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‘Save our Slum!’

Buenos Aires considers itself the Paris of Latin America. Its skyline glistens: 30-storey glass skyscrapers tower over ornate early 20th century mansions. Yet a glance at the foreground reveals a labyrinth of muddy foot-tracks winding through rows of cement and corrugated iron shacks that stand precariously side by side. There are no streetlights, and rubbish gathers due to the lack of drainage and waste collecting systems. This is Villa 31, the last shanty town in the heart of the capital, a stone’s throw away from the city’s most exclusive real estate.

Villa 31 was created in the early 1940s to house the wave of immigrants arriving from Europe. It is now home to 25,000 of the capital’s poorest residents. The newly elected mayor of Buenos Aires, entrepreneur Mauricio Macri, has signalled that he plans to demolish Villa 31 once he is sworn in later this year. In response, the people of the Villa are uniting to resist the destruction of their homes.

The demolition of Villa 31 is not a new idea. Following the economic and social crash that Argentina suffered in 2001 the country has enjoyed a period of recovery. Under President Nestor Kirchner the economy has grown by eight per cent a year for the past four years. Unemployment levels have dropped and business is booming. Nowhere is this more evident than in the country’s capital. ‘The years after the crash have seen Buenos Aires enjoy a property boom,’ says Roberto Aisenson, a leading Argentine architect. ‘People no longer wanted to invest their money in banks or bonds, as they didn’t trust them, so they invested their money in property.’

As a result land in the capital is highly sought after, with about a third of the city’s property being bought by North Americans and Europeans. Not only are locals being priced out of the market but the capital’s poor inhabitants are being relocated to the provinces to create more space for deluxe condos and shopping malls. Villa 31 sits right in the centre of this reconstruction.

‘Macri wants to demolish Villa 31 because of the investment potential it has for him,’ says Villa resident Edith Rojas, ‘but he does not consider what will happen to the residents. If I am moved to the provinces I won’t be able to feed my family; my job is here, my family lives on my salary.’

Alternatives to eradication do exist. A group of architects from the University of Buenos Aires have been working with Villa 31 and have drawn up plans proposing its regeneration. ‘If the government built a few tower blocks with proper amenities like water and drainage systems, they could use the rest of the land for whatever they wanted,’ says Ramon Ojeda (pictured above), president of a committee formed to fight the demolition. ‘We don’t want it for free. Around 90 per cent of people who live here work – we are prepared to pay for services.’

Yet it’s unlikely that Macri will pursue this option: the majority of the public fear the _villas_ and their _villeros_ (residents). Indeed, he refuses to comment or expand on his plans for Villa 31 until he has taken office in December. ‘Things are changing here, though,’ says Ramon, ‘people are becoming more aware of their rights. Today the neighbours are mobilizing; they want a voice, they are demonstrating, they are talking to people who can advise them. We are not going to allow them to move us.’

New Internationalist issue 405 magazine cover This article is from the October 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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