Friday, October 10, 2008

Bolivia. La Paz and El Alto


The hills of La Paz
The place is defined by topography as much as any place I have seen. And the geography or altitude dictates the strict and deep divisions in class. The wealthy live in Zona Sur, 1000-1500 feet below the rim of El Alto, where the poorest of this metropolitan area live. In the middle is La Paz, the commercial center of this part of the country. Zona Sur resembles many American or European suburbs with large, gated, and protected single family homes. The climate is much less harsh, and as much of the water drains to this area, and it is much greener and lush with vegetation. The heart of the city is provides most of the commercial opportunities and somewhat modern skyscrapers of banks, hotels, and apartments dot the landscape. But, as you move up the hillsides, the housing becomes informal, and at times, it almost becomes difficult to distinguish between the dull brown hillsides, and the extensive self built brick and adobe houses ringing the rim of the city.

At the top of the rim is El Alto (a separate city), recently considered the fastest growing city in Latin America, with a population approaching one million people, most of whom are aymara indigenous indians. Its growth has been unchecked and blossoming for a number of reasons, partly because of climate changes that have altered traditional agricultural practices, but also shifts in mining industries that have forced many workers to migrate to the city. It is at the edge of the altiplano and therefore is flat. Consequently, unlike the rest of La Paz, there are no physical barriers for the expansion of the city. It has surrounded the international airport and steadily grown with low rise, self built houses and buildings into the countryside.

The steets of El Alto
I spent some time in one of the neighborhoods on the outskirts of El Alto. Walking through the streets of the Senkata barrio is a surreal experience. You can’t really tell if you are in the fastest growing city in the western hemisphere, or even if you are in a city at all. You can almost look down one street and see the never ending altiplano, which holds Lake Titicaca in its grasp. You feel like are deeply connected to the land still, not only because of the occasional adobe walls and buildings, but because the streets and sidewalks are still dirt. There have been curbs put in, but that is it. Essentially, the land has been subdivided, walls put up, buildings added, streets marked, water run, and an occasional cancha de futbol set aside. And there are dogs. Tons of mean ones. I have been walking around the neighborhood doing home visits with the nurse from the Consejo de Salud Rural Andino. Even the nurse has to stop and wait a few minutes, because she is scared of two dogs in front a house she is supposed to visit to weigh a child. Funny thing is that even some of the meanest dogs have green ribbons tied around them, signifying that they have been vaccinated. Good for me, but still have no interest in getting bitten.

Rural to urban (El Alto)
This change happening in El Alto is mostly on its own, yet still driven by the market. It is evident right across from the Health Center where CSRA is working. Here, the owner had built a new three story building on the street. It was weird, it looks completely unfinished. I guess the inside is nice enough. On the ground floor are stores. But, where the new building stops, the old house begins behind, with its courtyard space, adobe walls, and wrap around design. The new building towers above the intimate space shielding the traditionally strong sun. The first floor of the building is being rented as an office space, the top floor has walls around it, but that is it. No more. And it could keep going up, and likely will. But, there is no flexibility. The walls are set. It is not malleable. But, it is incremental as hell. Looking around the block, I was amazed at the amount of movement and change within every lot. Once I really think about it, it is pretty amazing what is happening there. New commercial buildings were popping up, every lot seemed to have some construction going on. But, that is just it. The whole city is under construction and not finished. And it is very homogenous just because it is so new. It has no aesthetic. Or it has an aesthetic of construction and change.
I have decided to return to this area to do some more in-depth research documenting the changes within El Alto and in particular individual houses. Stay tuned for more posts.
In the city of La Paz, 40% of the housing is illegal. Most of this is scattered along peri-urban areas that ring the canyon that holds the city of La Paz. Since 2005, the city has participated in a Word Bank/Interamerican Development Bank project called Barrios de Verdad (True neighborhoods). Focused on infrastructure and public investments, the process is also formalizing/legalizing many of the households as well. Improvements have included potable water, electricity, telephone lines, medical services, jobs, community centers, and bathrooms in every house. They are unable to do house improvements as much of the land that people have invaded is on private property.

Community Center, Alto Pampahasi
I visited one project in Alto Pampahasi, which offered spectacular views of the city. It was pretty impressive the extent to which physical improvements (community center, walkways, etc.) were giving rise to many other social programs. The local leaders were incredibly proud of the work they had accomplished, and numerous improvements in houses and other places were taking place.

Childcare (photo courtesy of Mary Alice Boyd)
We walked into a community meeting of women, and people from the mayor’s office showed up giving out eyeglasses and many other things. They all wear well-marked uniforms and are showing off a good bit. Is this strictly for political purposes? I don’t know. At least in Latin America, because the urban poor are such a substantial portion of the population, they have political power. In this context, the city government is getting things done, and that is pretty important. Graciela (the community leader) said they get together every week and do clean ups and maintenance and stuff like that. The neighborhood seems to be pretty solid socially. They installed bathrooms in 72 homes. The have child care now, which is huge, which maybe as much of a financial boost as something else. It looks very nice. Graciela said that people were grumbling before and didn’t believe anything would happen. Sometimes just getting something done like that is the most important thing.

Women's meeting in the new community center

I still have some questions about the long term effectiveness. What about money after it is finished? Who pays for the maintienance of these new facilities? Is this neighborhood at a level to which you could justify that much money into an aesthetic improvement? Can this program help generate new means of generating income for people, which is ultimately what most people are after?

Local community leaders (photo courtesy of Mary Alice Boyd)

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