I spent my first days in Oaxaca orientating myself to this new city. Luckily, I had the guidance of several experts on local history and culture. Foremost among them was Oliver Froehling, a resident of Oaxaca originally from Germany, who took our student group on a tour of the city. We wound ourselves through the outlying areas of the city, passing through well-to-do suburbs, working class neighborhoods, government- and union-built housing communities, commercial zones peppered with WalMarts and Home Depots, and squatter villages.
Water scarcity and land distribution have been the most visible and critical problems we've seen during our time here. During the tour, we stopped several times to talk about these two issues. We still have a lot more to learn about both, but I’ll share with you what we have learned so far.
There is an extreme scarcity of water in the city which causes two major problems: one is that piped water is only delivered to many parts of the city two days out of the week, the other is that the low or absent water pressure in the pipes allows contaminated water to flow into the pipes through cracks and seams, making it mostly undrinkable. We have the same problems in our pipes in the U.S. (cracks and seams) but since we have water pressure all of the time, water flows out of the pipes, not into them.
The scarcity of water manifests itself, in many ways, as an issue of socioeconomic class. Some of the most well-to-do areas are also the areas reached first by the water pipes, and thus have better access to more water. Many of the poorer areas (often recently occupied squatter communities or communities originally settled in this manner) do not have running water at all. During the two days that water is piped into the city, residents fill large jugs with water to use during the rest of the week, but when those run out, they are forced to buy water from private companies (flatbed trucks carrying jugs of water patrol the city blaring obnoxiously loud music to make sure everyone knows where they are). Water prices are, thus, expensive and often completely unaffordable to lower and even some middle class families.
The last problem regarding water in the city and surrounding areas is that there is no form of sewage treatment whatsoever. Water flows directly from toilets and sinks into the river, which presents a public health disaster for the neighborhoods near the river and communities downstream from Oaxaca, not to mention the ecological harm.
Like in many areas around the world, Oaxaca is experiencing large amounts of migration from the surrounding countryside into the city proper. One consequence of this phenomenon is a serious lack of housing for an ever-increasing population. As government efforts fall short of addressing the massive amount of need, many people are forced to occupy whatever land they can to provide themselves with even rudimentary shelter. Squatter camps––communities of residents who collectively seize this land, build shelters, and occupy it until the government is forced to formally recognize them––are commonplace in the areas surrounding the Centro Historico (City Center) of Oaxaca. Another grave problem regarding land use and distribution in Oaxaca is the destruction of the ejido. To explain this better, I must first impart a little history.
The ejido refers to a system of communal land ownership among traditionally indigenous communities in which the land is owned and utilized collectively, not privately by individuals. The system and term ejido, however, is a Spanish idea imposed on Mexican communities during the conquest. When Spaniards arrived in Mexico they encountered a system of community organization (including, but certainly not limited to, land distribution) that was unfamiliar to them. The system, although foreign, appeared similar to a system of communal land ownership in Spain called ejido, so they imposed the term and the system onto what they had found in the New World. But this transition was problematic because upon becoming an ejido this community system, which was not just one of land distribution, but of complex political, religious and social structures, was simplified overnight into the Spanish model. Nonetheless the system of ejido was protected by all subsequent constitutions and remained a very important part of everyday life for millions of Mexicans. In 1992, however, President Carlos Salinas de Gotari modified this historic constitutional clause to allow ejidos to be parceled and sold into private hands by its collective owners.
As Oaxaca continued expanding into the surrounding areas, it began to collide with these ejidos and the collective owners began to privatize and sell them to developers. This process of ejido privatization “allows” ejidatorios (ejido owners) to sell their land, but many of them live in poverty and are more or less forced to privatize to survive in an increasingly urban and expensive situation. Others feel that the powerful and rich (which are often the same people) will eventually gain control of the ejidos in one way or another, so it is better to sell it themselves then wait and have it taken away. In many cases squatters occupy the same land that they had once owned as ejidos. These “informal” squatter communities often begin as very rudimentary structures but gradually grow to more established and permanent settlements and eventually recognized formally by the government.
Sarah / Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico
Sarah Farr is PhD student in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The views expressed in this blog and on this website are my own.