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Welcome to Squatter Town

January 2006

Richard Swift takes the measure of our urban future.

Peter Arnold / Still Pictures /
The glittering towers of the Chinese city of Shenzhen look down on the humble squatter communities that provide the workers for China’s spectacular economic boom. Peter Arnold / Still Pictures /

Here lies hope – or, at least, a sense of new beginnings.

Makeshift housing that pops up wherever there is uncontested space. It is now a central feature of the urban landscape. As life based on survival agriculture – so much a feature of the Global South – becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, people are penetrating other possibilities. Whether from the TV in the local shop or in conversation with a cousin or an uncle who now lives in Shanghai or Khartoum, the words are out: ‘Go to the cities!’ Impatience and discontent stirs in even the remotest villages. Add to those the neoliberal model that privileges the market and the wealthy, and pushes those who have little on to the margins, and together you have the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that mean that by the year 2030 more than two billion people will live in squatter communities. That will be about one person in four living on land that’s officially owned by others in the poor communities that now surround cities around the globe.

Scott Leckie from the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions – a frontline fighter for legal rights to secure tenure for squatters internationally – thinks it’s pretty straightforward: ‘If you don’t provide housing rights for the poorest 30 or 40 per cent of the population, they will create their own housing solutions. They will build as close to jobs as they can on pieces of land that as few people as possible will want to possess. Cities will become dependent on these communities and their labour. They become the engines of development. It’s been going on since time immemorial.’

Development philosophy is being torn by two competing attitudes towards squatters and their communities. The conventional approach is to treat them as dangerous eyesores that stand in the way of progress – breeding grounds for everything from drugs to revolution. The means for getting rid of them vary from subtle trickery to not-so-subtle bulldozers. The more enlightened views favour some degree of upgrade and security for squatters. Thinkers in this camp are divided. Some would give squatters deeds to integrate them into the conventional real-estate market. This position is championed by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto who believes in ‘freeing up the capital’ that poor squatters have invested into their homes. Others disagree, worried about the real economic value (both saleability and mortgageability) of flimsy squatter housing. Scott Leckie believes that ‘one person’s deed is often another person’s insecurity. If you commodify everything, including poor people’s housing, you make it that much more difficult for the next group coming along or the next generation.’

Starting in the 1980s and moving into the 1990s the more enlightened view tended to dominate. But by 2000, mass evictions had come back with a vengeance. Hundreds of thousands have recently been uprooted from their perch at the edge of urban life in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa: Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, China and, most recently and dramatically, Zimbabwe. Prestige development projects (including the Olympics – a perpetual source of evictions – with at least 300,000 in Beijing alone) and the lust to modernize leaves little room for ‘the slums’, as squatter communities are so often called.

‘Slum’ is a tricky word. It conjures up images out of control. The threatening. The miserable. The lawless. Rarely the heroic. Try googling ‘the slums’ on the internet and within the first 20 hits you discover a board game. ‘The Slums’ (available for a mere $20) is ‘guaranteed to keep you sweating and wondering who is going to move in next door?’ There goes the neighbourhood! In such middle-class fantasy and post-modern parlance the slums and those who live there are simply ‘other’.

But we can’t romanticize slums. Life there is often cruelly hard; neglectful and exploitative. You see politicians pounding a well-rehearsed fist and proclaiming: ‘We will do away with slums!’ It seems like a good idea. But do they mean bringing in clean water and providing proper sanitation? Maybe they mean providing secure tenure? Too often what they mean is usurping poor people from their hard-fought-for claw-hold in one of the South’s burgeoning mega-cities. Indeed, getting rid of slums is usually just an excuse to push poor people around.

Yet, as the pages of this magazine show, they are also where hundreds of millions of us live and try in big and little ways to improve things. Scott Leckie believes that housing rights are a simple thing: ‘From the day you are born until the day you die you should basically have a decent place to live, so you don’t have to choose between your house and feeding your kids. You will not be evicted when some thugs knock on your door. You don’t have to live among vermin and rodents. You have clean water and electricity.’

Organizing the world to make this happen will be a difficult task. Slum communities will continue to lead the way. It’s a question of power. By and large, the current wave of mass evictions does not include Latin America, because politicians and real-estate speculators there have learned the political cost of trying to push poor people around. The people are just too combative. This issue of the NI presents snapshots of the resilience and resistance of squatters in many different parts of the world. They deserve our understanding, admiration and support.

This feature was published in the January 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 386

New Internationalist Magazine issue 386
Issue 386

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