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Tit for tat. About encountered rights.

This text was originally published in spanish in the online jorunal  REDIP, on September 22th, 2020. Click here to read the original version.

What you are about to read is a reflection on the land grabbings that have taken place in our country in the last weeks.

An article that was about not to exist, but due to those things of fate I thought it was necessary.

Last week, considering the numerous land grabbings that took place throughout the country, and taking into account all the prejudices reproduced in the media, I thought it would be good to write something about it, that would provide a bit of a counterweight, from the perspective of Territorial (in)justice and (in)accessibility to housing and habitat. In between the maelstrom of everyday life and procrastination, “Trama Urbana”[1], one of my favourite newsletters, arrived to my email box, talking about the topic and expressing almost everything I think (I invite you to read it). Immediately afterwards, I considered it was redundant to re-write about the same thing. However, and as things are predestined to be, a few hours later I came across, in my social networks, with colleagues sharing a note from a mass media journal (one of those who usually lobby for the powerful), in which they vomited preconceptions about the families occupying the lands and analysed such social problem with the Penal Code in hand.

Seeing that hurt me. I can’t conceive thinking about architecture from any other perspective than that of the democratization of access to habitat. However, it was useful to mobilize me. I realized that no, it is not enough one communicator writing about this issue from a socio-territorial perspective and with class-consciousness. If we want to deal with the thousands of classist notes that are published every day in the mass media, we must be many more. And that is why here is my contribution to the topic:

I would like to start this by saying that, in fact, land usurpation is a crime according to Argentine’s Law. It is typified in the article 181 of the Penal Code, it is written and no one can deny it. However, access to decent housing is also a right, one of a constitutional nature, enshrined in article 14bis of the Argentinian National Constitution and in multiple international treaties to which our country adheres. Sure, but you don’t see society and media scandalized by the encroachment of that right. The fact that a quarter of the Argentine population does not have access to adequate housing is not nearly as outrageous as the occupation of lands that have been abandoned for years. In both cases there is a violation of rights, but it seems that for certain sectors of society some rights (or the rights of some) are more worthy than others.

The topic in question is nothing new. Our country, in its current conformation, was formed based on the usurpation of land belonging to native communities. The subject is as old as our history. An eternal power struggle, a give and take between those who have the most (and want to continue accumulating) and those who fight for a piece of land on which to build their lives.

However, in recent weeks, the issue has taken on special relevance. Land grabbings in Río Negro and Neuquén, conflicts over lands occupied by indigenous peoples in the Nahuel Huapi National Park, large land occupations in La Plata and San Fernando, and even grabbing attempts in the foothills of Mendoza. Is it all part of the same? No, the situations are diverse and the motivations too. However, in general, they respond to a common denominator: the great pressure from the land market and a growing housing deficit that, in times of isolation and economic crisis, becomes even more visible.

In Argentine, housing deficit reaches about 3.5 million families, among which 2 million live in overcrowded or precarious conditions and 1.5 million merely do not have a home. Between 2008 and 2018 the percentage of this deficit was reduced from 26.5% to 21.5%. However, this number still represents almost 10 million people who do not have access to decent housing. Today 2.5 minimum wages are needed in Argentine to build 1m2 of housing, without taking into account the value of the land, and 35% of Argentines live on less than a monthly minimum wage. What are the chances of accessing a home?

Different governments have followed one another, with housing policies that were more or less successful, more or less accessible, left people more or less indebted. However, none have managed to nip the problem in the bud. It is a debt that we owe to our society. The impossibility of accessing housing is a structural problem in the country, which leads to many others: inequality of opportunities, lack of access to basic services such as sewers, gas and potable water, difficulty of accessing work and education. The list goes on.

Is all this a justification to validate the usurpation of idle land? No. It is a small sample of why land grabbing is a consequence of a need that afflicts a large part of our population, and not a criminal action with the intention of taking advantage of the situation, as it is tried to be shown many times. The profile of the occupants is not that of opportunists who want to profit from the land. It is that of families, generally young and with children, who are looking for a place to build their lives. No family would want to live between sheets and nylon pieces in a land without services, in constant fear of being evicted. But, sadly, in many times that is the only available option.

The response of the State, as well as that of the media and society in general, should never be to criminalize or outrage the most marginalized sectors. Land grabbings must be responded to with land access plans. The growth of informal settlements, with housing policies. The pressure on idle land, with land use regulations.

Land grabbings are not going to end with evictions. Land grabbings will end the day that access to habitat and decent housing are guaranteed through comprehensive and efficient housing policies. Fewer police presence, more State presence.

[1] Trama Urbana is a Newsletter written by Fernando Bercovch, belonging to Cenital. You can find it in https://www.cenital.com/newsletters/

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