Uruguay: El Monarca Neighbors Build Their Own Town

(IPS) – Beat the odds: that was what the residents of El Monarca decided to do, in order to turn their informal settlement on the outskirts of the Uruguayan capital into a real neighbourhood, with all the necessary infrastructure and services.

As governments race the clock to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), ordinary citizens are organising as best they can to fulfill their own pressing need for decent housing.

"A lot of people said this was going to be just another slum, full of ‘pichis’ (a derogatory term for slum dwellers)," Washington "El Bocha" Suárez told IPS.

The 52-year-old Suárez, who has a high-pitched but forceful voice, is the one everyone turns to with their problems in El Monarca, the visible face of the neighbourhood committee.

"I’m involved in everything around here. I always have to be available, but things are working out pretty well this way," he says optimistically. Suaréz, a father of four, is a carpenter and builder who sells crafts with his wife and dreams of a new sports field for the neighbourhood which he watched emerge from nothing, and which is now prospering on the outer edges of Montevideo.

"There were other informal settlements in the area, but none of them grew like El Monarca," he says with obvious pride, although he clarifies that the progress was made with considerable effort.

Improving housing is one of the commitments included in the eight MDGs adopted at the United Nations General Assembly in 2000. One of the specific targets set by the international community is "to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers" by 2020.

Although this small country located between Brazil and Argentina, once known as the "Switzerland of South America," has some of the best social indicators in Latin America, it is not exempt from the problem of slums.

Of the 566 informal settlements in the country, 37 percent were established between 1991 and 2000, the decade of the greatest expansion of slums in Uruguay, according to an October 2008 report by the Latin American non-governmental organisation Un Techo para mi País (A Roof for My Country).

Of that total, 61 percent are in Montevideo and 13.6 percent are in neighbouring Canelones, two of Uruguay’s 19 departments (provinces) which are home to over half of the country’s 3.3 million people.

An estimated 251,000 Uruguayans live in slums today. The largest shantytowns are on the outskirts of the capital, and are 22 years old on average. More than half of the informal settlements have cropped up on publicly owned land.

Unlike the situation in other countries of Latin America, homes made of durable materials like cement blocks and bricks – albeit usually poorly constructed – are predominant in the slums of Uruguay. But there are also plenty of ramshackle sheds made of corrugated tin, scrap wood and cardboard.

In more than 80 percent of the shantytowns, all of the households have some kind of access to clean water, in many cases from public spigots that have been installed in the slums. In addition, nearly all of the homes have electricity, although more than 50 percent receive it from illegal hookups. For sanitation, nearly 80 percent of the homes have cesspits.

The location of the slums on the outer edges of the cities means they are far removed from essential services. Farthest away from most of the shantytowns are police stations and hospitals, followed by daycare centres and high schools, the study found.

Informal settlements began to emerge mainly around Montevideo as a result of the rural exodus caused by the economic crisis of the second half of the 1950s. But they expanded greatly during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship, as economic problems and a shortage of affordable housing grew.

Between the national censuses of 1985 and 1996, 62 of Montevideo’s most central neighbourhoods lost over 10 percent of their inhabitants, while the population on the city’s periphery grew 13 percent, and areas farther out, including parts of the neighbouring departments of Canelones and San José, grew 35 percent.

After neoliberal economic policies took even deeper root in Uruguay in the 1990s, the country fell into a recession between 1999 and 2002, when the financial system collapsed, foreign reserves virtually dried up, and unemployment soared to a record high of over 20 percent. In 2002 alone, wages lost 20 percent of their value and evictions of non-paying tenants rose 20 percent.

Meanwhile, poverty skyrocketed – from 15 percent in 1995 to nearly 34 percent in 2003.

From renting to squatting

The move to a shantytown is not an easy one. Forging ties with people in a similar situation is the first step towards rebuilding one’s life, Cynthia Pérez, social director in the Uruguayan office of A Roof for My Country, told IPS.

"Perhaps the biggest impact on families is on the psychological and social levels, because of the irregularity that characterises life in the slums, not only due to the lack of a title deed for the property that they are occupying, which affects people’s sense of security and their ability to plan for a better future, but also with respect to the lack of basic services," she said.

"When you live in a regular neighbourhood, you have access to quality services, which means that a significant amount of community organising is not necessary. But that is not the case in informal settlements, where a degree of community cohesion is indispensable," said Pérez.

The work of organised civil society groups was reinforced in recent years by specific public policies. In 1999, Uruguay reached an agreement with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to create the Irregular Settlements Integration Programme (PIAI), which responds to the Ministry of Housing, Land Management and the Environment.

Since March 2005, when the leftwing Broad Front government of socialist President Tabaré Vázquez took office, 45 slum upgrade projects in 64 neighbourhoods have been carried out or are in the planning stages under the PIAI, for a total cost of 70 million dollars. Twenty-four of the projects have been completed so far, benefiting 30,000 people, Susana Pereyra, the coordinator of the programme, told IPS.

Last year, the IDB approved another credit line of 300 million dollars to finance new PIAI projects.

Social policies have been the main focus of the Vázquez administration. Since 2005 the economy has steadily recovered, poverty has dropped from 34 to 21 percent, and unemployment has plunged to a record low of seven percent. Nevertheless, 21 new informal settlements have emerged in the last three years, indicating that the problem persists despite the efforts made.

El Monarca

Community cohesion and a sense of neighbourhood identity tend to be weak in the informal settlements. But there are exceptions, like El Monarca, where the residents themselves pressured the authorities and contacted civil society organisations to obtain essential services.

The neighbourhood basically emerged out of nowhere. In 1995, a small group of homeless families decided to occupy a large plot of land on the outskirts of Montevideo, which was the property of a landowner who had died and was abandoned by his heirs when they moved overseas to Spain.

The families cut down the fence around the property and divided up the land into 12 by 30 metre plots with stakes and string. They organised themselves, and little by little more evicted, unemployed people began to arrive from Montevideo, as well as people from the countryside joining the decades-old rural exodus to the capital.

The neighbourhood gradually began to take shape. The families set up a local committee, drew up a list of residents, began to charge a regular "social" fee per household, and put red flags on unoccupied lots, to keep each family from owning more than one.

An estimated 350 families live there today. The property was auctioned by the court, and the residents were able to pull together 35,000 dollars, but the Ministry of Housing made a better offer. The process of transferring the property to the families is now underway.

"We decided not to let our arms be twisted, to beat the odds, when the going got rough," says Suárez.

The families have built up their neighbourhood with their own labour, building materials and skills. The corrugated iron sheeting, wood and cardboard gradually disappeared, and solid homes emerged, as well as the first streets and a community centre.

Through heavy pressure and unflagging efforts, and by drawing the attention of the press, they obtained piped water, electricity, and telephone lines, and the municipal garbage services began to collect their trash. They also organised to build a local health clinic.

The main challenges facing El Monarca now are the installation of a drainage system as well as sewer pipes to replace the cesspools, improvements to the public lighting, and the construction of a sports field and installations in the main square.

"Our energy, love and sacrifice helped built El Monarca, but above all, it was a question of perseverance," says Suárez.