Asunción’s Bañados Neighborhood: The Power of Community

It has been nearly half a century since the Bañados area (Spanish for marshy wetlands) was a swamp upon where the Paraguay River dumped its waters during rainy seasons. It was also Asunción’s garbage dump. Today, it is one of the most populous neighborhoods, where extreme poverty has become tolerable thanks to incredible solidarity.

A wide and busy avenue separates two worlds, under Asunción’s sticky heat. On one side, large mansions protected by enormous flowering trees that characterize the city; cobblestone or paved streets, clean and orderly sidewalks represent the urban landscape of a typical neighborhood of Latin America’s middle class. On the other side is a dirt road heading toward a river, with enormous holes filled with mud and water, informing us that we are entering a flood zone known as Los Bañados.

As we enter the neighborhood, the living quarters become more and more precarious and the water flows through small canals that the neighbors have built. A boy about three years old plays with the water alongside the indifferent glance of his older sister. The street by which we enter is one of the most important of Bañado Sur, the border with the neighborhoods of San Juan and Santa Cruz, and an obligatory road for the 4×4 trucks that head toward Club Mbiguá, on the shores of the Paraguay River, one of the most elite in the city.

When the river overflows, Los Bañados are buried beneath the water, as in 1983 when the water reached the avenue that separates them from the formal city. "Until 1994 the river rose every year and people had to leave their homes," says Orlando Castillo, a member of the human rights organization Serpaj (the organization’s Spanish acronym for "at the service of peace and justice"), which was born in Los Bañados, where he has lived since he was almost five years old. Between the garbage and the dirt, its 100,000 habitants survive thanks to compact and extensive networks of solidarity.

It is Sunday and the Santa Cruz soccer pitch in the middle of the neighborhood has become the meeting point for the youth. Dozens of street vendors pass by offering cold drinks and ice cream for the little ones, while others sell tickets for raffles benefiting the neighborhood. Orlando and his friends finish up a game of soccer, grab some beers, and start to relate their own versions of the neighborhood’s history.

Paraguay’s Poorest

Los Bañados started to become populated more than half a century ago. In the four or five kilometer-wide space that they occupy between the city and the river, migrant workers who arrived in the city because of the expansion of cattle farming in the 1960s started to settle down. "It was the garbage heap of the city. But people would actually put up signs offering to buy trash, because it was the way to fill up los Bañados to make them livable," remembers Orlando.

Many migrant workers set up camp on this long fringe because of its proximity to the Clinical Hospital known for attending to Paraguay’s poor. The oldest neighborhood, Chacarita, sprung up a few meters from the house of the government. The rest extend to the South and the North, forming a linear city that fits to the bends of the river.

Barely one in 10 people from Bañados is formally employed. The rest collect garbage, sorting and then selling it. They raise hens, cows, and pigs, or have small portable stands. Others, such as Orlando when he was a boy, fish in the river to add to the common pot. Many go to Puerto Falcón, an Argentine city over the Paraguay River, and bring oil, onions, tomatoes, and contraband clothing. "Nobody has stopped having animals. In the morning whoever has cows passes by each house selling milk and cheese," says Orlando.

Everything that can be seen in Los Bañados was built with mutual assistance from the people. The solidarity is a badge of identity, since it is the only way to survive in such a hostile environment. The forms of solidarity are multiple and take on all imaginable aspects of daily life. Naturally, the neighbors bring food to those who have the least and hold raffles to buy older residents and sick people medicine; they also organize selling chicken and pasta dinners to collect funds for the most important neighborhood projects.

Residents play their role of solidarity, but also a type of internal redistribution of money, which is channeled between those who have some and those who have nothing. "For the families that don’t have money to contribute to the common tasks, the women collaborate to work and sell the noodles and the men chip in to make cement and manual labor. In exchange the neighbors take charge of feeding those who work."

There is a division of work within each family, but also among those who have more and less material resources. Orlando points out that the community is organized in a natural way, often without even creating institutions like neighborhood commissions. "The poorest work and those who have something buy raffles to collect money. There is a division of labor in the sense that everyone must contribute something. That’s how it works, and it is organized by turns. The children must also collaborate; when there are materials they are responsible for transporting them.

In this way they have been able to build roads, aqueducts, and canisters for drinkable water, health stations, and even a public space for women to have children. "Because if we want to have light we must buy the pole and sometimes pay the ‘fee’ for them to connect it in less than two months. The son who has studied the most is in charge of the paperwork. The ‘fee’ is taken out of the expenditures of the neighborhood commission," laughs Orlando.

"There are three generations born in Los Bañados." Now he starts to tell the story of the social organization of the neighborhood, which is very similar to what almost all popular sectors of Latin America have experienced. "The first neighborhood organizations came up during Stroessner’s dictatorship, as ecclesiastical communities based on the beliefs of the Jesuits. They are remedies that have stayed on in the community. The chapels were built by the community en masse, often in a site where it was said a miracle had transpired or an image was found and thus the people started to build a spot of prayer."

Orlando assures that while the chapels were influenced by the Jesuits, the Parishes that were there first were controlled by the Salesians, which provoked conflict within the church. In the middle of the 1990s the pressure of the Salesians and of the Archbishop caused the Jesuits to stay away from Los Bañados.

In those years, the ecclesiastically-based communities (in which all of Orlando’s family, above all his older sister Carmen, a recognized neighborhood leader, took part) "were the area where the people would get together and the healing brought about political discussions pointing out injustices with a large obligation with the community." The children learned the teaching of the catechism, the adolescents participated in youth groups, and the adults in neighborhood commissions that were the political leadership of the neighborhood. They [the neighborhood commissions] were in charge of shaping the youth but also forming policy for the neighborhood. The healers were in charge of advising the commissions and teaching the catechism.

As in the rest of the continent, a collective reading of the Bible would take place after debates about citizen rights based on popular education. The neighborhoods were home to popular leaders, above all Santa Cruz and Trinidad. The theater played an important role in the formation of youth. "Art was a form of resistance that they couldn’t control. Religious theater took place in the street vindicating the black figure of Jesus and later they would create theater critical of the social structure. At the end of the dictatorship, art, music, and community radios were the principal expressions of opposition," remembers Orlando.

With time, the social organizations freed themselves from the church, ceding a step to which even the church’s own priests contributed. In this way, the axis of social life moved from the chapel to the community center. The chapel was the place where the children ate lunch and at night the young people would congregate to drink and talk, because they felt it was a safe space. "Today that space of freedom has moved to the community center," says Carmen.

In the Santa Cruz neighborhood, the community was able to build a community center with materials both donated and purchased in bulk, and all of the labor was done by the neighbors. There is a school and a health center there, and it is even a social and cultural center for the neighborhood.

Women and Health Networks

Carmen replaced her brother Orlando as a guide through Los Bañados. We walk on mud and dirt roads until we arrive at a poor settlement, but built with cement and bricks, where Patricio (whom they call Pinto) lives. Many women wait for us—they belong to the directive commission CODECO (Coordinating Committee of Community Defense), the main organization in Bañado Norte.

Carmen describes the neighborhood in a positive light. "They are beautiful neighborhoods, filled with trees and plants, where honest and hard-working people live," she says, knowing that Bañados is known as a refuge for poor people who steal. María, a woman of 35, large and tan-skinned, assures that recently, in the past decade, people have started to plant trees and other plants, because every time the river would rise it would wash them away. "This change was possible because of us filling the land, and all of this was made possible by self-esteem and the neighborhood organization."

CODECO consists of 10 neighborhoods where around 5,000 people live. In 2001 they created a coordinated zone with the support of the international cooperation arm of the European Union. "But we experienced it as an imposition, so we preferred to create something smaller to defend the communities and our human rights," says Carmen.

Margarita, who is 49, although she looks older than 60, was elected president of the commission of her neighborhood. "We elect seven heads of each neighborhood commission in an assembly, of whose 91 families, 37 belong to my community. Each commission lasts two years and its principal task is to collect funds to help the people and improve the neighborhood."

Beyond the formality of the neighborhood commission, there is a type of organization that does not differ from every day life in that they do not create any structure or apparatus separate from daily life. "The homes are built by mutual help; we sell pasta and sausage to collect funds. Why? To buy rubble to fill the streets, to help out the sick, or pay a taxi to take us to the hospital when it is urgent. Here the state does not exist; people have to get everything for themselves," she explains, mixing words of Guaraní.

The problems tied to health, as U.S. geographer Mike Davis explains, are what most destabilize the daily life of the poor. Maria is indignant at the fact that in order to go to the hospital or health clinic, she must pay. "The community built Santa Cruz’s health clinic, but the doctors and nurses are paid by the ministry. We have no control over what they do and we even have to pay for everything: 5,000 guaranies to fill out a form to speak with a doctor; 20,000 for the cheapest analysis; and 15,000 for a hemogram. An older lady had to sell her house to be operated on." Margarita interrupts: "To be able to have a hernia operation I had to pay 5,000 Guaranies, the same value as my house. It’s better to just die."

If they don’t die, it is in large part because of the support of the networks of women and organized neighbors. Patricio, whom they’ve nicknamed "the neighborhood veterinarian," explains that when there is a family with a serious illness, the neighborhood commission cooks, for example, 100 plates of food and sells them, and everything that they collect they give to the sick person for medicine and hospital expenditures. "We have four families where there is someone with brain damage and we do rotating activities in groups to help them get the medicine," she says.

Patricio is lucky. He has stable work as a public employee, which allows him to dedicate lots of time to the neighborhood commission of San Juan. His way of collaborating is vaccinating the animals of the neighborhood and charging just the price of the medicine. His wife works taking care of cars in the city and she collects plastic from four in the morning to eight in the morning. "I go out with my sister and we get 5,000 guaranies for each batch. The same that it costs to speak with the doctor," she complains.

For a neighborhood like Los Bañados, Maria is a prosperous businesswoman. In her house she has a pen with 40 pigs. Her husband lost his job five years ago. In addition, she has a small store, ducks and hens, and two kids to take tare of. She has an extraordinary capacity to organize her family and community life, an art that she learned in a pig cooperative that was built with the support of international cooperation. "We had 20 members but we failed because the people needed to eat every day, and when the price of the animals’ food went up everything became more complicated. The times of cooperation aid are very short and people are used to eating today and figuring out what they are going to do to be able to eat tomorrow," she said.

Resisting "Progress"

With the fall of the dictatorship and the arrival of democracy, the municipal administrations tried to institutionalize the informal neighborhood commissions. But many were chalked up as mere screens of the Red (Colorado) Party which governed Paraguay for 60 years. Carmen calculates that there are some 1,500 commissions in Los Bañados alone, but not all have a legitimate existence. The statistic reveals an enormous organizational capacity.

At the end of the 1990s, international financial bodies began to be interested in Los Bañados. Their strategic location at the banks of the river, the city’s main attraction, would turn them into an apt space to make investments and transfer power to real estate speculation. For that aim there are two roads: violently expel the residents or improve their neighborhoods and living quarters, grouping them into denser units in order to leave free spaces for more expensive buildings.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) lent their support to the project in the sum of $200 million dollars to the city of Asunción under the name "Coastal Fringe," to improve the zone of Los Bañados and relocate its residents to other types of living quarters. Upon learning about the project, the neighbors felt that they were going to be victims of a vast speculative project that did not consider their interests. With the support of CIPAE (Committee of Churches for Emergency Relief), they put into motion an extensive organization covering the core of the deep network of micro-organizations. In August 2003, a large assembly gathered to form the General Coordinating Committee of Social and Communal Organizations of Los Bañados of Asunción (COBA ÑADOS).

The organization consists of the three sectors of the neighborhood (North, Center, and South), has a Coordination Council, an Executive Committee, and a Council of Zonal Activities. It defined a program with 10 points: rejection of relocation, destruction of the neighborhoods, overcrowding, "matchbox" dwellings, the loss of employment in the informal sector, the "impossible to pay" taxes, the costs of living, and to reclaim the right to be consulted, in addition to fair compensation for improvements done in the Los Bañados, and social fees for public services.

They want to remain a neighborhood in which the majority has lived for 30 years, "so we can develop our daily and community-oriented life. Only from the neighborhood can we have access to employment, food, education, health, means of economic transport, and other social services." They add that the project will destroy entire neighborhoods built by social networks "with our own efforts and resources, customized to our needs and possibilities."

They fear that the new urbanizations do not respect the communal spaces; that the families are confined to small spaces and are impeded from working as they do now. In Los Bañados, all of the living spaces have a plot of land next door, more or less as big as necessary for the needs and services of the family, which allows them a certain autonomy to work or build up their homes. That is why COBA ÑADOS demands a minimal plot of land of 360 square meters for each family.

The debate that the social and communal organization of Los Bañados is heading goes way beyond the Coastal Fringe and is related to the type of society that they would like to live in. Asunción’s poor, who will continue to be poor in spite of being transferred to other neighborhoods, with similar houses lined up in a row, put their identity first in the social relationships that they have built. These are the links of solidarity among neighbors that have formed true communities, which has allowed them to live with dignity in poverty. They do not want to lose this social wealth for the offer of "progress."

With his vast experience in Los Bañados and neighborhoods at the periphery of Asunción, Orlando is sure that there are enormous differences. "In Los Bañados people return at 6 p.m. and carry on with their social life, on the soccer pitch or the social center. There are communal spaces and there is interaction, there are strong links, arguments, and solidarity. On the contrary, in the peripheries of the city the people get home at 9 p.m. and lock themselves in their house. The poverty is the same, but there are not strong relationships among neighbors. That is why in Los Bañados there is organization but in the peripheries there is nothing, and clientelism dominates.