told to leave the camps and go to the cities.

Yet life in the city is full of despair. "Refugees say they face constant discrimination. Abi Abyah al-Manah, an Ethiopian refugee who heads the Mandated Refugee Association in the capital San'a says Africans are subjected to arbitrary arrests, violence, sexual violence and extortion by the authorities and the local people."

Just say no in Rio

From Rio de Janeiro, two distressing tales:

1. Crack is expanding its hold, The Final Call reports. Shocking fact: "The amount of crack seized by the police this year in Rio was six times the total confiscated in 2008."

2. But here's what not to do about it: hire Rudy Giuliani. Brazzil reports that the Rio city and state governments are bringing in the former NYC mayor as a security consultant. Giuliani was wrongly given full credit for reducing crime in NYC. The biggest factors in the reduced crime rate, actually, were the disappearance of crack (this started before Giuliani took office) and the resurgence of immigration, which had dropped precipitously during the 70s and recovered only modestly in the 80s. A million new New Yorkers arrived in the 1990s, bringing their energy and a newfound stability to many previously dangerous neighborhoods.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

make 'em pay taxes

New Mumbai Mayor Shraddha Jadhav wants squatters and street hawkers to pay taxes, the Indian Express reports.

After winning the Mayoralty, Jadhav issued a press release that said, "All unauthorised industries, small business, slumdwellers and hawkers who are doing business or staying illegally should be made to pay taxes. A policy should be in place and this will also help the BMC [Brihan Mumbai Corporation, the official name of the municipality] raise its revenue"

It doesn't appear that the Mayor, who is a member of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, has an actual proposal to present to the council. And she certainly hasn't understood that if she expects squatters and vendors to pay taxes, they will understandably expect benefits from her government, rather than the harassment and demolition drives that have been the hallmark of previous administrations' policies.

Monday, November 30, 2009

NYC foreclosures

The Daily News highlights the situation in South Jamaica, where subprime loans and subsequent foreclosures have had harsh consequences on many streets.

The article's terminology is a bit misleading, though: most of the people quoted are not really squatters. They were renting the homes when the owners hit financial trouble and, essentially, abandoned the properties. So they are not squatters. They are tenants. And there ought to be a law that, when owners abandon a property, the tenants get the opportunity to keep the electricity on--because burning candles and kerosene lamps can lead to fires. If the owners walk away from the properties, the banks should also make an effort to keep the services on for the tenants who are left in dire conditions through no fault of their own.

Monday, November 23, 2009

denial in Delhi

Rather than do anything to improve the lives of squatters and street hawkers, the Mayor of the Indian capital wants to force them to get "bio-metric, bio-cryptic photo identity cards" and proposes to charge them 400 rupees--or almost $9 each--for the privilege.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Manila eviction

780,000 squatters will soon lose their homes in the Philippine capital, Manila Standard Today reports.

There definitely need to be some changes to avoid more deaths due to flooding. But where will the city put these people? Don't they have rights? Shouldn't the city be working with them to find appropriate solutions?

Jakarta's Housing Shortfall

Jakarta needs about 70,000 housing units every year to cater to its growing population, but the city administration is only able to provide 20 percent of that figure. That's one of the facts contained in this worthy article from The Jakarta Globe.

'Soweto' in Rome

Ponte Mammolo is a mostly Eritrean shantytown in the center of Rome. SF Bay View has the details, including a short youtube clip.

Check out this horrific detail: in order to avoid detection and deportation if they are arrested, these immigrants often try to remove their fingerprints so they cannot be identified:
There are three ways commonly used to remove fingerprints. Refugees burn their own fingerprints and palm prints with a lit cigarette. This painstaking and slow process can take several hours. It leaves their fingers and hands in constant pain and unusable. Soon blisters appear and infection can spread.

Another method used by many refugees is to place their hands directly over a gas, charcoal or electric stove or immerse them in scalding water to remove their fingerprints and palm prints. This is no less painful than using a lit cigarette.

The third process requires rub sandpaper against their skin. It may seem comparatively less painful, but not so. Two or three days of rubbing their fingers and palms with sand paper to entirely remove the top skin leaves their hands raw and bloody.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Going Dutch

The Netherlands seems poised to demolish the 1970s law that made squatting legal so long as a building had been vacant for a year.
'On Thursday, a parliamentary majority consisting of centre-right parties voted in support of the so-called Squatting Ban, a bill drafted by Christian Democrat MP Jan ten Hoopen. Housing Minister Eberhard van der Laan has already let it be known that he will not stand in the way of the bill. While not a fervent advocate of the ban, he regards non-occupancy as "an issue that's too important to be left to the squatters".'

Radio Netherlands Worldwide
has the sad details.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

air war in the favelas

Bandidos in Rio shot down a police helicopter over the Zona Norte favela Morro dos Macacos after police apparently tried to intervene in a battle between two rival drug gangs--Amigos dos Amigos, which controlled the favela, and Comando Vermelho. (The picture here seems to show burnt out buses on the edge of the favela (hint: I don't know of any favelas that have traffic lights.) So far, authorities have said that 12 people have died.

The Guardian has details.

Two interesting facts:

1. "Hundreds of police officers descended on the area following the invasion" by the Comando Vermelho. This is significant because when I was in the favelas (eight years ago, which, I admit, in the fast changing world of the drug traffickers, can be considered ancient history), Amigos dos Amigos was known to be in cahoots with the cops. Indeed, a veteran police officer confirmed this to me. So no one should discount the possibility that the police were taking sides in this fight.


2. The drug gangs have "an increasingly sophisticated arsenal, including anti-aircraft guns and automatic rifles, often sourced from inventory intended for the Bolivian and Argentinian armies and smuggled into Rio." Isn't that a big story? These arms are undoubtedly stolen from official shipments. How can this be happening and isn't there a way for officials--including those in the U.S., which is most likely supplying the weaponry--to prevent it?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

the African National Congress vs. The People

Fresh from its victory in the Constitutional Court, Abahlali baseMjondolo now reports that five more of its leaders from the Kennedy Road community in Durban have been arrested. That makes 13 Abahlali members charged with crimes. Meanwhile, no one has been arrested or charged or even implicated in the recent violence that left 2 dead in Kennedy Road.

Now, an article in The Witness suggests a political motive in the attacks and arrests: the Kennedy Road group had pushed for new regulations reining in shebeens (informal bars), which have been open 24 hours a day in Kennedy Road. The community wants these places to close by 10. At the same time, local ANC leaders are irked by the political independence of Kennedy Road and Abahlali, which is a community organizing group and thus does not endorse candidates for office.

From the article:
The community’s new liquor regulations have angered local shebeen owners who found common cause with powerful ANC branch members who resent the loss of the powerful Kennedy vote bank. This is why the government immediately arrested eight members of Abahlali baseMjondolo a day or two after the attacks. This is why, this past weekend, they arrested another three members of the movement. This is why not a single shebeen owner or militia member has been arrested.

So it's a Nazi-style 'shebeen putsch' by the African National Congress in Kennedy Road.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

SA Court overturns eviction statute!!!

Abahlali baseMjondolo has won a major legal victory: The Constitutional Court of South Africa has declared the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act illegal. The Act, cloaked as an attempt to moderate and mitigate bad housing conditions, actually made it easier for the government and owners to evict and eject squatters throughout the province.

You can read the court's judgment here, though oddly, the dissent comes before the controlling decision.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

fire in SP favela leaves 1,000 homeless

An overnight blaze in a small favela called Diogo Pires, in the western zone of São Paulo, destroyed the entire community, the Associated Press reports.

There's more, in Portuguese, from Folha de São Paulo.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

'a profound disgrace to our democracy'

That's how Ruben Phillip, Anglican Bishop of Natal, characterized the violence against members of Abahlali baseMjondolo that left two people dead and a dozen injured. The Bishop made no bones about where blame lies: with local African National Congress cadres:
"The fact that the police have systematically failed to act against this militia while instead arresting the victims of their violence and destruction is cause for the gravest concern," he said, adding there were "credible claims that this militia has acted with the support of the local ANC structures. This, also, is cause for the most profound concern."
Religious Intelligence has more.

bahamas fire

A fire in 'The Mud,' a mostly Haitian shantytown in the Bahamas, has left 39 people homeless, The Tribune reports.

The Mud and neighbouring Haitian shanty town Pigeon Pea is thought to house around 3,000 Haitian migrants and Haitian Bahamians on an area of land opposite the main port in Marsh Harbour....
The settlements were established around 30 years ago and have been growing without any imposed health and safety regulations....
Many residents have legal status to live and work in the Bahamas....
Random raids orchestrated by the Immigration Department with support from the Royal Bahamas Defence Force attempt to crackdown on the illegal population, but have been shrouded in complaints of brutality....
Residents of the Mud claimed families were separated and residents were beaten, threatened and robbed by officers in the last large-scale raid in July.
This brings up an issue common throughout the world. Migrants, who arrive in a country as economic refugees, are unable to afford legal housing. Most of these people work. Quite a number of them are legal immigrants. But they are forced to live in precarious conditions for years. And then when the predictable fire breaks out, they often are the ones who get blamed.

homes of 400,000 people at stake

In the wake of the awful flooding two weeks ago that claimed 300 lives, a Philippine official has argued that 400,000 squatters must be relocated to make the city's drainage better. Agence France Presse has details.

Laguna Lake Development Authority chief Edgardo Manda told AFP, "I have made a strong recommendation to remove these people from the danger zones and not allow them to go back." He asserted that, "the authorities would probably need to erect barricades and station sentries in these areas."

Well, not if the politicians choose to work with the people to come up with appropriate solutions.

What's more, why are squatters the only ones asked to sacrifice. Consider: as the article notes, "chaotic urban planning, or no planning at all, exacerbated the crisis, particularly around Laguna where shantytowns, factories and housing developments have overtaken farms."

So what about the factories and housing developments? Is anyone proposing that they be evicted?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

support Abahlali, support justice

Supporters of Abahlali baseMjondolo are circulating an important letter to South African President Jacob Zuma. It is designed to push for safety, security, democracy and an impartial investigation into the ethnic cleansing that took place last week in the Kennedy Road shack settlement.

You can read it and sign it here

Monday, October 05, 2009

a real view, maybe

Two Portuguese filmmakers have released a documentary about Complexo do Alemao, arguably the most notorious favela in Rio, The Latin American Herald Tribune reports.

"People have a stereotyped image of what a 'favela' is – they’re afraid of anything that comes from there, so our intention was just to eliminate the clichés and let people see the truth," moviemaker Mario Patrocinio said.

The film is scheduled to be released in early 2010, so we all will be able to judge for ourselves.

Friday, October 02, 2009

rights and wrongs

The metropolis of Accra seems poised to evict squatters in the communities of Sodom and Gomorrah and to push out the traders at Agbogbloshie market, the Joy newpspaer and Peace FM report.

Here's a doozie: while giving lip service to the human rights of squatters to live in better conditions, Alfred Okoe Vanderpuije, head of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, told reporters that he is "in negotiations with the Electricity Company of Ghana, Ghana Water Company and other utility providers to halt the provision of their services to the slum."

So, in order to have them live better, he will cut off their water and electricity.

Let's call this two-faced approach what it is: duplicity.

Remember, this is the same politician who said in prior articles that there were plenty of vacant apartments that the squatters could rent in Accra.

The government is also pushing merchants at the local market further out of town, according to another article from Peace FM.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

intimidation vs. organizing

A new video from Abahlali baseMjondolo documents the appalling violence in Kennedy Road and the uncommonly brave response of Abahlali's community leaders.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

'we have been arrested, beaten, killed, jailed and made homeless'

Another amazingly eloquent statement from S'bu Zikode, President of Abahlali baseMjondolo. Despite having had his home and possessions wrecked and ransacked in the recent violence in Durban's Kennedy Road squatter community, Zikode sees the bigger picture. He has lost none of his humanity:

"The strength of the movement, the strength of those who are supposed to be weak and silent and powerless, is taken as a threat," he writes. "Our crime is a simple one. We are guilty of giving the poor the courage to organise the poor. We are guilty of trying to give ourselves human values. We are guilty of expressing our views.....We are calling for close and careful scrutiny into the nature of democracy in South Africa."

He signs his letter this way:
"Sibusiso Innocent Zikode
President of Abahlali baseMjondolo (and, consequently, political refugee)"

Monday, September 28, 2009

violence in Kennedy Road

Violence over the weekend in Durban's Kennedy Road shack settlement seems based on simmering resentments between Zulus, who dominate the community, and Xhosas, who are in the minority, South Africa's Daily News newspaper reports. Two people died, the News reported on Sunday

The squatter movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has long been active in Kennedy Road, reports that none of the perpetrators have been arrested or even detained, and asserts that the violence is continuing despite the presence of the police and ANC leaders. Apparently, one of the shacks that has been destroyed was home to S'bu Zikode, one of Abahlali's most vocal leaders.

Friday, September 25, 2009

a Kabul squatter community

The Seattle Times visits a squatter community in Kabul. The back-story may be murky, but the truth is not: these are economic refugees, forced by the ravages of war, if not the violence itself, to leave their homes and come to Kabul, where at least they have a hope of survival.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

a toxic scandal

In 1984, the Chilean government allowed processing company PROMEL to dump 21,000 tons of Swedish toxic waste near the city of Arica, in the far north of the country. Later, the government allowed shantytowns to be built almost directly on top of the waste.

LA NACIÓN (via The Santiago Times) reports that residents "were then plagued by a wide range of ailments, including arthritis, cancer and impotence. There was no explanation from the government until health authorities acknowledged the problem in 1998 and cleaned up much of the area’s waste. The government then declared the area contamination-free, although it failed to acknowledge the extent of the harm done to local residents by not disclosing results blood tests."

Now the Chilean government will relocated 1,800 families--but only homeowners will get benefits. And local residents say the government's relocation plan ignores 8,000 others who live in neighboring shantytowns.

The government estimates that the clean-up and relocation will eventually cost about US$600,000 per family. That's alot of money (the article suggests that it amounts to the largest residential relocation in Chile's history), but I wonder how much of that money is really going to the residents, and how much to the companies that are doing the environmental remediation.

ten thousand to be evicted

Ten thousand squatters occupying land near the airport in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia face eviction on October 1st, the Daily Observer reports.

"Most of us here came during the war and have absolutely no hope elsewhere. If we get abruptly removed from here, where do we go?" squatter leader Garmonyu W. Boe told the paper. "We cannot even afford to rent a room here in Monrovia since a single bedroom costs at least US$10. This is an amount that most of us cannot afford."

"There are no evacuation options from Government’s end. These people need to go to where they came from," Richlieu Williams, Director General of the Liberia Civil Aviation Authority, responded.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bullets over Brazil

A fierce and impassioned take on the gun violence that plagues Rio's favelas, courtesy of Open Democracy. Refreshingly free of cant and nonsense. The article quotes a former Military Police leader acknowledging that the police are themselves involved in weapons trafficking.

And some observers feel that a culture of normal violence has been created.
"Arms no longer provoke fear in a population that is so used to bullets and the sound of gunfire," says peace activist Leonardo Pimentel from Jacarezinho favela, a few miles down the road. "Things you used to only see in Haiti, Gaza Strip or Iraq you see here now. There's a naturalisation of the presence of arms. When I was young every kid's dream was to be a police officer," he continues. "In the mind of young kids today the police are the enemy, because they killed their brother, their friend, their uncle. Their dream is to kill a police officer."

And there's this acknowledgement of the class-bound nature of the concern over violence:

William Alencar is a resident of the Favela do Timbau in the huge Maré complex. He is also a sociology graduate from Rio's prestigious Catholic University (PUC), where he studied on scholarship, and now works as a teacher. He illustrates the intersection between poverty and insecurity with the following example from his own life. "When I was an adolescent I was in a football team. Out of 15 people that were involved, 10 have since died. Out of the remaining five, I'm the only one to have studied at university. Violence itself hasn't increased [since then]," he believes. "Since the 1980s we have stories of violence. It's just that now there are heavier arms available and now violence has spread throughout the city. While the violence was within a space that wasn't affecting the Brazilian elite, that was fine. But when it started to arrive in the big streets, in the asfalto [asphalt - a synecdoche commonly used to refer to any urban areas outside the favelas], the [middle classes] started to get concerned."

slum clearance?

The UN has broken ground on its Kibera 'upgrade,' the BBC reports.

I know they say they're relocating people into new housing that will cost $10 (747 Kenyan shillings.) And I know the photo of the relocation housing looks basic but OK.

Still, the BBC doesn't say how far away the relocation housing is, and whether it is subsidized and for how long it will be subsidized, and whether it will make it more difficult for people to commute to their jobs.

Every time I see a bulldozer smashing into someone's home, I get a sinking feeling. What will become of the land in Kibera that the people are being asked to vacate?

(see also a related story here)

UPDATE: The Daily Nation has a somewhat more complete story about the start of relocation in Kibera. For instance, it notes that this is a pilot program of just 600 apartments, built at a cost of 500 million Kenyan shillings--or almost $7 million. That's $11,000 per unit.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

squatters invest in infrastructure

In Suva, the capital of Fiji, where one in five residents is a squatter, shantytown residents banded together to pave an important road. Radio New Zealand has details.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

More 'Let them eat cake!' in Ghana

King Tackie Tawiah III, one of the traditional rulers of downtown Accra, is in favor of evicting squatters from Sodom and Gomorrah. That's the news from the Daily Guide. "Let the government take the boldness of steps in ensuring that Sodom and Gomorrah is rid of the squatters," he told the newspaper.

squatters doing good in Prague

Speculators, many of them foreign-based, prefer to leave the building unoccupied and decaying rather than budge from their hoped for resale price or redevelopment plans even if these prove to be unrealistic.
Radio CZsuggests that squatters have achieved one positive thing: they have drawn attention to the city's epidemic of vacant structures. According to the report, squatter organizations now have a short list of 80 buildings in the Czech capital that are ripe for occupation.

Michael Zachař, director of the Czech National Institute for the Preservation and Conservation of Monuments, tells the station that the government is powerless to force owners into taking far-reaching or rapid action. "The law recognises, for example, the possibility of dispossession but the moment the owner carries out even some partial reconstruction, the law regards this as a sign of intent and good will."

So owners get to keep houses vacant. And the police keep arresting squatters. Doesn't seem fair, somehow.

Friday, September 11, 2009

oh, those dirty squatters....

The Accra Metropolitan Assembly now argues that the 50,000 people living in Sodom and Gomorrah, as the Ghanaian capital's most notorious squatter community is called, are stalling an environmental project that will clean the waters of Accra's lagoon. Peacefm quotes AMA Chief Executive Dr. Alfred Vanderpuiye: "We are pumping money [into this project] and then we’ve another gateway pumping rubbish and feces [back] into the lagoon. Much resources have been wasted…even our donor partners are accusing us of high level of irresponsibility…That is the main reason why the project has stalled. They are putting up structures, buildings and expanding into the lagoon."

This is a classic strategy: call squatters dirty. While it may be true that the community is expanding into the lagoon, the way to confront this is to negotiate with the community to police its own boundaries. And the way to stop indiscriminate garbage dumping and sewage runoff is well-known and simple: to provide garbage pickup and sewers.

And here's Vanderpuiye on how the government will treat the squatters: "There is no compensation whatsoever to be paid to these squatters. There is no budget to compensate the nearly 50,000 people, who will be rendered homeless. Look, we’ve areas in Accra urgently requiring development assistance like schools, hospitals, etc… where they will relocate shouldn’t lie with me alone…there are so many rental places in town so they can go there."

Doesn't the good doctor know: people are living in the squatter community exactly because they can't afford those supposed "rental places in town" that he boasts of. His response amounts to a modern version of "Let them eat cake."

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

no room for refugees?

Just what does it mean to call an eviction ‘an open and first rate operation’? That's the question I'd ask French Immigration Minister Eric Besson who told The Daily Mail that the government will destroy "the jungle," an improvised shantytown of refugees near Calais.

The French government seems to be demonizing the refugees. The tragic fact that an Afghan people smuggler raped a Canadian journalist last summer should move the government to catch and prosecute the perpetrator and to crack down on human smuggling. But this one horrible crime doesn't mean all the 1,000 refugees camped out in the woods around Calais are rapists. And, as the article notes, 'the jungle' only exists because then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy shut down a local red cross center in 2002.

Ghana's national security risk?

The government of Ghana has labeled the squatter community known as Sodom and Gomorrah as "a risk to national security" and intends to evict the 40,000 residents and demolish their community, The Daily Graphic (via Joy Online) reports.

A follow up story by peace fm notes that the government intends to push the residents out "without any form of compensation or relocation as earlier planned."

Human Rights advocate, Nana Oye Lithur has spoken out against the forced eviction, saying that the squatters must be offered replacement homes or should take action against the government.

Ghana's government seems to be following a sadly familiar script. Allow the community to fester. Then blame the residents for their material deprivation. Act as if all crime emanates from that one community. And, based on the repugnant defamation of all the residents, make no offer of negotiation, assistance, or compensation.

Wouldn't it be more sensible for the government to offer to redevelop the neighborhood in partnership with the squatters?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

doctors without borders in the favelas

The excellent NGO Doctors Without Borders (aka Medecins Sans Frontieres) is now working in the famous Complexo do Alemao in Rio de Janeiro, the BBC reports. The group has won the approval of local health authorities to set up shop in the embattled Zona Norte community, which has long been one of the most violent in Rio. The medical group is offering psychological counseling to residents who have lived through gun battles.

Talk therapy, of course, is not structural change. It does nothing to confront the fact that most favela residents are caught between two powerful and heavily armed gangs: the drug traffickers and the police. And it remains unclear if the MSF is also offering medical services in the favela, or whether its efforts only involve counseling. But it is an important first step.

UPDATE: MSF informs me that its doctors provide emergency medical care in Complexo do Alemão. According to the group's activity report, its clinic conducted more than 11,000 consultations in 2008. This is terrific news (and thanks to Pete Masters for sending it my way.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

violent eviction in Sao Paulo

The Guardian offers disturbing footage of this week's squatter eviction on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

What kind of government does this to its people? Tear gas and smash down several thousand homes. All because a bus company owns the land the people are on.

What about negotiating? What about determining the relative needs of the people vs. the needs of the bus company? What about families and their children? This is just inhumane.

[Thanks, bfunk, for sending the video my way. All hail subtopia!]

Monday, August 24, 2009

class and race as factors in squatting

A fascinating article in Yemen Times introduces the concepts of class and race into the debate over squatting.

Several decades-old squatter communities in Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, are dominated by people who are part of "a minority group in Yemen known as “al-akhdam,” which literally means, “the servants.”

"Despite the fact that akhdam communities are Muslim with a Yemeni heritage older than Islam, they are often isolated, discriminated against and live in slums that are short of water, sewage, healthy food, available education and security," the article notes, adding, "An ancient, fading class system unites the akhdam as a group. Their collective identity appears to originate from Ethiopians who conquered and settled in 6th Century Yemen. They have, however, been in Yemen as long as any other group, and self-identify as Yemenis."

So, North Africans whose presence in the country dates from before the spread of Islam now live in squatter neighborhoods called mahwa and are denied access to municipal improvements and title to their homes.

Despite being denied services and living at the precarious end of the economic spectrum, the residents appear to have improved their community and, as the picture shows, build their homes with brick, stone, and concrete.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

electricity, please

Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban-based squatter organizing group, once again makes the sane and humane argument that the eThekwini Municipality must overturn its ban on legal electrical connections in squatter communities.

The group notes that candles and kerosene lanterns can overturn and cause fires while improper wiring can short out, as happened on Monday when a teenager was apparently electrocuted in the community called Siyanda.
If the state continues to fail to recognise our humanity, and it remains up to us to recognise and defend our own humanity, then each community and each movement must take the responsibility to ensure that electricity is appropriated in a safe and well organised manner. Until this service is provided to everyone we have no choice but to continue to support Operation Khanyisa so that people can keep themselves safe from fires and benefit and advance their lives.
[for more on Operation Khanyisa's work see this article from the Multinational Monitor]

eThekwini officials, AbM says, rush to tell the newspapers how much money is being lost because of pirated, community-organised connections. "If they are so worried about this why don’t they put us on the electricity grid? By denying the people formal access to electricity they force the people to take electricity. They leave people with no choice."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Madrid threatens squatter enclave

As the fast-expanding capital rushes to meet the settlement, what was once a speck in the distance is now just across the railway tracks.....

Reuters reports that authorities in Madrid have vowed to raze La Canada, a squatter community that has been in existence for 40 years.

Under the plan, the worst areas of the community of 40,000 will be bulldozed to make way for a park, and only a few residents will be eligible for rehousing. The article, in typical fashion, blames all of the drug addiction in Madrid on this one neighborhood (as if organized crime control over the drug trade doesn't even exist.)

It seems absolutely outrageous for a civilized country to deny rights to people who have lived in a community for decades.

As Victor Renes, of the Spanish charity Caritas, says, "You find yourself here, where it is still possible to settle and try to survive ... at the margins where the city tolerates you ... until the city arrives and bumps into you and then after that you are tolerated no longer."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Prague: an attack on the last nonconformists

At the end of June, authorities in Prague evicted residents from Milada, a pre-war villa that had been seized by squatters more than ten years ago. The Prague weekly Respekt called it "an attack against the last vestige of nonconformism in a gloomy city." -- summary at Press Europ

Radio Prague reported that the eviction was planned "after a number of complaints from the students [in a neighboring dormitory] about noise and aggressive dogs." -- translation here

That's an awfully shabby reason for the government to evict people.

It's also a great irony that it was a government agency -- the the Institution for Information on Education -- that hired private security guards to push the squatters out. the Czech Republic's Human Rights Minister, Michal Kocáb, intervened to relocate the squatters into a privately owned building downtown, but the last four older residents of that partially occupied building fear that this is a move by the landlord to drive them out -- details at Ceske Noviny

Thursday, July 09, 2009

squatters vs. developers in the Philippines

A familiar story in a new place. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reports that Malabon Mayor Tito Oreta has said that between 35,000 and 50,000 people will be pushed out to free up land for development. He promises they will be relocated. I hope it's true. But how long have the squatters been in residence? Doesn't that longevity give them some right to stay?

P.S. Sorry for having taken a break from the blog for a bit. I was myopically trying to finish a manuscript. Slow suffocation by paper. But I'm still breathing and should be blogging regularly once again.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

gypping the gypsies

A shocking study by Human Rights Watch shows how the Roma community of Kosova is being exterminated. Isabel Fonseca, writing in The Observer, has details.

It's not exactly a squatter issue. But only about 20,000 of the original 200,000 population of Kosova Roma remain in the country--and in many encampments they are enduring lead poisoning from old mines. Weirdly, Fonseca reports, the UN created the refugee camps the Roma are now languishing in, so the international agency bears great responsibility.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

the cage

Squatters vs. nature? Or squatters vs. the rest of society. That's the question raised by the walls currently being built around many favelas in Rio. An article from Independent Press Service gives details on the compromise in Rocinha, where the government agreed to build walls that are 4 feet high, rather than the 9 feet planned for other favelas.

Some important environmental details:
The Atlas of Forest Remnants of the Mata Atlântica, produced by the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation and the National Institute for Space Research, revealed last month that the state of Rio de Janeiro alone had lost 176,714 hectares of this ecosystem since 1985.

According to the study, the annual rate of deforestation nearly doubled in the last three years. Today, Rio has just 18 percent of the forests that once stood in the state.

Fires, urban expansion and human occupation are the main causes of deforestation in Rio, SOS Mata Atlântica director Marcia Hirota said in an interview for this article.

But the Foundation does not believe that the "pressure on the native vegetation" comes only from the favelas. There are also luxury condominiums, homes and hotels, as well as "other types of occupation that suppress the native plant cover," Hirota said.

A study by the municipal Pereira Passos Institute indicates that half of the city's 750 favelas, which are home to 1.5 million people, doubled in size between 1994 and 2004.

True enough, but the favelas have, so far as I know, only kept pace with the city's growth, so that it's still true that approximately 1 in five residents of Rio lives in a favela, as it was five and even ten years ago. Which would mean that the government should be walling in rich neighborhoods too.

I tend to sympathize with Luisa, a Rocinha resident quoted in the article: "The wall isn't for separating the trees, it's for separating out the poor....They say it's a park, but down there, in the middle and upper class city, nature parks aren't cages."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Luxembourg squatters ... you heard right

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the nation with the highest per-capita GDP in the world--$113,000--also has squatters. The Station Network, ARA Radio (see Thursday 4th June 2009 entry), and Tageblatt (in French) report on a dispute between squatters in the Clausen neighborhood and officials of the city of Luxembourg. A dozen squatters moved into the long-vacant building on Rue Mansfield two weeks ago or so. The squatters complain that the police raided the building, supposedly searching for drugs, and destroyed their electrical service. The government has agreed to talk with the squatters, but it's unclear if they will be able to stay in the building.

Monday, June 08, 2009

whose electricity?

Malaysia is ripping out illegal electrical hookups in squatter communities, the Daily Express reports.

Sabah Electricity Sdn Bhd has a wonderful euphemism for these pirate wires: Non-Revenue Electricity.

But if the point is to get people to pay, to turn non-revenue into revenue, then why not work with the squatters to create a solution. It's such a simple thing, really. Just a slight change in mindset. The South African group Abahlali baseMjondolo has demonstrated in a series of reports that ripping out electrical lines in shantytowns causes deaths, as people return to using candles and lighting fires. There's a cost in lost revenue and a cost in human lives.

Monday, June 01, 2009

shortsighted Sudan demolition

Thirty thousand people are now homeless in Juba, Sudan, after the government embarked on a brutal demolition drive, Reuters reports.

The larger policy issue here is this: The horrific violence of the Sudanese Civil War came to a halt in 2005, and since then Juba has grown into a thriving market city. This is a good thing. But, in response to what it termed unlicensed and uncontrolled growth, the government "sent in bulldozers and demolition crews to flatten of hundreds of temporary structures, market stalls and shanty town shacks that they said were not properly licensed."

So, after not enforcing the rules for four years, the government destroys the city's spontaneous prosperity and growth. Does that make sense? What about working with these residents and entrepreneurs to improve conditions?

off the wall

A federation of favela residents in Rio de Janeiro has worked out a compromise with the state government on the walls the government wants to build around 13 squatter communities, Free Speech Radio News reports.

Among the significant changes: the height of the walls will be reduced from 9 feet to 2 feet, at least in some places.

The key here is also this: despite the government's ecological fears, favelas should not be penned in. The state and city governments should work with the favelados so that these communities can police their own borders and control their own growth.

Monday, May 25, 2009

squatter landlords

The Gleaner reports that some squatters in Jamaica are acting like landlords and charging fellow residents for the privilege of squatting.

This is, of course, nothing new. There are squatter landlords and squatter tenants in most shantytowns around the world. And the newspaper admits that rents in these communities are nominal and "generally below the prevailing market rate."

Of course they are: that's why people squat, because they are seeking housing they can afford. The private sector does not provide that.

Minister of Water and Housing Dr Horace Chang has said that almost 1 million people, or 1/3 of Jamaica's population, are living either as squatters or on land they do not own. A recent study of the squatter settlements in Jamaica showed that 2/3 of them had been in existence for more than two decades. These communities deserve to be recognized for what they are: normal urban neighborhoods.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

power for the people

Next billion highlights some case studies which prove that treating squatters as citizens makes for better conditions in their communities.

With examples from Morocco, Argentina, Sudan and Colombia, the article shows that squatters overwhelmingly will pay for infrastructure, and that getting access to modern infrastructure improves health and well-being in their communities and grows the local economy.

I'm not sure that I applaud the policy in Casablanca that if one person is late in paying their electric bill, the whole block is disconnected.

Still, the general idea is terrific: Squatter communities are normal urban neighborhoods, and governments have to start treating them like they are.

[All praise to Emeka for sending me the link]

Thursday, May 14, 2009

homes vs. gardens

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, the ten-year-old star of Slumdog Millionaire, lost his home today. It was torn down by authorities in Mumbai. The Guardian reports that city authorities said the land was needed for a garden.

An AP report suggested that the city was demolishing homes that would be at risk during the upcoming monsoon. Authorities told the AP that people who had lived there for 15 years would be relocated. But the wire service added, "such official promises of resettlement often amount to nothing. When slum-dwellers are given housing, it is often in poor-quality buildings on the outskirts of cities and far from jobs."

laws as misleading slogans

Abolish shantytowns! Sounds good as a slogan. But what it means in practice is being challenged in court in South Africa. The squatter organizing group Abahlali baseMjondolo argues that the KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act is little but cover for demolishing shack communities and forcibly relocating people without their consent, most often to less valuable spots on the urban periphery. This, of course, rips apart communities, pulls kids out of school, and makes it much more difficult, and costly, for workers to get to their jobs. The BBC has some details.

To find out more about the terrific work being done by Abahlali baseMjondolo, check out this excerpt from the new documentary, A Place in the City.

Monday, May 11, 2009

slums created by the government

Even with the best of intentions, here's what you get when governments refuse to work with squatters to better their communities and instead evict them with the promise of permanent housing in the future: slums created by the government.

The Malaysian government tried exactly this. It promised squatters new homes, moved them to temporary camps, and demolished their former communities. The result, according to a story in The Star: "While squashing squatter zones, the move has ironically created urban slums where thousands of residents are forced to put up with woes ranging from hygiene, safety to basic amenities, on a daily basis."

The article outlines the classic nightmares of bad development: elevators that don't work, so people have to hike up 17 floors. Blocked drains and standing water, so people get dengue and malaria. All courtesy of the government.

And here's the crowning indignity: "On top of these problems, the low-income occupants have suffered loss of some RM5,000 incurred from down payment, interest and penalty for the units promised. Moreover, after two years of free stay at the PPR, they have to pay rental of RM147 per month and that is to be revised to RM250."

Of course, government could have worked with the squatters to improve their own neighborhoods, with none of these negative consequences.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

the global landfill material

In communities all over the world, squatters fill in rutted streets, level the ground beneath their homes, and reclaim land from lagoons and shorefronts using one extremely common material: garbage. The New York Times reports on the dangers of garbage streets in Médina Gounass, a squatter neighborhood just outside Dakar, Senegal.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

EU squatters

Two thousand illegal migrants from Afghanistan are camped out in an shantytown in the port city of Patras, Greece, trying to stow away on a truck or boat heading to other European countries. The Christian Science Monitor has the story.

Calais, in northern France, also has an immigrant squatter community of people hoping to jump a boat across the English Channel (aka La Manche) to the U.K.

Both Greece and France have vowed to demolish the squatter encampment. So where will the migrants go?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

don't blame the squatters

When I was in Istanbul for the first time, in 1995, families were living in the crumbling walls of the almost completely ruined Byzantine-era Bukaleon Palace near Sultanahmet. I watched them from the balcony of my cheap hotel, and, on one of my free days, poked around the rubble of the palace walls.

Now, as Istanbul pretties itself in preparation for its 2010 designation as European Capital of Culture, the press has discovered the squatters--and it wants them out. Hurriyet offers, in English, an elaboration of a story that apparently ran first in Milliyet.

Yes the palace is historically significant, built in 842 on order of the Byzantine Emperor Emperor Iustinianus II.

But the government demolished the main palace almost a century ago to make way for the central train station. And it allowed the insanely luxurious Four Seasons Hotel to encroach on top of significant portions of the outbuildings and grounds.

If the government has had no interest in this place for decades, why blame the squatters now? Perhaps the government should look inward, at its economic policies, which still deny the mass of people a chance at legal housing.

One of the great things about Istanbul is that it hasn't completely fetishized its incredible history. The great buildings are there--in all stages of preservation and decay. I remember stumbling on a massive commercial building on a back street in Galata. It was crumbling, home to maritime and industrial firms--businesses selling anchors and lengths of chain and supplies for ships. Yet it was clear the building was significant. To enter was to be exalted. Back home, I looked in my architectural guide and discovered that it had been designed by Mimar Sinan, whose work is the root of Ottoman architecture. It was still being used by firms that were probably not all that different than the ones that used it in Sinan's time. It was refreshing to see a great building that was still quietly fulfilling its original function almost five centuries on.

Monday, April 27, 2009

the squatter index

One third of the people in Jamaica are squatters, Jamaica's Minister of Water and Housing has said. An Op-Ed in The Gleaner responds by calling for a new measure of economic progress: The Squatter Index.

If Jamaica's development is to be properly assessed, there is a need for a 'Squatter Index'. Certainly, the level of squatting is an indication of how far we have travelled from slavery; how much progress we have made since Paul Bogle and George William Gordon were martyred; what we have achieved in terms of development since Independence in long as the problem of squatting is shoved to the peripheries of the national agenda, as long as we fail to measure progress by the level of squatting, development will continue to elude us.

This is a nifty idea for all developing countries. Working with the squatters to improve their communities is not just humane, it's wise economics and politics. It offers a path to true development.

Friday, April 24, 2009

squatters squatting again

Two hundred residents of a squatter community in the Karoo town of Oudtshoorn, South Africa have seized new homes in a government-sponsored development nearby, The Sowetan reports.

Residents assert that the government has ignored the official waiting list and has been taking cash payoffs and tribute (slagding--animals destined for slaughter) from people who want the homes.

Hester and Benjamin Olifant, who say they have been on the government's housing waiting list since 1991, are among the invaders. When they joined the list, their daughter Vanessa was four. She is 22 now and still shares a small room with her 17-year-old brother, Bennet.

Many of the squatters have been living in illegal backyard shacks, made from corrugated tin. They pay rent to the owners of the main house and even having to share bathrooms with the people they rent from. "We knew that if we were to get a house of our own we would have to just go and take it," Hester said.

The squatters say that when they opened some of these new concrete houses, they found sheep and donkeys inside.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

is this a crime?



baghdad shantytown

I don't know any more info than the caption provides: Shantytown of recyclers: Iraqi boys peer through the widow of their makeshift home in Baghdad's al-Dora slum. One hundred and seventy homeless families live in the slum, surviving on the little money they can make by collecting recyclables. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP/Getty Images)

Can anyone elaborate?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

women's rights & squatters' rights

Three-quarters of the leaders of squatter communities in Chile are women, The Valparaiso Times reports. And, according to a study of almost 300 shantytowns by the housing NGO Un Techo Para Chile, half of the squatter leaders are housewives. The study also showed that almost 55 percent of the leaders of shantytowns had never finished primary school. "This new study is important not only because it is a wide and modern picture of the reality in regards to shantytowns leaders, but also because it is the only study in Chile able to show leaders’ interests, motivations and environments," said Javiera Pizarro, a leader in the study.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

fences and neighbors

Two municipalities in Argentina are engaged in a war of words over a security wall. San Isidro Mayor Gustavo Posse is building a wall to separate the residents of La Horqueta, in his town, from those in Villa Jardín, a squatter area in neighboring San Fernando. SF's Mayor Osvaldo Amieiro has filed for a court injunction against the barrier, calling it "an outdated Berlin wall" that is "discriminatory and xenophobic." The Buenos Aires Herald (registration required) and 3 News (New Zealand) have details.

The San Isidro Mayor says he is building the mile-long 9-foot-high barrier to block thieves based in the shantytown in San Fernando who prey on 33 rich families who live in La Horqueta. Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli condemned the wall, saying, sensibly, that "Crime is fought with more inclusion and not with discrimination."

Monday, April 06, 2009

serbia goes after the roma

Serbia is this year's lead nation for the Roma Decade, a political commitment to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma people in Europe, but at the same time the Belgrade government has demolished a Roma squatter settlement to make way for an access road to a venue for the Student Games 2009, B92, youth radio in Belgrade reports. Mayor Dragan Đilas said the Roma, "could realize their rights if they really are citizens of Belgrade" and called their demand for new housing "blackmail."

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

brunei evicts

For decades, squatters in Seria, a town in the wealthy Sultanate of Brunei, have lived in peace. Now, since they are on oil company land, they are being told to expect eviction any day, reports the Borneo Bulletin.

Awang Ngabong Anak Matan has been living in his "temporary" house for over 18 years. Ten other family members, including his two grandchildren, aged one and two, are also staying in the dilapidated house. The 59-year-old man, who has been served with several eviction notices in the past from BSP (Brunei Shell Petroleum), lamented to the Bulletin that he "had no choice but to stay in the house because he has no place to go".
And check out the government's insulting offer to the squatters:
All the squatters who were served with eviction notices were instructed by the Land Department to apply for temporary stay licences at Kampong Lumut Tersusun, which is a squatter settlement area in Mukim Liang. The only catch is that all those who apply for the temporary stay licence at Kg Lumut Tersusun will need to fork out their own money to level the land within three months and construct a house within six months. If they fail to do so, they risk having their applications withdrawn. "This is absurd. We just don't have that kind of money to build a house within that limited period of time," said Awg Ngabong.

fences and forests

Rio de Janeiro plans to wall in several major favelas, in an attempt to prevent sprawl from wiping out the tropical forest, the Associated Press reports.

The article suggests that appoximately 205 hectares (506 acres) of Rio's urban rainforest were destroyed from 2005 to 2008, and says officials blame most of the destruction on the expansion of the favelas as more newcomers arrived from Brazil's interior. So the state government will erect seven miles of 10-ft-high barricades.

506 acres is a lot of land. I'd like to see the statistics on the expansion of major downtown favelas like Dona Marta, the one mentioned in the article, which is on a very steep hill overlooking the middle class neighborhood of Botafogo and doesn't have a lot of room to grow. And I'd like to compare that with the impact of development on the forest in the Barra de Tijuca (a wealthy district to the south) and the Baixada Fluminense, to the north.

Friday, March 27, 2009

'rashomon' in Mumbai

In India, which like to call itself the world's largest democracy, a group of squatters were arrested on Wednesday in the Bandra neighborhood of Mumbai, and charged with rioting and unlawful assembly. The activists' accounts and press accounts differ, in that the press doesn't report police violence or the extent of the injuries they inflicted:

--from an article in
Activists associated with [Social activist Medha] Patkar alleged that a group of around 500 people were on their way to meet the suburban collector in Bandra when they were arrested without reason. "We had a peaceful meeting with officials at the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority today regarding alleged corruption in the Slum Rehabilitation scheme. When on our way to the collector's office for an appointment we were arrested," said Simpreet Singh, an activist with National Alliance for Peoples' Movement.

--from a letter circulated to activists:
About 300 slum dwellers, along with activists Medha Patkar, Simpreet Singh,
were arrested in Mumbai today evening. More than a thousand slum evictees were
protesting in front of the Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority
(MHADA) building. They were protesting against atrocities and corruption by the
builders in the name of slum rehabilitation. After a dialogue with the MHADA,
Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) and Mantralaya officials, the
representatives were about to go and meet the collector at 3 p.m. when the
police suddenly lathi-charged without any announcement or warning and began arrest....The arrested women, more than 200 in number, were brutally
lathi-charged and many women were molested and succumbed to injuries on the
skull, legs and arms. When reports last came, the injured were being taken to
hospital in batches.

[thanks, Richard, for sending this my way]

Thursday, March 26, 2009

squatting in the states

Law Professor Eduardo M. Peñalver offers a sensible take on squatting in the U.S., in an essay published in Slate.
On the supply side, local governments should penalize owners who stockpile vacant housing, perhaps by imposing increased property tax rates on properties left vacant, and by moving aggressively to seize vacant properties when the owners fall behind on paying those taxes. On the demand side, governments should expand homesteading programs that permit and help low-income people to take over vacant housing—but only after it finds its way into city hands.
These are noble proposals and I hope people move forward with them.

There are some pragmatic difficulties, though. In the 80s, a number of community groups fought to get New York City to pass anti-warehousing legislation that would have denied rent increases and pushed other penalties geared to preventing owners from deliberately holding apartments and buildings vacant during a housing crisis. We couldn't even get the bill to a public hearing. That's because the real estate lobby is highly organized and fights fanatically against these kinds of efforts. The industry essentially argued that any attempt to penalize warehousing of vacant units was an attack on property rights. The tax penalty Peñalver proposes may also be a difficult fight, as property tax legislation often has to be authorized at the state level.

Still, I would love to see cities hard hit by both vacancy and foreclosure move in this direction. Laws against warehousing and programs to encourage urban homesteading make sense.


Chennai, India (the former Madras) did something notable in its planning for a new urban development scheme. It consulted with informal workers. Nithya Raman, from the Centre for Development Finance, explains all in an op-ed from Express India:

Workers asked that evictions of slum-dwellers immediately cease, and that funds allocated for the urban poor be used to provide infrastructure, services and tenure in existing slum settlements rather than to construct alternative housing on the outskirts of the city. They asked for the government to prioritise the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and users of public transport over the needs of automobile and motorcycle owners. They also asked that the government designate spaces for them to work within the city, such as spaces in markets and on roadsides for street-vendors, and to provide them services like drinking water, toilets, and crèches in these work spaces. If such projects are included in the new city development plan, it will already mark a significant departure from the city’s traditional planning priorities.

However, a number of the things that they suggested had absolutely nothing to do with infrastructure or city development as conceived by the JNNURM, and yet, were central to workers’ vision of a better city.Workers asked for access to finance and social security benefits and better quality, better-paid jobs. They wanted medical insurance, well functioning welfare boards, and provisions for retirement benefits. They wanted access to low-interest loans, so that they could avoid usurious moneylenders. They wanted the police to stop harassing them at their workplaces. They also wanted the push towards privatising municipal services to end, because privatisation meant a decrease in the availability of formal sector, decently paid work.

Workers also demanded changes in the government’s urban development policies that would give more power to citizens. They asked that the government provide complete information to city residents about all urban infrastructure projects. They also demanded that projects be approved through a genuinely consultative process, and that the final approvals for urban infrastructure projects should rest with local ward sabhas or gram sabhas. Why was this so central to their demands? Because urban infrastructure projects inevitably require government land, and result in the displacement of poor slum dwellers who squat on that land.

An end to evictions and the start of truly consultative planning to avoid displacement. Reasonable and prudent demands. I look forward to hearing what the Chennai government has to say.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

catch 22

Twelve thousand of Fiji's squatters are caught in legal limbo. Their families were recruited to come to Fiji from Melanesia back in the 1860s to work on the cotton and sugar plantations. Denied citizenship, they stayed and intermarried, essentially becoming Fijian, just not in a legal sense. Now one tiny impoverished community of 30 people faces a forced conundrum: accept eviction, or pay 13,000 Australian dollars each to buy their land. Another 30 immigrant squatter communities are at risk. The Australian Broadcasting Company has details.

Monday, March 16, 2009

tin town

Temporary relocation areas. Transit camps. Government shacks. These names all mean the same thing: shantytowns that were officially built to 'temporarily' house residents from squatter camps and inner-city slums until formal housing is provided for them. But, says South Africa's Business Day newspaper, these communities are no longer temporary. Now, they are government-created slums.

Business Day looks at Blikkiesdorp (tin town), a relatively orderly relocation area that was constructed last year, and nearby Tsunami, already run down and decrepit more than 4 years after it was built. And it mentions one temporary relocation area, the inappropriately named Happy Valley, that was erected more than 12 years ago and has now become a vast and permanent squatter settlement.

"In most cases, these camps are far from the cities where people live, work and school," says the organizing group Abahlali baseMjondolo. "People are taken there against their will with no guarantees about the conditions there, how long they will be kept there and where, if anywhere, they will be taken next."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

the wrong approach

Thailand's Fine Arts Department has alleged that squatters are destroying forest and encroaching on ancient ruins in the Sukhothai historical park, the Bangkok Post reports.

"Through the Provincial Electricity Authority these villagers now have electrical supplies, making their illegal settlement nearly complete," Anandha Chuchoti, a department official, told the paper.

I have great sympathy with officials trying to preserve Thailand's cultural and religious heritage. The problem here, however, is that authorities have to stop demonizing squatters and start working with them, so that they will police the park boundaries and stop illegal encroachments. The solution is not demonizing squatters. It is working in partnership with them to make them full citizens.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

rape and cite soleil

The Guardian offers a vivid video report on the evil of rape in Cite Soleil and other shantytowns of Port au Prince, Haiti.

I certainly don't want to diminish the horror of this story. Unfortunately, though, the segment does traffick in the idea that sexual violence is the everyday reality of the 'slums' without unpacking some of the assumptions behind that assertion. Two examples:

1. While The Guardian reports the shocking stat that, during carnival, 15 women are raped each day, it doesn't distinguish whether those rapes are restricted to Cite Soleil and other shantytowns, or whether that's a city-wide number.

And 2. The video presents jerky hand-held images of men, women and kids standing in the darkness while UN soldiers with guns pass by. The reporter suggests that these lurkers are dangerous men on streetcorners. But the reality is that, on hot and steamy evenings, people in shantytowns often do leave their huts to get some air. In The Guardian's video footage, they seem to be gathered around a kiosk. It might be selling sodas or beer or calls on a mobile phone. While the extreme darkness--much of Cite Soleil has no electricity--makes it seem threatening, this may be no different from folks in any city hanging out in front of a barbershop or a corner store.

The reporter does point out that, in Haiti, the military, the police and various political gangs have all used rape as a tactic of subjugation. As Myriam Merlet, head of the government's Ministry of Women puts it, "Women have been raped every time there's political turmoil."

That's the ugly reality. It's beyond the so-called 'slums.' Women are victimized continually, in every segment of society.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

'move or be removed'

Awful words from Liberian Information Minister Laurence Bropleh. The government in Monrovia is determined to flex its muscle, reports The Liberian Journal, and will be going after squatters in the capital city.

The government tried this last year, and rescinded the eviction plan after strong squatter resistance. Why try again? Why not take a more broad-minded view of why squatters are there and what they offer the city?

Friday, February 27, 2009

favelas benefitting from microcredit

The Financial Times profiles an Internet Cafe and Video Store in Heliópolis, the largest favela in São Paulo. The business started with a $100 loan from Banco Real, and has expanded through a succession of new loans totaling $12,000.

It's a huge success, but the FT argues that most banks in Brazil have not known how to enter the favelas and give loans to informal businesses, which often would rather pay high interest rates with low monthly payments than the standard products offered by the banks.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

the police and Paraisópolis -- a follow-up

An excellent blog post by a researcher/organizer who recently returned from São Paulo yields a much more subtle understanding of the situation in Paraisópolis, where state police took over the favela after a police shooting last month. Details at democracia urbana.

Essentially, the massive police occupation is the latest of at least a dozen such actions against squatter communities in São Paulo since 2005, and the second against Paraisópolis. The paramilitary shows of force -- officially known as Operação Saturação (Operation Saturation) -- have ranged from 1 month to 3 months. Sometimes they are combined with social programs.

Democracia Urbana details the 'he said/she said' descriptions of the original violence in the favela (the police claim they were restrained and that the community riot after the shooting was planned by the local drug gang) and concludes, with great good sense, that "regardless of whether the rioting was ordered by the imprisoned drug lord or was simply a spontaneous response to police brutality, it is hard to argue that a full-scale occupation of the community for an 'unforeseeable amount of time' is justifiable or humane."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

new criminals fight crime in Rio

Newsweek reports on a new phenomenon in Rio de Janeiro: the explosion of private security forces that are hired as an antidote to the power of the police and the drug gangs.

These private armies are 'shoot first' operations. In Gardênia Azul, on Rio's western edge, one 16-year-old kid was shot dead by the local guards because he was smoking pot. They dumped his body in the neighborhood square. The militia, the article says, "runs the favela with an iron heel and a hand in everyone's pocket, taking a cut of all local business and services." The reporter comments: "To millions of people trying to get by in some of the meanest streets in the hemisphere, life involves hedging your bets by grabbing at whatever safety net you can."

In Rio, he reports, "many militias are composed of off duty cops, cashiered prison guards, firefighters, and even condemned criminals who take orders from senior police and elected officials. A recent probe by Rio lawmakers named eight elected officials and 67 police as ringleaders in 171 favelas."

And "analysts estimate that policing is a $100 billion to $200 billion global business and a growth industry in the developing world."

While it's sad but true that private security is a big industry, and it may be that private security forces are on the rise in Rio, the article is a bit contradictory: Are the militias independent from the police, or are they taking orders from the police? Are they against the politicos or for them? Are they really taking on the drug gangs, or simply one more cog in a corrupt machine? After all, the drug gangs also have their hooks in to the cops. So is there anything really new here?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Lula in Sta. Marta

The BBC offers an assessment of the Brazilian effort to bring peace to the favelas. What the story doesn't sufficiently stress is that the Brazilian President can make all the public statements he wants, but the police are controlled by the state government, and most people inside and outside the favelas think they are more violent and less honorable than the drug traffickers they supposedly seek to fight.

Prince Charles salutes squatters

I don't agree with most of Prince Charles's pronouncements about architecture, but he's spot on when it comes to squatter communities. The Guardian has details of a speech the Prince gave at a conference at St James's Palace organized by his Foundation for the Built Environment.

Charles said squatter neighborhoods have "an underlying intuitive grammar of design that is totally absent from the faceless slab blocks that are still being built around the world to 'warehouse' the poor," adding, that shantytowns offer "more durable gains than those delivered through the present brutal and insensitive process of globalisation that is shaping so many aspects of how we live".

Also featured on the stage with Prince Charles was Jockin Arputham, the founder of India's inspirational National Federation of Slum Dwellers, who has been fighting the luxury plan for rebuilding Dharavi, Mumbai's largest squatter area.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

police in paraisopolis

Police in Sao Paulo have occupied the Paraisopolis favela, the second largest squatter community in the city, the BBC reports. In typical fashion, what gains the headlines is the riot. The cause is in the 3rd paragraph: police shot and killed a local man they were trying to arrest. Sounds like there was no riot in the community until the police instigated one.

At the same time as the violence in Sao Paulo, Brazilian President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva was in a favela in Rio, announcing a plan to stimulate the economy by building 500,000 apartments for poor people. The International Herald Tribune offers extremely bare bones details.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cambodian eviction

The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions reports on a sudden, horrific eviction in Phnom Penh. More than 400 families were pushed out of their homes in Dey Krahorm, in the fastest growing part of the Cambodian capital, by a real estate company, with the assistance of the police.

COHRE lays out the duplicity:

1. The land at Dey Krahorm was granted to the community as a Social Land Concession in 2003.

2. In early 2005, a private company, 7NG, negotiated a contract with the then village chiefs of Dey Krahorm, effectively swapping the prime land in Dey Krahorm for a relocation site 15km outside of Phnom Penh.

3. Dey Krahorm residents have maintained that they were never consulted about the contract and never agreed to move away.

4. Despite community challenges, the local government awarded title to 7NG in 2006.

5. Negotiations between the community and the government were in the works as the eviction was carried out.

COHRE’s Executive Director, Salih Booker, called the eviction nothing more than "an attempt by 7NG to grab valuable land through fraud, threats and violence."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

20,000 Caracas squatters safe--for now

The Mayor of Libertador, the municipality that encompasses the western part of Caracas, says that squatters in 241 apartment buildings will stay in their homes, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports. Mayor Jorge Rodríguez has issued a decree to ban evictions in the area, says the paper, which seems to stand against the squatters.

The squatters seem caught in the middle of a dispute between supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chavez. The former 'Chavista' mayor allowed the squatters to move in to several hundred vacant buildings in the city. In the last election, the opposition won, and took over the reins of city government, while Chavistas like Mayor Rodriguez won in some local government areas. The Chavistas seem to be trying to keep the squatters in, while the opposition may be currying favor with landowners and developers.

the trashing of Juba

Demolitions have started in Juba, capital of Central Equatoria state and Southern Sudan, the Sudan Tribune reports. "Illegally constructed shops with corrugated iron sheets, some of which are sometimes used for family accommodations at night, were demolished at Juba Market in the town center. Hundreds of people whose houses or shops were destroyed after they were moved out in the morning of the first day exercise were standing by looking worried as they watched their houses being demolished by bull dozers."

Many of those who are being chased out say they have tried for years to gain legal possession of their property. These people are being penalized because of the government's inept handling of land laws. As the article notes, "it is to a large extent difficult to obtain land in Juba through legal procedures because of unsettled jurisdiction over which level of government should be responsible for the capital and to handle its land issues."

Monday, January 26, 2009

villa 31, or area 51

The Economist and The Yale Globalist offer two takes on the Buenos Aires Mayor's fight against Villa 31, a squatter community in the downtown area of the Argentine capital. As the Yale piece points out, "The central location of the Villas [31 and its neighbor, known as 31 bis], next to one of the city’s main transportation hubs and surrounded by valuable downtown real estate, is one of the most desirable in the city." Which seems to be why Mayor Mauricio Macri is proposing to crack down on the community.

The Buenos Aires Herald editorializes in favor of Macri's recent effort to prevent building materials from being brought into the neighborhood. The editorialist concludes,
No country or city can tolerate a society within a society, regardless of whether it is privileged or unprivileged — otherwise it becomes impossible for all citizens to have equal rights and responsibilities. How can anybody dream of a 'bullet train' heading out of Retiro Station with Villa 31 right next to it?
But, despite the rhetorical slight of hand--no society within a society, whether rich or poor--the sad logic of development, endorsed by the paper, says the luxury uses staywhile the lower income community goes.

Hasn't anyone thought of allocating money to work with the residents to make the homes that are there meet local codes? (The buildings in the photo I've posted above (it comes from the Yale article, courtesy of the Taller Libre de Proyecto Social) are all made of reinforced concrete and brick, and hardly seem to merit the derision the Mayor and his minions are casting their way.) There are solutions that won't destroy the neighborhood and push out the residents. They don't want a city within the city....just the right to the city that every resident should have.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

but who are the real criminals

JoongAng Daily calls Nam Gyeong-nam, a leader of the Seoul squatter resistance, a "hard-line anti-poverty activist." Police are searching for him and apparently want to charge him in connection with the military assault on squatters early this week that turned into an inferno that left six dead.

Question: if, as the paper reports, Nam has been wanted since 2003, when he allegedly threw Molotov cocktails at a police station, shouldn't authorities have been aware that such weapons could have been in the building that they attacked this week? And, given that knowledge, shouldn't cops have proceeded with caution, instead of mounting an all-out assault? It sounds like the cops are trying to transfer the blame onto the victims here. It was the police action that made a bad situation worse.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

people vs. planning

Authorities in Juba, capital of Southern Sudan, plans to embark on a demolition drive that will make thousands of people homeless, the Sudan Tribune reports.
"The Central Equatoria state governor, Maj. Gen. Clement Wani Konga has announced that the demolition exercise was aimed at immediate recovery of grabbed land by unauthorized squatters, saying it was in accordance with the town’s Master Plan."
The article refers to the demolition as a 'bulldozing exercise.'

Violation of the master plan is a sad excuse for destroying people's lives and livelihoods.

isn't there a better way ...

...than state-sponsored violence?
Six people are dead and 17 injured after Korean police stormed a squatter-occupied building in Yongsan, an area of Seoul slated for redevelopment,
the Korea Times reports. It was tactical squat: the squatters had occupied the building to protest a local redevelopment plan. And here's a terrible irony:
"The incident comes two days after President Lee Myung-bak replaced his police chief, who had been criticized for excessive police crackdowns on protesters."

Monday, January 19, 2009

sensible solution

In Panama, a new law would provide land for squatters, reports
La Estrella (the Panama Star). The idea is to pay landowners a fair price, then extend infrastructure and sell the land to the squatters. But the proposal doesn't address the groups that might be the majority of squatters, who have settled in parks and on other federally reserved land. They would be evicted under the proposal, housing minister Gabriel Diez said.

And here's another complication, as reported by the Star:
For many years squatters have invaded prime plots of land all over the country. The majority of the properties around the Pacific coast of Herrera, Veraguas and Los Santos do not have titles, just possessory rights, because nobody really knows who the owners are.

The proposed squatters bill will help to a certain extent to solve the housing problem in Panama, but on the other hand what will happen to those owners who want their land back to build a resort, or want to sell it to a third party or keep it within a family, will the government make those people sell it or evict the squatters.