Shanty towns have long been the irremovable blot on Latin America’s path to urban development. Sprung from decades of mass immigration and economic crises, these illegal neighbourhoods are hotbeds of drug crime, poor urbanisation and marginalisation which past governments have tried forcibly to eradicate, or simply ignore. In 1996, Argentina went so far as to build a motorway straight over two of its largest slums, known as villas, in the typically South American style of turning of a deaf ear on social problems. Everyday traffic sweeps over the mass of red and grey bricks, tangles of electrical cables and washing lines which make up Villa 31 and 31 bis, Buenos Aires’ two largest eyesores, but its residents refuse to be silenced by the roar of engines passing just metres above them.
Ruth Ledesma, mother of six and resident of Villa 31 for the past 20 years, continues her daily struggle for improvements to public services and basic housing rights. She works as a correspondent for Mundo Villa (Villa World), a community-based newspaper set up by her husband, Adams Ledesma, in 2008. Adams’ project created a medium through which public service shortages are brought to the attention of the authorities through a network of villa reporters. After his murder in 2010, Ruth has worked tirelessly to keep the cause alive and today Mundo Villa also comprises a television channel and radio station.
In 2013, Ways of the Villa, a charity mapping initiative, was inspired to draw up the first online maps for the communities which allow problems such as broken water pipes to be located and responded to more easily. Villas are emerging from beneath the radar and gaining a visibility which, as Mónica Ruejas, a representative from the Los Piletones villa, remarked “is helping us prove that we exist”.
Mundo Villa also chronicles the positives of villa life, something which Paula Stiven, who takes charge of its website, believes is critical to changing their image and bringing about inclusion in Buenos Aires’ culture. Villa correspondents now appear regularly on the Argentinian national news to report on local events and celebrities such as Manchester City footballer Sergio Agüero, born and raised in Los Aucaliptos villa, bring fame and respect to these poorer districts of the city.
This year the government finally chose to hear the villa’s cries. Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s new president and Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, mayor of Buenos Aires, promised redevelopment for Villa 31 and 31 bis in 2016, unveiling last month an ambitious 400 million dollar project for improvements to public health and education services as well as the diversion of motorway traffic to a new road around the edge of the area. Ruth’s home has been the location for discussions between authorities and villa representatives and where plans for Villa 31’s new cultural centre were unveiled by architects from Harvard University. Buenos Aires’ two largest illegal settlements are set to be transformed into “Barrio 31”, just another neighbourhood, and residents will receive the property rights they have demanded for so long.
Ledesma, however, remains sceptical. Urbanisation for the villas promised by Cristina Krichner’s government back in 2009 proved to be nothing more than a political stunt, which brought only a few new waste pipes to the communities. Although Macri seems committed to the project and work began earlier this month, Ruth voiced concern during discussions that “the government has to listen to what we, the people, have to say”. The villas have a powerful voice today which was silent in 2009. Let us hope that this ensures that promises are carried out with cooperation and success, as opposed to Krichner’s which transpired to be, much like the pipes she installed in Villa 31, unrelentingly full of sewage.