Article & photos by Laura Salas, Translated by Jackie Zammuto
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WITNESS’ Laura Salas recently traveled to Medellín, Colombia for the World Urban Forum (WUF) and the Peoples’ Alternative Urban Social Forum (PAUSF), where she conducted video advocacy trainings with over 80 local community members and international human rights defenders. While there, she spoke with a number of housing and land rights activists and community leaders about the forced evictions taking place in and around Medellín.
Colombia is a nation that has endured armed conflict for over 50 years and seen over five million of its citizens internally displaced. In recent years, video has been an important tool for retaining memory and documenting the human rights violations that can occur before, during, and after forced evictions.
Medellín is a city under transformation. New construction projects, a symbol of progress to many, are changing the appearance of the city. These changes often, however, have consequences that violate basic human rights. The neighborhood El Naranjal, a traditional community made up of auto mechanics and recyclers, is an emblematic example of this situation.
Centrally located and surrounded by infrastructure and facilities, the neighborhood has become a highly coveted area for major real estate investors. The Urban Renewal Plan for Naranjal and Arrabal, created by the mayor’s Urban Development Company, aims to relocate those who currently reside and operate businesses in El Naranjal, making way for new, higher-income housing. The Urban Development Company is using video as one strategy to defend their objectives and to convince residents of why they should be relocated. However, residents feel that the proposed areas for moving their businesses do not provide conditions adequate to run a successful business. In addition, many feel that it will be impossible to acquire new housing with the amount of money that the Urban Development Corporation has offered for their current homes.
“I’ve lived here for 30 years, my fight is not for myself, it’s for the community. We are people, not objects. We are the seed of life and they want to evict us,”
said community leader, Héctor Moscoso. He, along with others in El Naranjal have organized to reject the Urban Renewal Plan and to create alternative proposals for community development.
Given the changes currently taking place in the area, many residents are threatened with unemployment and a number of business owners have noted a decrease in sales.
“Many businesses, like this food shop, have suffered a losses up to 80%,” said community leader Frederico Aguilar.
Members of Punto Link – a group of audiovisual artists, creators and activists – have taken on the task of creating the documentary project, “El Naranjal, Before You Disappear” (“El Naranjal, Antes de que Desaparezca“), with the intention of generating memories of places in the community before they are demolished. Several of the documentary project creators explained:
“For this, before El Naranjal disappears, we want to explore it, get to know it, get inside of it and feel it before the demolition begins and before the buildings and parks are constructed. Before the residents abandon their homes. Before the mechanics leave their shops, before this disappears because of progress, we want to remember it and not let it be forgotten.”
During the World Urban Form in April, the WUF Cinema Room hosted a roundtable discussion for Punto Link and the Urban Development Company to present their multimedia projects and their different perspectives about the development in El Naranjal. WITNESS was also invited to screen videos on forced evictions and contribute to the discussion. Several attendees commented that this was one of the few spaces within the Forum that enabled an exchange of diverse points of view around the development of the city.
Colombia’s Changing Landscape
The case of El Naranjal is one of many communities facing eviction in Medellín. During the Peoples’ Alternative Urban Social Forum, organized by the International Alliance of Inhabitants and Junta Cívica el Pinar, it was established that the basis for a new city is outlined in Colombia’s Urban Reform law. For Héctor Ceballos, a speaker at the Forum, a review of this legislation shows that renewal means the “radical transformation through appropriation, high densification, change of use or users. Land use laws currently in practice leave inhabitants aside, and even though community participation in project discussions is formally accepted, the law isn’t really seeking community involvement, but rather to buy the land.” The law extends over all possible aspects of expropriation, closing any loopholes that could lead to a successful legal struggle of the original residents.”
In Medellín, this policy has been in practice for decades. The Urban Relocation Plans cover the entire metropolitan area and there are 25 plans that have been approved or are in the approval process.
As they mark sections of the city for eviction, officials attest that they generally to persuade or convince the original owners to leave. However, “ultimately the road is left open for expropriation by the administration, or demolition by force in the most reluctant cases,” reported FSUA participants during a meeting of various movements fighting to defend their rights against this neoliberal approach to the urban construction.
Several multimedia groups have worked in Medellín covering the issue of territory and the right to the city, including cases of displacement and eviction. This was seen in the alternative activities that took place alongside the World Urban Forum, hosted by groups like Habitat International Coalition (HIC)and the House of Memory Museum in Medellín.
Groups like Punto Link, working with other collectives, continue creating documentaries about communities facing eviction. This is the case of la Cascada, a small town fighting to remain where they are currently located. The groups are also using tools like these multimedia resources from WITNESS and Amnesty International to support their work using video to preserve memory and prevent and denounce human rights violations.