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The struggle for the recognition of collectively owned urban land in Cochabamba, Bolivia

DingLiu23 February 2012

Post written by Jo Maguire, DPU alumna 2003-05.

The new Bolivian constitution, introduced in January 2010, when over 64% of the voting population approved it, states that adequate housing is a right (Article 19, Section I), that the state will promote social housing plans based on the principles of solidarity and equity, directed preferably at low-income families (Article 19, Sec II) and that collectively owning property is recognised (Article 56, Sec I)

Many of the articles in the new constitution await the introduction of laws to support them, and social housing provision and the right to collectively own urban land is among them. Collective land is legally recognised in rural areas, as an important feature of indigenous rural communities, but not in urban areas. However, the residents of a community in Cochabamba are the attempting to change that, by pushing the local government to pass an ordinance that recognises their community as collectively owned, and by proposing a new national law that recognises collectively owned solidarity communities in general.

The Community Maria Auxiliadora is a beautiful anomaly. In the peri-urban “Zona Sur” of the city of Cochabamba, it was created 12 years ago by a steering group of five women, following the vision of Rose Mary Irusta. She took out a loan to buy a parcel of land so that low-income women and children could have access to their own house, rather living in the squalid, overcrowded rented housing conditions that so many families have to endure in the city, with the related problems of stress, illness, abuse, youth delinquency and child neglect. The result of this vision is the Habitát para Mujeres, Comunidad María Auxiliadora (Habitat for Women, María Auxiliadora Community), an intercultural solidarity community.  Currently with just under 2000 residents (365 families), it is planned to grow to 5000. It has a democratic base, with a Management Committee elected every two years, and a President and Vice President that are always women. There is much encouragement of women’s leadership, recognising that women tend to be more concerned and affected by their families’ housing. There are many single parent families. A mainstay of the community is the community work carried out on Sundays, where the community’s principles of solidarity and mutual self-help are evident. The community is not religious, nor has a political line. It is multicultural: residents come from all over Bolivia, there are different indigenous groups as well as mestizos (mixed race), and two indigenous languages are widely spoken as well as Spanish.

To enter the community a family has to have a low income and not own a house or land in Bolivia. They must sign that they agree to the community rules: that the land is collective, that they have the right to indefinitely use the plot allocated and leave it to their children; that they cannot sell or rent out their house, as the community is “for living, not for profit”; that they will do community work and attend the monthly meetings; that they will not sell alcohol. The cost entering the community and having a plot on which to build a house is 600 US$, i.e. 3$ per square metre, while surrounding neighbourhoods are selling at over 20$ per square metre. It can be paid over a year. The price is fixed, so making a plot and house accessible to low-income families and avoiding the current free-market approach to land in peri-urban areas, where land is bought as an investment and left vacant. While a family does not have an individual title deed, they do have a legal document naming them as co-owners of the whole community and giving them and their descendents the right to occupy their housing plot.

The social impact is impressive. There is security, a rarity in peri-urban areas; less alcoholism or violence within the family than in other neighbourhoods; mutual support and solidarity (for families in crisis there is a repayable fund to help them, and if that is not enough a whip-round). Many of the young people are studying at university; the local school says that the community’s students are getting the best exam results; there is a self-managed youth group, putting on events for the children of the community and carrying out projects. The community is developing its own culture, and restoring aspects of a culture still found in the countryside in Bolivia but usually lost when people move to the city: a culture based on communitarianism rather than individualism.

The cornerstone of this social and physical capital gained by residents is the collective ownership of the community. If the residents had individual title deeds they could do what they liked within their walls and the community would have very little control. As it is, the Management Committee debates an issue and then takes it to the monthly community meeting for a decision: a man continues to beat up his partner and children, despite help from the Family Support Committee, should he be expelled from the community? A family has not paid their monthly housing loan payments to the NGO for over a year and does not live in the house, should the house be given to another family and their investment repaid?

All this has been gained by a lot of hard physical work. The residents have cleared the roads, put in a well, water tank and pipe network, and a sewage system with an ecological treatment plant, built a community office, sports facilities, and an afterschool club. Most of this has been done without help from any level of government. National and international NGOs have helped to an extent, especially with house building loans.

The community is better known internationally that locally, with a World Habitat Award in 2008, and as a shining example for the Habitat International Coalition. But there are many powerful local interests that work against the community: politicians visit and say it should be a model for all Bolivia and then do nothing. The whole of the Zona Sur of Cochabamba city, with 200,000 residents, is still classified as rural land, and this benefits a corrupt network of surveyors, lawyers, “loteadores” – people that illegally buy grazing land from local peasant farmers and divide and sell it as housing plots – as well as local government officials and politicians.

So the struggle to get collectively owned urban land legally recognised is not easy. The community, particularly the group Mujeres Lideres de la Communidad Maria Auxiliadora (Women Leaders of the Maria Auxiliadora Community), is currently attempting to push the local government elected body to pass a ordinance that recognises that the community is collectively owned land, however there are representatives and officials that oppose it. The community has elaborated a law that will permit collectively owned urban land and recognise solidarity communities, which is supported by the Vice Ministry of Housing, and is presently with the President’s office and other Ministries for consultation.

An unexpected breakthrough resulted from a recent judges’ verdict. Rose Mary Irusta was taken to court, accused of fraud by a small group within the community. They had family members working abroad, had built large houses and wanted to sell up and move on. The judge stated that they knew perfectly well the rules of the community when they entered it, and there was no evidence of fraud. Moreover, he stated that the community was collective owned; so giving some legal acknowledgement to the existence of collectively owed urban land.

Jo is an architect living and working in Cochabamba-Bolivia. The views expressed in this piece are her own.