I am a “Revolutionary”, not an “illegal land divider”; the unwanted urban transformations in Bogota in the 1970s Por: Gabriel Nagy

Colombian society has always been exclusive and, in the main city, Bogotá, the social element has clear physical evidence. More than half the city and its inhabitants live aside urbanization advantages (Megaciudades e infraestructura en America Latina: lo que piensa su gente/ ESCI - Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo). For decades, low-income population was excluded from development and the benefit of urbanization. Facing the government inefficiency to appropriately satisfy their housing needs, the poorest families looked aside the markets in search of a solution to their housing problem.

Literally, the formal city developed inwards the urban utility boundary. Those who stayed outside became the natural targets of land sub dividers. The scarce offer of land available for development within the first stage of urban sprawl caused two strains. The first one is economic. Land owners -most of them powerful and traditional Colombian families sold agricultural land on the peripheries of urban areas and made money for themselves by selling it to developers and community organizers. The limited financial ability to extend public services increased land values within and outside the utility boundary area. Much of Bogota is surrounded by mountains, unusable for development. High prices within the utility boundary and with housing demand exceeding supply, should have forced urban planners to regard land as a scare resource and to use it efficiently.

Developers and community organizers purchased lands from aristocrats and politicians of Bogotá. They also purchased from small bankrupt owners, or from those who were afraid of losing their lands. Enrichment of landowners was remarkable during that time. Those at the interior of the service boundaries were benefited from important government investments in infrastructure and public services, which raised the land value. A social effort produced enormous private benefits. Owners outside the service boundaries also benefited from developing their lands to satisfy the housing needs of the deprived sectors of the population, thus turning an unproductive asset into a net equity value.

This urban sprawl also exacerbated Bogota’s environmental and urban problems. Low cost of land, high slopes, cold and rainy weather, unsteady soils and the difficulty to distribute public services, turned lands located between Bogotá urban perimeter and Usme into an “adequate” location to develop many low income settlements with plots of land without public services, little or no access to transportation and no public spaces or community buildings; failing to comply with development regulations, settlements with no prior government authorization.

The second flaw in Bogota’s urbanization model is a social one. The institutional sector, the politicians, the building industry and the society of Bogotá, identified social climbers with the mark of infamy. The newcomers were called illegal immigrants (as if moving from the countryside to the city or from one city to another in search of job and opportunities was a crime) that came to mess the city up. It was necessary for the new city neighbors to join together in a common political party and to establish citizen pressure groups to be integrated (be included) into the society and benefit from urbanization advantages and development works. Exploiters of this market for the poor became the well-known illegal land sub dividers.

Luis Alfredo Guerrero Estrada, a successful trader and political leader, made of these good-for-nothing plots of land the answer to the housing needs of the poorest urban community. Guerrero Estrada is an important figure, known as the biggest informal private land subdivider in the South of Bogotá. Back in 1979, in his capacity as local mayor and head authority of the locality of San Cristóbal, Mr. Alfredo Guerrero peacefully negotiated the eviction of more than 3,500 families that had unlawfully occupied the houses built by the Caja Popular (CPV) at the Guacamayas sector. Nine days after the eviction, Mr. Guerrero legally organized the “Cooperativa Popular de Vivienda del Suroriente” (Southwest People's Housing Cooperative), with the support of the Bogota's mayor that held office at the time, and the participation of homeless families. Once Mr. Guerrero presented the solution to a very serious social problem, he was recognized by central and local government administrations as the leader of a community of thousands of “poor farmers” of estratos “zero and lower”, as he himself mentions. The same year Mr. Guerrero resigns his public position and entirely devotes to the cooperative.

With a captive electorate, Mr. Guerrero was elected a City Council member representing “Pan y Techo” (“Bread and Lodging”) a popular political party. There he was the driving force behind the legalization of his own developments. Later, he was elected to the House of Representatives. With resources from the National Budget, he invested in infrastructure, access roads and public services. No doubt, Mr. Guerrero, who calls himself a “Revolutionary”, not an “illegal land divider”, took full advantage of the lack of planning and management of the local administration, obtaining votes in exchange for land. Illegal developers encouraged popular groups and made themselves their natural leaders. They took up the standard of social programs and exchanged votes for intentions and the promise to solve the marginality problem of these poor communities.

The process to develop an illegal settlement is therefore very simple: Land is divided into plots in a number equal to that of beneficiaries. No license or sales permit. Some roads are drawn, but neither common nor recreational areas are designed. During almost thirty years of informal development, the residential area of the city grew, producing big urban conglomerates without an adequate provision for services, schools and parks. Per Mr. Guerrero´s testimony, soil and risk studies were carried on; especially to anticipate floods, landslides and earthquakes, to prevent the loss of money invested by developers. Mr. Guerrero says that even though these development programs did not produce important profits, they produced political rewards.

As many large and emerging cities in the region, Bogota’s lack of land use planning in a manner that addresses demands for growth, equity and sustainability has compromised its ability to reduce vulnerability, secure competitiveness and enhance quality of life.  Central (utilities) and local (land use regulations) government's excluding politics charged a high price on the poor communities of the capital. With no legal possibilities, having no property titles, with no access to cheap credit lines, far from formal job sources, from education, from health and recreation, and excluded from the basic public services; they had very few opportunities to overcome poverty and low quality of life.