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The Maria Auxiliadora Community: A Tale of Resilience in Informal Settlements


Maria Eugenia Veliz presents her poster during the poster session at the 2013 National Planning Conference in Chicago in April. Photo by Luis Terán.

This past month, the APA international program brought together for the first time our four Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) project coordinators who are leading exciting and innovative planning initiatives throughout Latin America.

The ECPA projects are funded by the U.S. Department of State, and provide APA the opportunity to work in Latin America. While there are many inspiring stories that define this group of coordinators we want to share with you the story of one in particular — Maria Eugenia Veliz.

Maria Eugenia is the president of a cooperative community, Hábitat Para la Mujer Comunidad María Auxiliadora (CMA), which lies on the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Her courageous story is representative of what makes this community so unique. Caught in an abusive relationship for many years, Maria Eugenia finally decided to leave her partner in order to protect her and her son. This decision was far from easy to make. She knew she would face a storm of judgment at all levels, and at times it might have seemed easier to risk her life by staying complacent. Her resilience and determined nature would not allow for that; so she left, unsure of her future or how she would make ends meet.

Around the same time she became aware of CMA, a new community formed to help single mothers like her — mothers who were escaping unbearable living conditions entangled in domestic abuse. CMA is based off a model of collective ownership that emphasizes the role of women who are trained in construction skills, as well as community leadership, activism and negotiation with public authorities.

In essence CMA was founded to give a voice and a support network to those that traditionally were without it in Bolivian society, and thus left vulnerable and with little options to change their situation. Founded in 1999, CMA has grown to over 400 families. It has established basic services such as potable water, reliable electricity, recreation spaces, and a sewer system. Additionally, they have several other services such as a youth led organization that meets for regular study sessions and helps students prep for college.

The fact that college as an option in itself is phenomenal. In normal circumstances youth from these types of homes would not even fathom that. Instead the cycle of poverty would have continued and their professional options limited to jobs in the informal sector.

While some of CMA initiatives have been funded by philanthropic sources, most are funded by the community themselves through resident savings loans. The success, financial sustainability, and more poignantly Maria Eugenia’s personal ability to thrive exemplifies the incredible impact that a simple idea of a more organized support network can have on low-income communities. These individuals are not looking for handouts or charity. Instead, when provided the tools and skills to change their situation, they do so with pride and determination.

But with every success story comes its ongoing challenges, and CMA is no exception.

Maria Eugenia and her community are in jeopardy of losing the support network CMA provides. The gravest threat to CMA’s existence is the status of their collective property’s title. Back in 1999, there was no precedence for urban collective property rights within Bolivia that CMA could use as a basis for formation. What CMA had done was novel, and with little guidance the founders of CMA decided to buy the land title under one person’s name. Unfortunately, what they viewed as a simple solution to this gap in national law is now 14 years later being misconstrued as a fraudulent collective community.

The situation has become even more complex. The land CMA sits on has inflated from 3 dollars a square meter in 1999 to 45-50 dollars a square meter today. The land holds lucrative possibilities, and land speculators are using CMA’s uncertain land title status as a means to delegitimize their existence and move investment on their 33 hectares. If successful this would ultimately undermine CMA and the strong social fabric they have created for some of Bolvia’s most disadvantaged populations.

Not surprisingly, efforts to retroactively remedy the land title’s status are now being met by opposition and rejection.

To date, the Municipality of Cochabamba has rejected CMA’s application to be recognized as a legally incorporated entity, but through the process has approved applications for two legally incorporated entities within CMA.  It is important to note that the Bolivian Constitution of 2005 now recognizes the right to urban collective properties as long as the community provides a social function.

Maria Eugenia’s experience, and the experience of hundreds like her, demonstrates that CMA excels in providing the definition of social function under the law.  Thus the rejection has left many of us involved confused and frustrated. However, like the many other challenges CMA residents have faced throughout their life, this barrier does not deter them.  Instead they push forward and remain steadfast in fighting for their rights.

CMA knows their only way to achieve legal incorporation is by continuing to lobby the Municipality of Cochabamba, and so they continue to lobby. APA is supporting CMA efforts by providing them with additional tools to lobby effectively and improve their political messaging. For example, APA is funding the construction of The Leadership School and Training Facility. This facility will provide appropriate capacity building for members to convey their community’s proven social function to political authorities. In addition, APA sent political messaging specialist, Nancy Bocskor, to assist CMA’s mission statement.

It is APA and CMA’s hope that these tools will help them achieve legal recognition as a community and even in the long run establish the social infrastructure that is needed for CMA members to run for and win public office in local agencies. APA is proud to assist CMA achieve the goals they have set for themselves and will continue to support them by ongoing technical visits that will help them formalize a curriculum in political messaging and lobbying efforts.

If you are interested in becoming more involved with CMA and their struggle for legal recognition or if you are interested in learning more about contact us through APA’s Sustainable and Inclusive Housing and Community Development Program homepage.

The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) Urban Planning Initiative is funded by the U.S. Department of State and led by APA. This initiative supports Latin American and Caribbean based planning projects geared towards addressing the challenges presented by climate change. The ECPA Urban Planning Initiative supports local projects that help Latin American and Caribbean cities to become more energy efficient, economically robust, and equitable; furthering these urban environments’ resiliency to climate change. Learn more at www.planning.org/international/ecpa/.

Luis Terán and Katalina Mayorga are contractors with APA working on ECPA II. Terán is the project coordinator for the Bolivia grant, and Mayorga is the project coordinator for the CTS-Mexico grant.

Image: Maria Eugenia Veliz presents her poster during the poster session at the 2013 National Planning Conference in Chicago in April. Photo by Luis Terán.

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