Stop complaining - start actingColombia: When refugees build their own cities
Do you know how to engineer a water aqueduct all by yourself? Or how to build streets and houses on simple field? I’m sure most of us don’t. But these people just did! A photo story on the invisible heroes of the “Comuna 8” district in Medellín. Read More
When the war came to his village, Oscar Zapata had to flee his home. He was forced to abandon his house, his field, his village. And he ultimately ended up, like so many others, in Medellín: Colombia’s second largest city.
The armed conflict between the government, paramilitary groups, and guerrillas has been rocking the country for decades. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians have had to flee the violence in their country’s interior, and Columbia’s cities are bursting at the seams.
Most people who live in downtown Medellín, among the office skyscrapers, are unaware of the refugee quarters on the edge of the city. But people live on all the hillsides that ring the city’s valley.
They often inhabit undeveloped land where there were initially no streets, no water and no electricity. The authorities do not recognise these districts, viewing them as illegal occupations. They aren’t listed on any map and receive few, if any, public services.
But rather than complain, the people who live there are taking an active role.
El Faro: Refugees build their own neighbourhood
When Oscar Zapata Londoño washed up in Medellín, the city had no space for him. So he joined together with around a dozen other displaced families to create a new neighbourhood from scratch: They occupied land on the hillside, built paths and houses, and laid electrical lines and water pipes.
Today, the “El Faro” barrio is a new quarter with its own identity and structures of solidarity. This man is one of the inhabitants of El Faro. Many of the people who live here are farmers like him, driven from their homes.
Altos de la torre: Building aqueducts
Alonso Paulino Gómez from the “Altos de la torre” barrio is a true innovator: He discovered how to build public aqueducts. As there is usually no drinking water supply to the barrios, his idea was a real breakthrough and has been copied in many other barrios.
Alonso moves water from small mountain gorges into the neighbourhood. Since the barrios are located quite high on the mountain slopes, this water is very clean and good for drinking and washing. Alonso designed aqueducts, built wells and showed his neighbours how to transport water through pipes. Now many families have running water in their houses. The rest have access to water at the communal water tanks that are only a 10-15 minute walk from their homes.
Pinares de Oriente: Communal vegetable patch
In the barrio “Pinares de Oriente”, the neighbours founded a communal vegetable patch. The people who live here come from many different parts of the country, but most shared a common fate: They were farmers before the conflict forced them to leave their homes. Now they grow onions, potatoes and carrots right in the middle of the city.
Pinares de Oriente
Every family in “Pinares de Oriente” gets one parcel of land to cultivate safe and healthy food. While most people from the barrio travel to the city centre to work every day, there is usually one family member who cares for the garden. It’s often the elderly and the children who spend their days planting and weeding.
The families who live in “Pinares de Oriente” not only share this patch of land; they also share the produce it yields. They have their own system of exchanging the crops they harvest.
Pinares de Oriente
One of the community initiative’s aims is to provide the children who grow up in the barrio with healthy food. The elderly show them how to plant and harvest, how to treat the soil and the seeds, and even how to raise chickens. Here in the middle of the city, they are passing their cultural heritage and traditional farmers’ knowledge on to the younger generation.
These are just a few of the stories from the barrios in Comuna 8. You won’t find the places they take place on any map. But the people who live here defend their right to exist. They respect their barrio and do their own development projects – and they don’t care whether the authorities accept them or whether the city’s other inhabitants are even aware of them.