Mapping poverty and evictions in Chile

Social movements and take-overs of land seem to be a characteristic that pops into the mind of many when they think about Latin America (Davila, 2014). But among the countries in the global south which have diminished significantly the number of self built housing or self managed areas (also known as “slums”, “slum shack dwellings”, “informal sector”, etc) is Chile (UNHabitat, 2003, 2013). Indeed, how does it manage to drop to a 5% of settlements, when most of the countries around the world and in its region actually increased numbers of “informal settlements”? Does it mean we are in an “advanced” state of development? Is Chile’s neo-liberalism (Harvey, 2005) not that bad, as the World Bank (1993, 2010) suggested in the 90’s? Are we now different to world class cities (Thornley & Peter, 2011), which make extensive use of evictions of the urban poor for the sake of competing in a globalized world (Friedmann, 2010)?  After all, Chile’s development success was transferred by the Word bank to countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia (Sugranyes, 2004). Maybe devoting time just to understand one case is a good chance to explore how Chile deals with informality and its urban expressions. And to scrutinize what is actually “transferable” from one context to another (MCann & Ward, 2012). 

Among the most recent settlements in Chile, and one of the largest, is the Toma de Peñalolén. For those unfamiliar with the term Toma, it was coined during the 1950’s (de Ramon, 1990). The Term made reference to how the urban poor and impoverished urban communities simply took over a vacant land to obtain a place to live in the city. The example presented in this post shares many characteristics of these past forms of take overs. Not only by the fact that it is a take-over of land, but it’s strong internal and political organization that resists the pressure of eviction. This form of occupying land was thought by the mainstream politicians to be a phase of the past. And the emergence for the Toma resurfaced once again the discussion of the right to the city (Lefebvre, 1991). But this time not by academics, developers or politicians. But by those at the receiving end of policies.

Eviction process at city scale

Image 1: Places where families were evicted to after the Toma. (30 in Colina; 10 to Quilicura; 4-5 in Puente Alto; 1338 in Penalolen). The map still requires some other pobalciones to be identified.

The case presented here, Toma de Peñalolén began in June 1999, well after democracy was reinitialized in Chile (1990). The Interviews carried out with Toma dwellers suggests it was not spontaneous (as usual). Instead it was a well organized movement, which dated years before the Toma itself, progressively building the necessary social networks within the borough to mobilize thousands of people for the take over. Cell phones and text messages became an important communication element to mobilize so many people in such a little time (in a few hours) to take over Miguel Nasur’s land. The most relevant organization systems that allowed such as swift and effective movement were the comites: one of the simplest form of community organization.  It is similar to the UK committees social organization. And the Toma de Peñalolén actually shows the potential these have to affect agendas, or change for whom we build the city. Indeed, the Toma, in the hands of around 20 activists, grew up to 10,000 dwellers; organized in at least 20 comites; 12 comisiones; and a mesa central. They had streets with names and numbers for each dwelling; capacity to employ and feed many in their community. Interviews suggests women even felt safer inside the Toma than outside, due to its efficient inner security system and familiarity with everyone that lived in it. They obtained light, building their own water and sewage system, which they tapped into the mainstream systems thanks to their capacity to negotiate collectively with institutions “outside” their Toma. And almost managed to avoid eviction. After their eviction in 2006, 200 people still remain in the Toma. Most of will be allocated social housing in the following years.

Map 1: LOCATION OF DWELLERS RIGHT BEFORE THEIR TOMA. Red signals the streets where people lived BEFORE the Toma. Blue is the Toma (1999-2015) area. Sources: Pablo Astorga and Googlemaps.

Map 1: LOCATION OF DWELLERS RIGHT BEFORE THEIR TOMA. Red signals the streets where people lived BEFORE the Toma. Blue is the Toma (1999-2015) area. Sources: Pablo Astorga and Googlemaps.


Map 2: OLDER SETTLEMENTS AND EVICTED AREAS: A COMPARATIVE MAP. Green areas are “formalized” settlements and some mid income housing projects between 1979 and 1993. Yellow indicates where Toma dwellers were recently evicted between 2006 and  2009. New locations (in yellow) suggests people were relocated in/near/adjacent the traditionally popular areas again. Interviewees suggested new locations were chosen as “cheapest available” in the Comuna. Sources: Pablo Astorga, Claudio Contreras (TUC, 1995)  and Googlemaps

The first two maps show what streets the Toma dwellers lived in just before they formed part of the Toma (streets in RED); the Toma itself (area in BLUE); and the places they were evicted to (areas in YELLOW). A few conclusions may be drawn  at simple sight. One is how close Toma dwellers lived to the occupied place. The neighborhoods correspond to previous formalized Tomas and social housing program (areas which are marked in second graph with areas in RED). The second graph shows people were evicted basically into the same areas they lived before. It is important to mention, living in the comuna (similar to the term borough) was one of the Tomas’s goals. But research still needs to be developed to answer if they are better off ow than in the Toma or even before that. After all, their current locations are actually on the fringes of the red areas or poblaciones. Paying closer attention to these areas it is possible to conclude that the evicted areas are remains of an ongoing urbanization process which buffer the proximity between the rich and poor in the borough itself.

In fact, some level of environmental conflicts developed due to this proximity, in the famous Comunidad Ecologica case. and with the Casa Grande real estate development area (See Map 3). Both of these areas were among the least happy and best organized NIMBYs. Basically they did not want social housing beside them. Interestingly, most of the post Toma lands are far form both gated communities. in fact, negotiations and final decision of where pobladores were allocated is a result of less formal (informal) negotiation processes. Therefore, if we are to evaluate formal & informal relations around a locality, it is relevant to question if a wider range of actors,/institutions/organized communities are actually making extensive use of such means to put forward their agendas or obtain a consensus.

Map 3: OLDER SETTLEMENTS AND EVICTED AREAS AND ACTIVE NYMBYS: A COMPARATIVE MAP. Sources: Pablo Astorga, Claudio Contreras (TUC, 1995),  Googlemaps & Wikimaps

Map 3: OLDER SETTLEMENT, EVICTED AREAS AND ACTIVE NYMBYs: A COMPARATIVE MAP. Sources: Pablo Astorga, Claudio Contreras (TUC, 1995), Googlemaps & Wikimaps

Although further research is required, these images and interviews raise a few questions. Firstly, how come most of the people of the toma actually lived in the same comuna? Indeed, it is striking that in a borough that could boast of its increasing H.D.I., had an event where so many people, in a night, decided to pass form a formal sector to an informal one. Indeed, through a survey among the pobladores, it was possible to conclude most of them lived as allegados and arrendatarios just prior to the Toma. this may not be any surprise for those familiar with the cas. but it does provide a solid ground to question what conditiosn, locally were building up to spark such a large scaled social phenomena. And how in this comuna is related to what is ahpending a a larger city, national, regional or global scale. For the moment it is important to acknowledge there is little research into how extended such a condition of living behind a family’s backyard (allegado) or sub renting an already crowded house (arrendatario) was affecting Peñalolén. Indeed, if we have a closer look, there are previous poverty conditions which make it credible to suggest a “thin line” between the formal and informal.

Secondly, most interviews suggest it is useless to understand the Toma’s outcome without acknowledging the importance of its basic unit of participation and social cohesion: the comite. Individually, it was very unlikely that the same pobladores would have obtained social housing in their comuna, as two interviewees suggested. In fact, regaining control over the Toma was by controlling the capacity to organize and shape the social housing agenda. and this takes place in all of the Toma’s commissions”organs” ( education commissions, cultural commissions, security commissions, construction commissions, etc…).  All based on voluntary work. From a regional perspective, community participation is an issue already researched and highlighted by UN Habitat, as Sugranyes suggests. Indeed, participation in other countries such as Uruguay seems to be more binding and lasting than in Chile; even when Chile may have a wider range of “participative” programs. From this perspective, ignoring the relevance of alternative forms of participation (Harvey, 2014) and community participation has more to do with those framing the policies than those at the receiving end (Roy, 2005).  Therefore, listening to social organizations may be a better suggestion than transfer Chile’s efficient social housing delivery through what was termed as a good PPP  by the World Bank. It must be said, participate policies have diversified and increased their budget among various ministries in Chile. “Quiero Mi barrio”, re-occupy the streets of communities program, even participatory budgets programs are provided by the state. But it also questions why, if participation is a central aspect in the current urban policies, the Toma was “put a lid on” so urgently. It also questions why the Toma was left out of the last national survey, an information system widely used in Chile to evaluate and design policies.

Thirdly, formalization programs applied to this case do not seem to deliver a better outcome in terms of urban physical integration and social cohesiveness for the urban poor. Many of the social an economic networks built during a decade were relocated far from the Toma. Indeed, the eviction process required fragmenting the Toma’s organization capacity. A capacity that had potential to maintain social integration when social or economic crisis take place. Indeed, the Toma had a strong identity which most pobladores still miss today. Most associate this nostalgic feeling to a sense of community rather than the harsh living conditions. Moreover, in a recent meeting in El Valle (one of the evicted areas) the debate was whether to make their neighborhood look like a gated community of not, like the middle class neighborhoods surrounding El Valle. We still do not know how much employment, education and health aspects have actually improved in these communities. But networks and cooperation can still be identified and may be qualified as a legacy in the comuna. In a recent meeting with Diputado Pilowsky , five community leaders of the Toma gathered, shared information regarding applications to government funds, keeping up to date their cooperative links. Such community identity therefore perpetuates, even if the community as a whole has been scattered in the comuna.

Entrance of El Valle Penalolen. The community debated whether to apply for funding to gate their community or not.

Main entrance to El Valle, Penalolen. The community in January 2015 debated whether to apply for funding (to the government agency named Intendencia) to gate their community.

Fourhtly, the Toma shows it is possible to find land for social housing in places “too expensive” like Penalolen comuna. The “need for housing” and the “lack of space” discourse, brought forward both by private and public institutions, have constantly influenced urban and housing policies for the last two decades. But for a while the amount of resources dedicated to location; quality of public space and dwellings has been highlighted as persistently insufficient (Rodriguez & Sugranyes, 2005). Indeed, among the main issues related to  segregation is not the lack of land per se; but the systematic lack of decent services in low income areas. To obtain a banking service, a decent house, education, health service, people must cross through several comunas, or simply live outside the poorer sides of town. Indeed, the issue is not so much the scarcity of land, but the lack of  “development elements” placed on the low income areas, elements that cross and link the city as a whole, to create integration and development. In other words, a kind of city which looks beyond the simple delivery of a social housing and a basic / under-resourced community scaled amenities. In fact, the Toma was about education, health, security, housing and basic services (far form formal standards but clearly full of potential and numerous forms of up-scaling opportunities). These were meant to provide basic but necessary elements to settle where they wanted and how they needed to create a place of their own. The pobladores in the Toma finally reduced their expectations for much less. What they finally asked for was not even these development elements; just avoid displacement and have a choice to live in the borough. This happens whilst Chile’s image of a peaceful growing economy, good provider of income and slum-less geography; all indicators which stand out in the region. It could be argued that asking why things don’t change? (Stone, 1989), or who actually governs? (Le Gales, 2014)  should lead future research. This may lead us back to the 1990’s and it’s still-standing agreement/regime that characterized Chile’s democratic era (1990 – today). A kind of political agreement that seem to have survived through the current social and political changes in Chile; a political stability which stiffens changes in the social housing agenda. And stiffens the capacity to find an alternative to growth oriented policies.

Many believe a Mayor may be the right kind of solution for a cit that requires urgently some planning. But what allowed to build more social housing in an area which was too pricey was in fact social pressure through social organization. A bottom-up process. Other social organizations such as MPL (Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha) also presented in various occasions lists of available and vacant land for social housing (at leas in the borough), just to prove there is land available. As mentioned earlier since the mid 90’s the State’s housing policies have emphasized the importance participation and social organization in the process of city building. In fact, the state currently relies on Community leaders to find land, negotiate and let the state pay for it. But there are limits to what is accessible in terms of price (which limits where they can build). And the number of participants in a comite also has a ceiling (which limits the capacity to alter the social housing agenda). This despite the fact that the Toma de Penalolen proved it is possible to shift the limits to access land and social housing. This Toma de penalolen proved that larger communities can be organized and provide well founded arguments, based on a sense of place and on  the specifics of each group. Aspects which are key for participatory professes. Indeed, we (as Chileans) still seem too afraid to allow these more spontaneous and genuine processes to bring forward the concerns of poorer groups to evaluate how  urban integration should take place. In fact, people don’t want things “for free”, as many interviewees of the Toma suggested. They just need options.

Not all post dictatorship Tomas are evicted in Chile: the previous two in the borough successfully managed to stay on their occupied lands. But not this last one. Moreover, displacement and eviction is among the main characteristics that this settlement shares with almost every other one in Chile. Eviction were enforced after the fragmentation of the Toma’s organization capacity. Although avoiding eviction has been set as a priority in the local and central government in Chile, in practice it is still considered as an important tool for integration, inclusion and development.

Images of the transformation is presented below. Further findings will be shared eventually in this blog.

Before and after the Toma, images from Plataforma Urbana

During the Toma and future plans for the site. Images from Plataforma Urbana


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