By Donella Meadows
–August 5, 1993–
We had spent two days indoors, talking, talking, talking, and not agreeing. We had to go out into the community of Guarari before we saw that both sides of the argument were right.
It was a conference on human settlements in Latin America, held in San Jose, Costa Rica. The argument was about who should shape cities, the planners or the people.
The planners are desperately trying to deal with cities that are doubling every decade. The people keep on coming, faster than water and sewage systems can be built. They settle on prime agricultural land. Their ramshackle houses sprawl along roads. Laying out map after beautifully colored, computer-generated map, the planners talked about setting construction standards in Brasilia, directing growth away from Caracas, deciding land use in the Panama Canal zone. If only the government could control things, instead of the unruly people.
The grassroots activists at the conference showed not maps but pictures of people. People building their own houses, planting trees, building streets. People being evicted from places where planners had penciled in high-rise apartments for the rich. Governments, said the activists, create unjust, centralized, rigid, boring cities, inhuman cities, cities that victimize the poor. Better to work with the wisdom of the people.
Several thousand low-income families live in Guarari. New houses are nearly ready for several thousand more. The houses are small but well-built. Tiny yards are full of roses and dahlias. Tall trees have been left standing, each surrounded by a rough bench for sitting in the shade. Every cluster of eight houses shares a common space, where there are swings and slides and concrete basins to collect rainwater for puddles the children can splash in. The sidewalks have designs scratched into them — stars and animals and hopscotch squares. In neat uniforms the children walk to school on these sidewalks, safely separated from traffic.
This amazing community could not have been built without the planners or the people — or an intervening nonprofit organization.
The organization is a women’s group called COFEMINA. Its philosophy, as explained by director Marta Trejos, is that “people aren’t fighting for a roof, but for a better quality of life.” COFEMINA began by asking the poor people “what is your dream?” A place where children can go outside without danger, they answered. A place with trees. So that is what they built.
The land came from the government, which owned an abandoned coffee plantation just a 20-minute bus ride from downtown San Jose. COFEMINA did the legal and political work to get the land allocated to low-income housing. On half of it the people cared for and harvested coffee to earn money to begin building streets, water pipes, and sewage drains on the other half.
Nine hundred hours of volunteer work qualifies you for a loan for a house in Guarari. COFEMINA goes to the government to get the loan money. “Men’s work” and “women’s work” count equally toward those 900 hours — you can lay cement sidewalks or put up walls or cook for the work crews or care for the children. Architects and engineers from the university came in to lay out the infrastructure and design simple houses made of concrete slabs that the people could build themselves. Everyone builds everyone’s house. The community decides who gets which one.
Eighty percent of the households in Guarari are headed by women — in Costa Rica many unions are unblessed by the Church, and men, after fathering a few children, tend to drift away. With the encouragement of COFEMINA the women of Guarari are forming support groups on breast-feeding, on family planning, and on combating domestic violence. The wisdom of the people is not infallible on these subjects. The busy community center across the street from the school is covered with hand-lettered signs:
NOTHING CAN JUSTIFY VIOLENCE.
IN THIS COMMUNITY WE DEFEND THE RIGHTS OF GIRLS AND BOYS.
HE WHO LOVES DOES NOT HIT.
SILENCE IS COMPLICITY IN VIOLENCE.
HAPPINESS IS POSSIBLE AND WE DESERVE IT.
The wisdom of the people also does not include respect for nature. In school the children learn the names of local plants and birds. They go down to the river to collect insects and leaves. “It keeps them from throwing garbage there,” says Marta Trejos with a sigh. “That’s one of our worst cultural problems.”
Now that Guarari is nearly built, the people have formed an enterprise to build houses for other communities. Cooperative businesses are appearing — a grocery store, a bakery, a restaurant. Some of the men and mothers with small children grow food and medicinal herbs in the open parts of the farm.
“Everything nice you see here was achieved only after a struggle,” says Marta Trejos. “The main obstacle was the experts who thought they had the solutions for the poor people.”
But some experts were necessary. It took them, plus the government, plus the people, plus COFEMINA to make Guarari a success. The people brought a short-term practicality, a focused set of goals, a sense of urgency, hours and hours of labor, and an insistence on their own dignity. The planners and government brought a long-term view, land and credit, and a technical ability to lay out water lines that flow downhill and houses that won’t fall down. What COFEMINA brought was the ability to put people, experts, and government together in a way that respects them all, counteracts their weaknesses, and draws out their strengths.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993