Lucia Caistor-Arendar is a LAB associate editor. She was in Colombia as part of an Architecture Sans Frontiers UK project.
‘Look!’ the old man sniggered in Spanish leaning out of the chair on his porch to get a glimpse of the crowd rapidly forming on his street. ‘There’s a fight going on!’
It’s Monday afternoon and just moments earlier it had been business as usual in Caño del Oro.
Under the insufferable sun, vendors were dragging around loads of fish they had brought from the mainland to try to sell it to fathers, brothers and cousins who slouched around together on porches sipping Aguila beers, whilst scrawny pigs, dogs and chickens aimlessly roamed around in the mud below and feisty kids played a skipping game called caúlla.
Women with their hair in curlers sat supervising close by, complaining about the meat they had to salt because of yet another power cut, and teenagers, precariously piled up on a single moped, went whizzing past the music stands blaring out the local form of salsa known as Champeta, loud enough to rustle the local parrot’s feathers.
But as soon as the fight breaks out, the atmosphere on the street changes quicker than a weathered fisherman can shout ‘Domino!’ Just like in a school playground, all the neighbours are going wild with excitement, crowding around the protagonists of the dispute, hungry for some action.
As we walk past the commotion, we’re told that apparently a woman was accusing another family of stealing a lot of cash from her home. We never found out how the issue was settled. There aren’t any police in this island community and everyone is family in one way or another, so it seemed more likely that they’d resolve it in their own way.
Caño del Oro felt as if it had always run itself and probably always will.
The island of Tierra Bomba, where Caño del Oro is located, is just fifteen minutes by boat from mainland Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It has a population of around 10,000 inhabitants and is roughly 17 times bigger than the city’s old town.
Most of its inhabitants are descendants of African slaves brought over to help build the New World from the sixteenth century on.
In many ways this island is the unrecognised backbone of Cartagena. Over the centuries, Tierra Bomba has played a critical role in the development of the mainland, serving mainly as a buffer zone to protect its riches from various external threats.
This is where the clay bricks were produced 500 years ago to make the city walls of Cartagena, it is along its banks where subterranean defence systems were created to protect the mainland from pirate invasions like that of Francis Drake in the 16th century, and today, it is where the city’s naval base is going to be relocated.
The island was also used as a dumping ground for the sick. Slaves brought from Africa to be traded across the region where first brought to this island for health screening. Those too sick to work would be left here to avoid creating an epidemic on the mainland. Similarly in the 18th Century Cartagena’s leprosy hospital was relocated to Caño del Oro and the neighbourhood was surgically cut in two, with one side for sick residents and the other for the healthy ones.
Despite this history, the fundamental role Tierra Bomba has played in the prosperous development of Cartagena has never been recognised.
More importantly, it has never been seen as a part of the city in need of development in its own right.
Instead, the island has been left to look after itself.
In fact, the plight of the Afro-Colombians living here has changed very little since the time of Sir Francis Drake. In Caño del Oro for instance, 55% of the population live below the poverty line, no houses have running water or a proper sewage system, and residents only got electricity in 1998. At the same time, the ancestral customes that have nurtured the everyday life of this community since the 17th century, are being left to rot away.
One of the main issues is that the residents of Tierra Bomba have no formal land titles.
As a result, the four neighbourhoods of Tierra Bomba are not in a strong enough position to demand support from the government to build thriving communities, or to defend themselves against modern threats, such as encroaching development and the impacts of climate change.
This situation is not unique to Tierra Bomba. There are 25 Afro-Colombian communities in the Cartagena region, and 20 still have no formal recognition of their territorial rights.
Maria del Pilar Mejia Echeverri, an architect working with Tierra Bomba’s residents says,
“Colombia is a country that is so young in regonizing multiculturalism. Only two decades have passed since we started talking about Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities as a fundamental component of our culture”.
In 1993 however, legislation was brought in to recognise the territorial rights of Afro-Colombians. Law 70 offers them the opportunity to receive a collective land title that acknowledges their right to live in their territory according to their own cultural customs and way of life. But for many communities in Colombia this has been a very difficult and dangerous process and in the Caribbean region, the support needed to actually implement these rights has been very poor, until now.
The social enterprise Fundación por la Educación Multidimensional (FEM) and the Asociación de Consejos Comunitarios de Cartagena (ASOCOC) have been working with 23 communities in the region to help them get collective land titles. As FEM Associate Pilar explains,
“Collective land titles create an opportunity for Afro-Colombian communities to develop with more adapted, modern and sustainable technologies. It allows them to take a huge step from being communities where almost no basic needs are met, to communities with sustainable energy, clean water, food, education and communication.”
For the government to grant a title, a community needs to legally demonstrate that they can manage their territory themselves in the long term. FEM aims to help each of the 23 communities develop a Territorial Management Plan (TMP). This is a “rigorous, highly technical and participative planning process”, that demonstrates how community land will be used and managed by the community in a way that responds to the specific risks and opportunities of that place.
It would be naïve to think that a collective land title will instantly solve all of Caño del Oro’s problems. For a start, although they are organised, a sense of collective responsibility for the neighbourhood still seems to be lacking.
For instance, there are grave environmental issues such as the destruction of the mangroves for development and land banking, poor waste disposal and daily flooding, and also social challenges such as low levels of aspiration and an island mentality. These are deep-rooted, complex issues that cannot just be blamed on the state or on history.
But the next generation’s challenges will be even greater if these matters are not confronted now.
I was in Cartagena as part of the Resilience by Design team at Architecture Sans Frontières UK (ASF-UK) which has been supporting FEM in the development of these Plans over the past two years. We were working with a team of 22 inter-disciplinary volunteers from around the world, including architects, environmental engineers and sociologists, who had come to Cartagena to help develop Caño del Oro’s Plan.
On the morning of the fight, we held an event in the central dock of Caño del Oro to get feedback on some of our ideas for the Plan. I talked with some of the local children about the main square. We discussed how they used it and what they liked or didn’t like about it.
After considering the activities and resources that could be located there, I asked them to draw a picture of how they would like their main square to be.
Most of them drew a football pitch because playing football is almost the only thing they have to do. Many also drew bins because some adults tend to drink on their pitch on the weekends and leave all the smashed bottles behind. But one boy drew the square with him and his friends standing on top of snowcapped mountains. There they would be far away from the heat and the floods.
There is no doubt that the community will have to move mountains to protect the livelihoods of future generations on the island, but now for the first time in Caño del Oro’s history, they are one step closer to achieving it.