In the face of rapid urban expansion and environmental degradation, the people of Usme, a periurban town of Bogotá, have mobilised to protect the local environment and strengthen community autonomy over the neighbourhood.
The rapid growth and densification of Bogotá over the 20th century has produced unequal urban development stamped by social divisions — the coexistence of informal and formal modes of survival, illegal and legal access to housing, and the blending of rural and urban lifestyles. The 21st century megalopolis that Bogotá has become is composed of fragmented spaces tenuously connected by disparate realities and brutal social contrasts: new, elegant, protected financial and commercial complexes in trendy districts located in the northeast part of the city lie miles away from expansive networks of ramshackle tenements that stretch towards the south. Executives at their rushed lunch-hour eat in fancy bistros, women with children beg from drivers stuck in vast traffic jams, homeless recicladores trawl through rubbish bins, hundreds of workers hammer from the 20th floor of a financial tower under construction, crowds of people swarm in the almost countless shopping malls.
Poor migrant workers fleeing Colombia’s 60-year armed conflict have settled in increasingly dense peripheries of the country’s capital, such as Ciudad Bolívar and Usme, thus informally extending the breadth of the city towards its southern borders at a rapid pace of growth. Most of them have purchased illegal plots of land from swindlers, built their houses by themselves and fought for infrastructure, equipment and services through political organizing. The rest have accessed state credits to live in enclosed urban housing complexes built and sold by private real estate developers.
Usme: an urban-rural border threatened
Usme lies at the southern urban-rural border strategically located next to the Páramo de Sumapaz, an enormous neo-tropical tundra ecosystem and water reserve. It had remained relatively isolated from the city-proper until 1954 when it became incorporated into Bogotá, triggering a process of residential densification through legal and illegal urbanization. Compared to Ciudad Bolivar, the shantytown of 713,764 people toward the southwest of the city, Usme has a smaller population (349,346) and remains the very last green area for urban expansion.
Since the creation of the Doña Juana dumpsite in 1988, Usme has received more than 5,000 tons of garbage per day. As described by Jaime, a resident and community leader from the La María neighborhood, “The city has made Usme its junk yard, where it just piles up everything it throws away.” Nine years later, on September 27, 1997 approximately 800,000 tons of garbage from the dump slid into and consequently blocked the Tunjuelo River, causing an unprecedented sanitary and health disaster.
In addition, large portions of land in Usme, which has been a sand and gravel mining area since the 1950s, have been bought up since the early 2000s by multinationals such as Cemex and Holcim. These companies have begun to exploit the area for material extraction, creating huge pools of polluted water that caused dangerous flooding in 35 neighbourhoods below the mines during the winter of 2002. Usme is in many senses confronted with the residue of the city, where the materials which drive the city are sourced and where its excess is dumped.
These environmental problems are aggravated by the city government’s Nuevo Usme urban expansion plan for the construction of 53,000 homes in Usme over the next 20 years. The area has been chosen as the site of a new urban settlement project, Usme Ciudad Futuro. Metrovivienda, the real estate company that has long provided affordable housing in the area is in charge of the project, and is seen by a large portion of the Usme population as the main cause of environmental destruction in the town.
While digging up the land on the old Hacienda El Carmen for the new residential complex, Metrovivienda found hundreds of pre-hispanic human remains and graveyards. Upon this discovery, construction was forced to halt while an archaeological team from the National University explored a major necropolis and worship site belonging to the Muisca people, the prehispanic population that resided on the entire high plateau where Bogotá lies and who used Usme as a holy site from the 12th to the 16th century.
The archeological discovery triggered a legal conflict over the modification of the Hacienda El Carmen Partial Plan, a local piece of the national land regulation plan that since 2000 has attempted to stave off the city´s uncontrollable growth and illegal production of housing, and promote more equal access to the use of urban land.
Before the archaeological findings took place the partial plan designated this area for urban expansion and development. However, according to law 1185 of 2008 this site should be declared national patrimony and Metrovivienda cannot cede this area as a park or as part of the housing complex facilities. Surprisingly, the Colombian National Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH) in charge of protecting the new archaeological patrimony issued an archaeological management plan favouring Metrovivienda that demarcated 22 hectares for development of the building/housing plan and only 8 hectares for the creation of a park including a cultural centre, museum, laboratories, libraries and a research centre.
Emerging from a long tradition of peasant and communist resistance, the current environmental movement in Usme took shape after the 1997 trash disaster as well as the 2002 floods. As its more radical leaders stated during public hearings in October 2012: “We are a unit of wealth, we are urban rural, we are a unit of resistance. The south rules.”
"The river basin is not for sale. No to urban expasion, no to environmental destruction".
The group we have been working with in this area for a year has settled in Usme during the last three decades, fleeing violence and unemployment. They have built the El Oasis and La María neighbourhoods thanks to the struggle of five brave women who were incarcerated when they tried to connect water piping to their houses. They were released from jail after a year due to neighbours´ pressure on city hall. The group was together through the “pot lid strike” to obtain a legal electric line and a second strike to resist police eviction. They achieved construction of their neighbourhood church and community centre through the funds obtained through community meals, until El Oasis was fully legalized in 1998.
Over the last three months our research teams have made weekly visits to Usme, Bogotá to support local community leaders in the formulation of a management project for the protection and future of the Tunjuelo River basin, during which time we witnessed the rise of five seven-story towers just a few meters from the river. The Colombian government’s Colombia Humanitaria program, built the towers to relocate hundreds of displaced residents from areas in risk of landslides and homeless people from the highest crime- and murder-rate areas of the Bogotá such as the Bronx and Cinco Huecos. One such resident Edith, the president of the El Oasis Neighbourhood Council complains that the new residents have no environmental awareness at all- they throw garbage from the fifth floor onto the sidewalk! This is shocking for residents like her who, ten or fifteen years ago, were collectively building their neighbourhood and would even eat together down by the river, and see small crabs sunk into the shores, trout swimming up the river and birds swirling around in the sky overhead.
Community leaders have a keen interest in the protection of their environment and in what they posit is “local ancestral heritage.” A woman attending one of their meetings defined Usme’s borders as, “the point of impact between the city and the countryside, the symptom of the excessive growth of Bogotá, which must be stopped.” Local residents lead political activities to propose a “contention strip” against urban expansion and advocate for the protection and reforestation of the Tunjuelo River basin. They suggest thinking in terms of territorial reorganization for safe use and protection of the basin, based on their experience, collective work and the community’s will.
As a result of our weekly discussions, this group proposed the creation of a cultura popular del hábitat (popular habitat culture): an environmental awareness project grounded in a strong sense of ownership and care for their place of residence. Claudia, a 55-year-old nurse and single mother who arrived in 2004, posits “As time goes on and man destroys nature, nature comes back to reclaim what is hers.” For this group identity has nothing to do with the formal laws often imposed on them by officials. Rather, it translates to autonomy, to the ability to solve problems according to their own vision and choices.
Linking ancestry with wisdom, spirituality and care for nature, the community has proposed a reinvention of the Muiscan culture as one which raises awareness of and revives ancestral knowledge that might be of use in their river recovery project. Their project seeks to realize a large agropolitan park, and to train local promoters in the construction of ‘interpretative paths’ and ‘talking landscapes’ — both initiatives geared toward servicing ecotourism in the area. These initiatives aim to contribute to residents’ wellbeing and to develop a community business that harnesses local experience, creativity, ability and know-how.
Rural and urban dwellers in the southern periphery of Usme oppose the lack of democratic public rule. By asserting their will to recover the Tunjuelo River basin and reinvent Muiscan ancestral practices, they propose a new agrarian urbanity based on environmental, cultural and educational projects. Instead of looking with awe at the modern city, they view the incredible pace of the destruction of their surroundings with deep concern and aim to re-ruralize. Inhabitants claiming and reinventing Muiscan ancestry, as well as dwellers from the various waves of migration, are turning their attention to traditional peasant and indigenous ways of thinking, to question the private-expert alliance’s take on the city as simply a commodity to exploit.