Susan Kambalu writes:
Imagine a country where the constitution states that the Earth should be respected first and foremost. Imagine a country where the hope is for men and women to be represented equally at all levels of society. Imagine a country where people from different backgrounds come together to work for the common good. Imagine a country where an urban suburb, full of migrants, can bring about a change in the national law simply through speaking up for themselves and making their voices heard.
The country is Bolivia; the suburb, Lajastambo, a vast illegal neighbourhood on the outskirts of Sucre, one of Bolivia’s beautiful cities. Sucre is a traditional conservative city, where a small number of elitist families have always had control. It is known as the White City because of all the beautiful, old, white, colonial buildings. It appears to be a rich city. However, 70 per cent of the population are migrants from the rural areas, farmers and miners, who have settled in Sucre for a variety of reasons, and who often live in ‘illegal’ neighbourhoods. The neighbourhoods are called barrios.
On 24 May 2008 there were riots, and indigenous leaders were stripped of their ceremonial clothes which were burned. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, to learn about the exciting progress that is being made in writing a new constitution for the city.
Following the election of President Evo Morales in 2006, cities and districts can apply to become a decentralised authority. Each authority needs a mini-constitution, known as the Carta Organica. In some places, legal teams have been drafted in to write these documents; however, Sucre is one of the first cities to do it properly, involving the whole community. Our partner, ACLO, has assisted the community in making sure that there are two representatives (a man and a woman) from each barrio in the main Assembly that is writing the Carta Organica. This means that the migrants and others living in the poorest barrios finally have a voice – and a powerful one at that.
As Freddy Rodriguez (30) said when I met him, “We’ve realised we’re the same people. We came to the city to find a better life. We’re from all the different departments in Bolivia. The thing we have in common is poverty and a lack of basic services. We can make an alliance between us. It’s better not to do our own thing – we should unite. We’re the majority but we have to do things together. We need to break down the barriers between the rural and urban areas because we have the same problems. We’re the same people.”
It has been inspiring to hear about how the people from the different barrios – representing people from all over Bolivia, from different social movements, indigenous highland and lowland people, campesinos from the countryside, farmers, miners, women and men – have been working together to come up with guidelines on how to write their Carta Organica, and proposals on what should be included in it.
We met some of the representatives of the barrios who told us about life in Lajastambo. Gilbert said, “We want more presence of municipal government in our district. We want more decentralisation. We have no health posts, people have to go into the centre of town. Banks, water, electricity – we want these in our community. If we want to pay in cheques, we have to go into the centre.” It had taken us over half an hour to travel from central Sucre to Lajastambo. The road is rocky in places. As the district is illegal at present, it is not eligible for basic services.
Nina added, “We don’t have a public telephone in the peri-urban districts [on the outskirts of the city]. Everything is in the centre. We don’t even have the internet for our children. The Mayor is not working in a fair way. He’s not spending how he should be. This is an opportunity for us to think about what we want, and to have the basic services that every human being deserves. One really serious issue is rubbish. There are no projects about waste management. There’s a lack of motivation in that area from the mayor. At the moment if one barrio has electricity failure, they have to wait one month for that to be fixed. Everything is in the centre, not in the peri-urban areas. They have sewer drainage, drinking water. We don’t have that. We hope that goes well for us.”
Another representative, Angelica, added, “It’s not just about light and electricity. We don’t have water, a drainage system, drinking water – we want this to be included [in the Carta Organica]. Women are not recognised by the Municipal Government. We want a committee of women so we can be treated equally. We want a medical service. Health services. Elderly women cannot be attended to here, they can’t walk far to a health post in the centre. When people are very sick we have to take them to a hospital, very far away. If we have a problem with ID cards we have to get to the centre. It costs 25 Bolivianos to get to the centre.”
These, therefore, are the proposals that will be included in the Carta Organica. Freddy, Nina, Angelica and the other representatives want the Carta Organica to include these factors as rights. They want all the barrios to have the same access to public services as the centre of Sucre. There are many challenges, not least from those living in the two central districts who were quite happy and are not keen to have their resources redistributed to include the barrios on the outskirts of the city; however, they have already had many successes. For example, the community of Lajastambo lobbied the national government to have their ‘illegal’ barrios legitimised – and a national law was passed last week, giving the right to migrants throughout Bolivia to have their land and communities recognised as legitimate.
It sounds like a dream, a country where the most marginalised can have their voices heard on a national level. But with people like our partners in Bolivia working together, it is a dream that is slowly coming true.