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    The Amazonian city in Peru at crossroads

    By Giovanna Astolfo, on 3 August 2017

    The contemporary urbanisation of Amazonas is a geopolitical creation, and a recent phenomenon. For long time native communities have been living in sparse, often isolated, settlements. Adapting to the mutable conditions of the river, they created a system based on mobility, economic diversification and ‘multi-sited territorial appropriation’ (Peluso and Alexiadis, 2016). Such use and production of space was and still is disarticulated from any single master principle of spatial organization and from usual dichotomies such as rural/urban and public/private. Starting from the 1960s, extractive activities favoured rural-urban migration. Cities such Iquitos, Tarapoto and Puerto Maldonado in Peru, Leticia in Colombia, Belem and Manaus in Brazil grew immensely in few decades. Rural population moved to the cities, settling along the river, often retaining the traditional spatial organisation. Their survival is now threatened by climate change and flooding risk, coupled with recession and growing unemployment following the recent decline of oil extraction. Exploitation of resources prevented the growth of productive activities offering now little alternative sources of income to the urban population.

    Photo credit CASA

    Photo credit CASA

     

    It is in this complex context that the research project Ciudades Auto-Sostenibles Amazónicas (CASA), led by Pablo Vega-Centeno at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), and coordinated by the BUDD alumna Belén Desmaison (PUCP), with the involvement of DPU’s Camillo Boano and Giovanna Astolfo, is developing a participatory process with local communities, local authorities and the national government to co-produce sustainable spatialities and promote alternative livelihoods systems in the Amazonas, starting from local technologies and knowledges. The project aims to create evidence-based methodology for a more participatory implementation process of preventive relocations. The project looks at the city of Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon, where a massive relocation process of around 16,000 people living in the flood-prone low-district of Belén is undergoing amid great difficulties and resistance. The government-led relocation has been implemented following a DRM policy released in 2011 and as part of the national programme “Programa Nuestras Ciudades”; despite many positive pioneering aspects, the decision-making process was centralised and the project poorly articulated, failing to capture the socio-spatial complexity of the context. Particularly, the relocation threatens the traditional spatial organisation of Amazon’s communities, negatively impacting the livelihoods system.

     

    Photo credit CASA

    Photo credit CASA

     

    Approximately 200 families have been relocated to date. However, the decision whether to move or not is creating tensions and conflicts amongst the remaining groups, as highlighted in earlier research conducted by the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) as part of the research “Reducing Relocation Risk in Urban Areas” led by Cassidy Johnson at DPU.  If, on one side, relocation can improve health condition and security, on the other side it might result in greater impoverishment consequent to the loss of jobs and traditional ways of living. Currently, most of the population is against relocation. Lack of trust in the process, and the polarisation of political parties are poisoning the debate (Chavez, 2016). Understandably enough, relocation is, above all, a matter of the narrative that is created around it.

    Connected through a newly constructed road, Nuevo Belén is distant from the city of Iquitos, and from the Amazon River and its tributaries which are the main source of income. It is an artificial city that looks like a dorm, as few of the planned facilities have been built so far. Each family has been given a lot of around 120 sq.mt., out of which 40 are occupied by the house. The housing typology is far from reflecting the social organisation and the constructive tradition, let aside being suitable to the climate. Reason why most of the dwellers have already transformed the space. Shelters on stilts are popping up where the ‘gardens’ should be, while the concrete houses serve as shops. Productive spaces (‘huertas’) are mushrooming around the houses as a consequence of informal appropriation of land, although under temporary deals – as the land will be soon occupied by the second round of housing construction.

     

    Photo credit CASA

    Photo credit CASA

     

    Starting from the ‘huertas’, the workshop that took place in July in Nuevo Belén focused on alternative design proposals for the creation of self-sufficient systems to ensure the economic sustainability of resettlement, and to create new livelihoods options. Proposals, developed by an interdisciplinary team of PUCP students and validated by the community, investigate what technologies and construction techniques are better adaptable to the context in social, spatial and climatic terms (particularly related to solar energy and rain collection).

     

    Photo credit CASA

    Photo credit CASA

     

    Clearly, Amazonian cities posit great challenges, particularly to those communities affected by economic recession, settled on flood-prone areas and at risk of relocation. It is necessary to think a different urbanisation, flexible, adaptive and temporal, more similar to the tradition of disperse settlement of the native communities. Relocation should be conceptualised as an urbanism in flux characterised by interconnected mobilities and heterogeneity (Browder and Godfrey, 1997); and its open spaces should not be purely private nor merely public and should be understood as in-between spaces, reproduced through mobility that is constitutive of this urbanity in flux.

     

    Photo credit CASA

    Photo credit CASA


    DPU’s Camillo Boano and Giovanna Astolfo are involved in the research project Ciudades Auto-Sostenibles Amazónicas (CASA) that looks at the Amazonian city of Iquitos. The project is led by Pablo Vega-Centeno of the Centro de Investigación, Arquitectura y Ciudad (CIAC), Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), and coordinated by Belén Desmaison (PUCP and DPU alumna). As part of the project, in July Giovanna Astolfo participated to the workshop ‘Taller Partecipativo’ in Nuevo Belen with CASA team and students from PUCP.

    https://casapucp.com/

    CASA is part of the CRC Initiative funded by CDKN, IRDC and FFLA. https://crclatam.net/

    Conducting Research in the Context of Evictions in Lima, Peru

    By Loan Diep, on 27 January 2015

    Children in Cantagallo. Image: Loan Diep

    The MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU is currently involved in a multi-year project of overseas field research in Lima, Peru. I was part of this project last year and worked in Cantagallo, a small area close to the centre of the city. My team’s initial plan was to explore the way the construction of a transport megaproject was affecting people working and living in Cantagallo. However, unexpected events occurred during our presence there, and they profoundly changed the situation. The megaproject was evolving more rapidly than expected and a relocation process of the population started in fundamentally different ways than officially announced.

    While several families had accepted this and begun to clear their plots in exchange for a controversially low amount of compensation, others were trying to resist and negotiate the terms of their relocation with the authorities. Many families were evicted without an acceptable agreement made, if any at all. However, as the video below attempts to illustrate, the situation differs from one case to another because Cantagallo has been inhabited by families with different histories, and thus, different rights according to the law. This diversity has added to the complexity of the situation: in some cases it has created conflicts within the communities and also hampered possibilities for negotiation with the authorities.

    On our first visit to Cantagallo, teenagers were playing football in a large circular area at the entrance to the neighbourhood. On our third visit, the landscape had literally changed within a few days: all trees were being uprooted and little temporary houses had started to mushroom in this same football pitch. We were witnessing the eviction of some and relocation of others. We knew we held no power to make a significant change. I remember the sense of panic that invaded our research group when we realised there was little chance we could realistically and positively contribute to the situation. But there was work to do and opportunities to explore.

    We decided to capture the complexities of Cantagallo, understand its intricacies and explore the injustices that have been produced and reproduced over time. Some people had already been evicted in the past and were about to experience the same again. We interviewed them to hear their stories. Despite the events, many people came to the workshop we organised there. More significantly, many people from different parts of Cantagallo came to our final presentation to hear what we had to say. It was really unexpected but they all came to listen, to comment and to discuss.

    Most importantly, they did it together. This big communication gap that we had observed and thought was hampering progress in negotiations was being bridged in front of us. This gave me hope that they could jointly engage with the authorities over the following weeks. Today (eight months later), I know the people of Cantagallo have not been able to resist the megaproject despite their collaborative efforts. However, I deeply hope that our work has provided them with some grounds to break the continuing cycle of eviction in Lima.

     

    Loan Diep is graduate from the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU in 2014. Her academic background is in both natural and political sciences; she has degrees in Health, Safety and Environment (University of Caen, France) and a BSc in Environment Geography (UCL). Loan is currently working as a consultant for IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) and as a research intern at WSUP (Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor). She is also a Bartlett Ambassador for the period 2014-2017. Her interests lie in environmental politics, climate change, water & sanitation in the Global South.

    Read more about the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development overseas fieldtrips.