Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Different Culture Matters

A March 1996 AIA junket took us from San Diego down into Tijuana to discuss the dynamics and population trends in that area. We visited the Colonia Esperanza project as the guest of Christine Kosko, director, the Americas Foundation. Never having seen this kind of lliving situation, which was essentially squatters living on the land with no infrastructure, it was difficult to understand how the cities and governments in Mexio could allow this form of habitation, which severely degrades the environment as it becomes crowded with migrant families. It becomes important to understand the culture of governance and control in Mexico, which exists under a Napoleonic form of law that is enforced primarily by the land-owning weathy families who basically run the country. The government does not have the resources to oversee much of the land outside of the cities, hence the unallayed destruction of the outlying environment with sprawling camps.

A description of how these colonias typically evolve is here in a discussion of their encroachment in the Oaxaca Valley:

"Colonias tend to follow a basic developmental pattern. Once about ten families have settled in a given spot household heads gather to demand the basic services of water and electricity. In the meantime they live in wretched conditions: without electricity, on dirt streets with no sanitation or sewers, walking long distances to find potable water. The irregular status of the settlement means they have no direct access to public transport or services such as vaccination campaigns and other health programs. During a second phase, which may take years to emerge, residents begin to pressure for other services: schools, sewage, transportation, paved streets. Higgins labels these "mature colonias" (Higgins 1974) and notes they usually are associated with a process of housing improvements such as concrete roofs, brick walls, and more sturdy construction. Even so these improvements basically reflect do-it-yourself construction without regard to formal plans or regulations.

"Another component in colonia development is the land speculator. These individuals gain access to ejido or communal lands committees, and through corruption or pressure, arrange to have lands to which they have no legal right transferred to them for resale to families looking for homesites on the urban periphery. During a field survey in November, 1995, it was possible to identify plots, usually 200 square meters, for sale at 3000, 5000, or 8000 pesos under conditions where no legal titles to the land were available to the seller. Such plots, often with dubious or fabricated titles, are common elements in colonia formation. After the official declaration of Monte Alban boundaries in 1994 the occupation of land speculator became popular in the neighboring communities. Not only private manipulators but municipal presidents, vice-presidents, and treasurers as well as ejidal and communal lands committee members entered the speculation game.

"As for the families who create the colonias, it is obvious that one commonality is that they are poor migrants arriving from elsewhere. Nevertheless they are not all peasants from rural indigenous communities who have come to the city in search of work, as was the case in 1878 (Yescas Peralta 1958: 779). Today the majority are families from towns across the state (Rees, et al 1991) who have lived as renters for some time in the city of Oaxaca. Having accumulated some capital (Butterworth 1973: 220) and finding the cost of housing in the city center prohibitive, they opt to move to a nearby suburban area where they can purchase a low-cost lot and have the possibility of a home through owner-built construction. Land on the slopes of Monte Alban fits this need, for as ejidal or communal lands no longer in use those holding the use rights prefer to subdivide and sell parcels cheaply to low-income people who will not demand formal title."

So the form of governance, as well as culture, has a major impact on how sustainable land use happens, and how the preservation of the existing natural environment must be undertaken. In this country, it will necessarily involve radical land use reform as well as providing affordable living spaces in the urban areas for people who don't own property.