In Buenos Aires, 'Neighborhoods of Misery'

Officials in Buenos Aires have provided metal sheds to house displaced slum-dwellers, but efforts to build permanent housing have stalled because of local opposition. As many as 500,000 of the city's 3 million residents live in slums.
Officials in Buenos Aires have provided metal sheds to house displaced slum-dwellers, but efforts to build permanent housing have stalled because of local opposition. As many as 500,000 of the city's 3 million residents live in slums. (Silvina Frydlewsky / For The Was - Ftwp)

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 29, 2007

BUENOS AIRES -- About 1,500 people used to live in Villa Cartón, a slapdash cluster of hundreds of crooked shacks wedged beneath a highway overpass.

Scrap-wood walls were reinforced with cardboard, old bedsheets curtained window frames. Walkways were clogged with pushcarts full of bottles and paper, the recyclable refuse that many of the people who lived there scavenged for a living.

In February, someone set fire to the shantytown, and the pumper trucks that eventually arrived could do little but water its ashes. But the fire -- and the saga that followed as officials tried to relocate the residents -- has laid bare a problem that Buenos Aires and other metropolises face as they grapple with growing slums. The most precarious parts of the city, however undesirable, are among the hardest to replace.

About one-third of the world's urban dwellers live in slums, and the United Nations estimates that the number of people living in such conditions will double by 2030 as a result of rapid urbanization in developing countries. Latin America is already the most urbanized region in the developing world, but even in places where rural migration to urban areas has begun to level off -- such as Argentina -- slums within cities continue to grow at a fast pace, through good economic times and bad.

"Throughout Latin America you have economies that are growing and doing well, but the way the economies are growing is actually generating more shantytowns," said Erik Vittrup, senior adviser on Latin America and the Caribbean for the U.N. Human Settlements Program. "It's a growth that is just generating wealth for those who have it."

Buenos Aires is recovering from a devastating economic crash in 2001, and its economy has grown by more than 8 percent annually over the past four years. Even so, population growth in the capital is fastest in its shantytowns, which continue to pop up beside railroad tracks, appear under bridges and even expand across the grounds of an ecological reserve.

The government has promoted a plan to eradicate two dozen of the worst slums -- all of them, like Villa Cartón, primitive congregations of temporary shacks built in vulnerable locations. But the Villa Cartón fire showed that even when a slum disappears, the city's problems do not.

When officials moved the displaced residents to tents in a park, ill-timed storms turned deadly, killing a woman. When the government offered the residents cash to encourage them to move out of the city and into the provinces, many refused it, saying they couldn't afford to move away from the city's free health clinics. Some who accepted the money promptly moved to other shantytowns.

Some government officials began accusing unelected slum leaders of setting the fire themselves, claiming that they feared losing power if the city carried through with plans to move more people out.

Whoever set the fire couldn't have found a more combustible target. It was pure kindling.

'We Have to Be Here'

Buenos Aires's shantytowns take several forms: villas miserias, or "neighborhoods of misery," the slums that -- with enough money and infrastructure improvements -- conceivably could be transformed into permanent neighborhoods with full services; casas tomadas, or "taken houses," usually large abandoned buildings overtaken by squatters; and asentamientos, which translates loosely as "settlements," primitive congregations of temporary shacks built in vulnerable places, like Villa Cartón. According to varying estimates from city agencies, 300,000 to 500,000 in this city of 3 million live in the slums.

One of those people is Maria Benitez, 60, who had lived in Villa Cartón for two years before it was burned down. About two weeks after the fire, she sat outside one of the tents that the city had erected for the residents. She ate a grayish gumbo of rice, potatoes and carrots that had been dished out from a nearby government trailer.


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