Altos de Florida seems a world apart from Bogotá. It is situated at a height, a good half hour trip from the lower streets of Soacha, a satellite city of the Colombian capital. The only way to reach the neighbourhood is by minibus or jeep, similar to those widely used in the countryside. The road that took us there is dusty and windy. On the way fellow passengers are in good spirits, all the while covering their noses with handkerchiefs. An array of accents from all parts of Colombia can be heard: there you hear some costeñospeaking, here some tolimense, over there some caqueteño, there some valluno, there some paisa, some others with a strong accent from the Pacific coast, and the ubiquitous roloaccent from Bogotá, revealing the varied social and ethnic composition of this ever-growing community. As we proceed further uphill, the housing becomes more and more precarious and want becomes more acutely felt –there is no sewage, no running water, an unreliable electrical supply, difficulties to get a phone signal. But houses as such are more precarious because they are newer the further we go up. New people arrive to Soacha every day; some looking for new opportunities in the big city, others running away from conflict in other parts of the country. In spite of the peace agreement between the FARC-EP guerrillas and the Colombian government, forced displacement continues and violence still plagues many parts of the country.
But violence also plagues Soacha itself. Many families in this neighbourhood have been displaced a few times within Soacha, having to move from one quarter to another. Gangs proliferate and the right-wing paramilitaries –which the government and local authorities often deny even exist- are firmly entrenched behind what some people describe as invisible borders. Territorial control is enforced by these omnipresent groups, who control the rackets, access to land and impose their version of social order through the periodic social cleansing of those they deem to be undesirable or disposable (desechables). Yet, it is this place where many people are struggling to create, with varying degrees of success, a community. This neighbourhood is where many families have settled and defend as their home, putting an enormous amount of effort into building a proper settlement, a task in which they are almost completely left to their own devices, save from some intermittent support from international organisations such as the UN and NGOs.
One of those NGOs is the Jesuit Refugee Service, JRS, a partner organisation within the Preparedness and Resilience to Address Urban Vulnerability Project. In Mid-March we organised an urban vulnerability walk. An urban vulnerability walk is a method adapted from Plan International’s Safety Walks, which was developed with UN-Habitat in 2013 to explore the safety needs of adolescent girls in cities to inform the ‘Safer Cities for Girls’ programme. It is designed to understand the ways in which the locals, in their own living space, experience their territory and how they see vulnerabilities and risks, as well as areas of empowerment and joy. There are eight principles associated with the method: Personal Safety; General Safety of Area; Security Resources; Environmental Vulnerability; Accessibility; Community Spaces; Inclusion; and Capacities and Resilience. I was joined by Valentina and Gina from the JRS team, together with six local men, none of which was a community leader. A couple of months before, this method had been implemented with women and we wanted to know, following some leads from the masculinities perspective, whether the experience of the territory was different for men and if so, how it was experienced differently.
Everyone –including ourselves- was late. This was good in the end, as it gave us a more laid back environment, and we were chatting endlessly of all sorts of small-and-not-so-small-talk until everyone gathered and we thought it was time to depart. Most of them came from different parts of the country –just one, who was the young adult son of one participant, was born in Bogotá. Most of them came from the Colombian countryside and this has repercussions on their own social appropriation of the town. As we merrily started to walk, camera in hand, we soon realised that the men were not interested in giving us a ‘poverty pornography’ trip. Although vulnerabilities and risks appeared during the talk, sometimes directly and other times indirectly referred to, they rather wanted us to see the bright side of living in Altos de Florida and the immediately neighbouring quarter, Piedras Blancas. One of the first things one of them did, a man from the department of Casanare, in the Eastern Plains of Colombia, was to stop and tell me: ‘this is why I like to live here’, pointing to the mountain slope ahead of us, ‘here we are free just like the birds. This freedom reminds me of Casanare.’ From an objective point of view the difference between the landscape in Casanare and Soacha could not be greater. Yet, the deeply subjective perception of the space, associated with freedom, made the unlikely comparison resonate.
Our guides during the walk, these men from the community, told us that it was better if we stayed in the area in which we were, and didn’t venture to the other side of the local community hall used by the JRS where we started the walk, the side going in the direction of the centre of Soacha and from which we came. They said that this side was safe, whereas the other wasn’t. Immediately we could perceive one of those invisible borders at work. They said they felt really safe at any time in this area. That nothing ever happened. But if they crossed to the other side, there could be ‘trouble’. What kind of trouble? Just trouble. People can be nasty, they rob, and hurt outsiders. And what happened –I asked- if others cross to this side of the quarter? ‘We don’t mind’, they said, ‘as long as they are quiet and orderly. But the moment they start to act the maggot and do harm, then we have to deal with them and tell them to leave’. How that does happen? ‘That is something the men do. We come together, and go and tell them to leave or face consequences. They would leave immediately’. It was important for them to emphasise that they were in control, that they were fulfilling normative expectations of masculine figures as security providers. We kept walking and we came across another territorial marker: there was a large stone painted with the name of the infamous right-wing paramilitary organisation, the AUC, together with the word Paraco, which is slang for paramilitary. I asked immediately, ‘what is that?’ and the only reaction from the group was a collective shrugging of shoulders. A few steps forward, one of the young lads came back to me as I was taking pictures there saying, ‘that could be anything, could be anyone, could be just stupid lad doing graffiti’… ‘could be’ I said, ‘but what if it is in fact the AUC?’. He shrugged and told me not to be left behind, to catch up the pace with the others. This marker proved the limits to their own normative expectations. Sometimes, in the face of risk, men prefer to just ignore it, as if with this denial they would make it disappear.
As we walked, they frequently chatted to passers-by. Mostly friendly talk, but there was a wee discussion during the walk. As we passed a house, because of the lack of proper sewage, some human waste was running down the street. One of the man said, ‘this is something that embarrasses us. We wouldn’t like you to see such an image, but we are working on it. We will do some work, a project, so we can have proper sewage here. We will get support with the materials and we will do the work ourselves’. Carrying some elements of their rural worldview, particularly the custom of engaging in collective works, variably called cambio de mano, convite, jornada cívica or minga, and which typically consist of saving a day a week for working in collective projects for the benefit of the whole community or to support elderly or sick members of the community. Notwithstanding the fact that the Colombian peasantry has a huge tendency towards individual ownership of land, they also have a tendency towards practicing collective and concerted action. It is this culture that they have taken to the city. Yet, conflict about priorities do exist as people will have, naturally, different inclinations and will perceive the territory differently. A woman came out and asked them what they were going to do the sewage before saying something else, which was inaudible. One of the men was married to a community leader, and it was in this capacity that the woman was holding him to task. He just explained that it had already been collectively decided that this was going to be done during the course of the year and that after this was done, then they could devote energy and resources to other projects. She left in a huff, unconvinced, while the man just laughed and said, ‘you can’t keep everyone happy’.
We realized then the big sense of pride in having developed their neighboured by themselves. They had done so in the face of obvious difficulties and challenges, with their effort and resourcefulness and they were rightly proud. While outsiders may perceive this quarter as a poor neighbourhood in desperate need of intervention, they also experience it as home, as a place they have created themselves and which they are improving each passing day. When you look at the world through these lenses, suddenly you see the effort they put in hanging pots of plants at the entry of their houses and you see the colours with which they paint their facades. This is not only a mechanism to cope with daily poverty, but a genuine sense of pride was also evident. Unlike what some NGO workers have told us in the past, these men seem to have a great sense of ownership of the neighbourhood; an ownership that is more a sense than a reality –they have insecure tenure as deeds here are non-existent. Technically, they are all squatters of a hillside desolate belonging to a big landlord, which they have turned into their home. Suddenly, all the men said, ‘if you want to know about risk and vulnerability, that is our biggest problem here. That we don’t own anything. This is ours, because we have worked on it, because we have built it, but if they want to evict us, they could do it’. They then showed us, past Piedras Blancas, a barbed-wire fence. They pointed beyond the fence and stated, ‘this is bought now by the army, they want to build a barracks, a military base, housing for the soldiers, God knows. All we know is that this adds to our insecurity. We just don’t know what will happen to us. As more people move in, people with more resources, they will not be happy with us and may ask for us to be kicked out .’
This is not just a problem of Altos de Florida or Piedras Blancas. It is not a sense of insecurity which is new to these men either: wherever they came from, they know this feeling of insecure tenure too well. Tenure insecurity is a persistent problem in Colombia, which lies at the root of the armed conflict that has blighted the nation for over half a century. In 1850, over 75% of the country were public lands without a private owner. Since the boom of tropical exports in the second part of the 19th century, there has been a veritable scramble over these public lands, called baldíos in Spanish. Entrepreneurs and landlords have illicitly appropriated vast tracts of the country over a century, often displacing the smallholders who had worked that land first, many of whom lacking a deed or title, at least could claim ownership of the land because of their activity. The methods for displacing these smallholding peasantry has varied, from deceit, to indebtedness to naked paramilitary violence over the more recent decades. This process of relentless land-grabbing has led Colombia to be one of the countries with the worst distribution of land in the world: 0.1% of the estates control almost 59% of the total arable land in the country –and many landowners have more than one large estate. Displacement is aided by insecure land tenure and, the displacement in turn reinforces the insecurity of tenure as there is a roving population constantly looking for a new place to settle down, with the hope that this time it’ll be for good.
This process has led to countless rural citizens settling in the misery belts around the big urban centres of Cali, Medellín and especially Bogotá. Soacha, once a sleepy rural town at the outskirts of Bogotá, has become one such belt since the 1980s. Here we have a rural population being violently absorbed by a city which is clearly not able to accommodate them. But these displaced people –of which there are at least 7 million in Colombia, making it the country with the most internally displaced persons globally – find themselves with exactly the same problems which they found in the rural areas where they have come from: a mixture of violence and insecure tenure within a context in which the lack of rights or even basic services is the norm. Unable to buy land, they occupy barren lands in the outskirts of the city, which eventually get formalised and incorporated. Thus, the Colombian cities have grown without planning, responding to the immediate needs of a most vulnerable population. And yet, in the midst of this unspeakable vulnerability and violence, the resourcefulness and creativity of the displaced are the basis of an extraordinarily resilient culture.
We kept going uphill, through a dirt road that led to the charcoal kiln producing smoke throughout the day. This is one of the few enterprises in this side of town and one of the few sources of income a lot of locals would have. They collect any wood they can find on these largely treeless slopes, bring it here and turn it into charcoal for sale. It does help some locals to get an extra income, but it comes at a price. When the wind blows in the direction of Altos de Florida and Piedras Blancas, the smoke can be suffocating. To the other side of the charcoal kiln, there is a dump used by different textile factories. This is how the outside world sees this part of Soacha; as a place where they can dump litter and pollute with total impunity. I asked, as we were walking up the dirt road, if they were thinking of doing collective works to improve the state of the road. ‘Not while the charcoal kiln is here’ one of the men said. ‘We will not do the work so they benefit from it’. So collective work is a means to bring the community together, but it is also a means to mark the boundaries of the community as such.
All of a sudden, they ask, ‘do you want to see something cool?’; ‘Sure, what is it?’; ‘The man of the sun, the reason why Soacha is called this way’ the men replied interrupting one another. Soacha is a word that comes from the muysc cubun language, which was spoken by the muiscas, the original inhabitants of these lands when the Spaniards arrived and conquered them in the 16th century. It derives from the words Sua, which means sun, and Cha, which means man. It therefore means ‘the man of the sun’. They were telling us that there was an indigenous Pre-Columbian painting in the rock. We knew of Canoas, not too far from Altos de Florida, which is a group of rocks with native painting dating for at least five centuries, which is considered a site of national heritage. But I had never heard of this particular site, which is a short walk from the hall in which we had met last year to work and never even heard about it. The team of JRS hadn’t heard of it either. The people say that some years ago a team of archaeologists had come and this is how they knew how old the painting was. They feel very proud about it. They feel that this should be a touristic attraction. And they are right. We went up, climbing our way through the big pale rocks, until we reached the highest point of the hill and there he was, painted in red, staring at us with a millennia-old face: a character with radiant spikes coming out of its head, surrounded by batons. Another marker of territoriality, yet an ancient one, a faint reminder, a testament of a world violently disrupted and torn apart through colonialism and conquest.
On the way back to the community hall, one of the men pointed at the three crosses on the top of the hill around which Altos de Florida curves. One of the crosses had fallen because of the strong winds. He said they would fix that soon, but that a dream for him would be that there was a museum up there, on the hill, to tell everyone the story of how they had built the neighbourhood and all the work they had to put on it. As we arrived, we still had some time to discuss the walk and have some much needed refreshments after some three hours walking around. When asked about what security means to them, at unison they claimed ‘rights’. No one mentioned more police presence at first as bringing security, and only one person mentioned it, quite reluctantly, almost as a filler, at the very end of the discussion of what security means to you in one word. More than a sense of poverty, what could be felt in the room is a sense of disenfranchisement. People discuss about the lack of rights, and when asked if they wanted to work closely with the authorities people were unsure; distrust runs deep in the communities and they feel that if the authorities come and do work here, not only will there be corruption, but also that any such works would only prelude their eviction. Echoing the discussions about the perennial agrarian question in Colombia, which revolve around the issue of whom has a right to land, regardless of who has a legal deed over it or whoever is toiling on it, they feel that their work, their work alone, is the sole guarantee they have to prove that they have a moral –if not legal- right to the land. They may not have property over the land, but they own the work they have invested in it.
As we came down from the heights of Soacha, with the dust layering the floor of the jeep, I felt very fortunate to have been shown this perspective of Soacha by these men, who were generous with their time and most welcoming to us, outsiders. Valentina and Gina felt the same way. The men were pleased that we appreciated their agency and their resourcefulness, and told us they wanted to see us soon to keep talking a bit more and to show us other places. More than pity, what they need is precisely the recognition of their dignity and capacities. ‘The best support we could get’, one of them said, ‘is to be left alone here, to be guaranteed our right to live here, to get support for our own initiatives, and for them to stop polluting us with the charcoal kiln and dumping rubbish in our neighbourhood. The rest we can do ourselves’. Although far-off from their respective places of origin, they are too familiar with the issues they face in Soacha; they have grown savvy on how to manoeuvre in a context where there is a lack of rights, no recognition, territorial control by violent agents and insecurity of tenure. They know that all they can rely upon to secure a better future for them and their children is their own effort. They are laying roots in Soacha and this was best exemplified by the way in which they showed us the ‘man of Soacha’, as if the knowledge of this landmark would give them an intimate umbilical cord to the territory, fostering their sense of belonging in reference to the original inhabitants/owners of these lands. While they occasionally may yearn for the land they left behind, they are determined to build a community in Altos de Florida, and have already turned it into a place they call home.
José A. Gutiérrez Danton
16th April, 2018
José, a PhD student at University College Dublin, is a secondee within the PRUV Project to Jesuit Refugee Service in Colombia.