Green apartment buildings
It is Sunday morning, our last day in Cochabama, We prepare our backpacks and wait for Oscar to pick us up on the main street, at the corner with our Hostel. It is sunny and the traffic is slow on the streets downtown. A few turns and we reach a parking lot, right behind the bus depot, where there is a bustle of people and a gate repeatedly opening and closing. The gate leads to the Tenants Organization of Cochabamba (OINCO) and the endless stream of people is caused by the upcoming meeting between the Organization and the Governor. The atmosphere is festive however you can perceive the anxiety of those who have been waiting for many years for this project to become true. With curiosity we join the event and, while drinking mocochinchi*, we discover the peculiar story of this group of people who have decided to congregate in a community.
Maria fills up our plates with the lovely food prepared for the occasion and explains us how OINCO was born eight years ago thanks to the effort of five urban and periurban communities of Cochabamba. “Today we are meeting the Governor to make sure our project will carry on and the land will be assigned to build our green apartment buildings.”
OINCO’s project is taking on the issue that in Bolivia and several Latin American countries is called “inquilinado”, referring to collective housing where several families share the same flat, often one for each room, making common use of toilet facilities and water. An issue that affects 55% of the Bolivian population. The law does not protect the tenants from bullying landlords who raise water and electricity bills at their own discretion, demanding up to $300 a month for renting a room, evict families at the first missed payment and refuse to take in couples with children. Moreover, the speculative overbuilding and excessive land allotment of the area have by now taken over spaces where the community used to gather.
OINCO has decided to fight these problems with an alternative architectural project, the green apartment buildings. People living in cities have lost a fundamental connection with nature which can still be restored by promoting urban gardens, recycling activities and constructed wetland systems**. OINCO’s proposal of a “dignified house” involves not only suitable and safe infrastructures, but also living conditions that assure happiness, freedom and self-determination. Houses free from violence, where the community lives and coexist peacefully, has an active relation with nature and everybody can have their own privacy. OINCO places at the base the concept of community ownership of the land in order to avoid speculations and excessive divisions. These are the concepts behind the project called “Huertos en mi comunidad” (gardens in my community), whose aim is to prepare the community to the challenge of urban agriculture.
Maria tells us that many marches and demonstrations have been necessary to finally obtain a piece of land and start the urban garden. “From the Alalay lagoon we marched on the streets until we occupied seven blocks, until finally the Governor listened to us and decided to offer a space to start our experiment and practice with organic agriculture”. OINCO finally obtained a 1000m2 land in the middle of the city which was unfortunately covered with junk, rusty metals and old tyres left for who knows how many years. It took them several weeks to transform what used to be a garbage dump into an organized and lush garden. It also took a big effort to transform the hard and pebbled land in a field that produces tomatoes, lettuce, onion, potatoes, corn and carrots. The organization has over time established a constructive collaboration with local institutions and other associations in order to obtain training courses, bio-pesticides preparation workshops and the construction of a hydraulic system for irrigation, thus obtaining a much needed technical support. The urban garden now houses also University students who, together with the community, are experimenting new organic farming techniques. We get to meet Lucia who explains, for example, that the vertical cultivation modules, requested by Aniceto, chairman of the organization, are little-known in Bolivia and no University research has been written about it yet. The training initiatives, the experiments and design of agro-ecological projects have transformed the urban garden into the “Escuela popular” (Popular school) of OINCO. “The houses projects” says Lucia “are being discussed and in a few years everybody will have access to their houses and gardens. The school was founded with the purpose of training future tenants to grow their own food in a natural way. The expectations are very high and we hope that all this will be possible. It is a very interesting experiment, unique in its kind: they will be the first green building apartments.”
Last year they hosted about 20 students and part of the harvest has been donated to kindergartens and homes for the elderly. As we stroll in the garden, she proudly tells us about the organization’s achievements without hiding all the suffering of the last few years, the small room she shares with her three children and the fear of ending up on the street from one day to another. With tears in her eyes she says: “In these eight years, some have left the organization but I am staying. I learned to be brave, to fight and not to lose hope. I learned to believe that our dream will come true, we cannot be far from there. In these eight years I learned about the lives of other people, to give importance to details that sometimes we miss in the life of people we meet. When we come here we talk, listen, help each other and hug to give each other courage. I learned to be more human, because a handshake or a pat on the shoulder can make us feel better and pushes us to carry on.”
The Governor has left now and we also need to collect our backpacks and say goodbye, our bus leaving in few hours. We thank all the OINCO members: women, men, adults, children, kids, elderly, entire families. We also hug Maria tight. As we walk to the station, we keep thinking of her words: eight years, yes, are a long time but in these years a rubbish dump has become a school of organic agriculture, the housing problem has been brought to national attention together with an alternative project that trying to take land and urban spaces back to the people. A project that not only aims at building houses but tries, above all, to create communities.
*Typical Bolivian drink made of water, sugar, cinnamon and dried peaches
**Artificial wetland created for the purpose of depurating municipal or industrial wastewater