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Not a dream - we are doing it!

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How often do we dream of living in a better society? Maybe my experience will bring hope – because we, the residents of the incredible, unique community María Auxiliadora are not only dreaming of a better life, we are living it!

Habitat para la Mujer Comunidad María Auxiliadora is a community for low-income families on the outskirts of the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. I am the only foreigner, and a relatively recent addition: the initiative and the community is otherwise 100% Bolivian. The Comunidad María Auxiliadora is big, with currently, after 12 years of existence, 400 families, and there is the potential for 600 more. It is not religious, although there are people of various religions; and it is multi-cultural, in that there are people from all regions of Bolivia and 3 languages are commonly spoken (Quechua, Aymara and Spanish). The community is based on mutual self-help, solidarity and collectivism, and is self governing.

The principals of the community are as follows:

·      The land is collective. We are all owners of all of it, so each family does not own their individual plot, although they have a legal document that gives them the right to live on that plot, to build a house, to leave it to their children. The rest of the land – roads, green spaces, areas for public services, etc – and the services such as water supply and sewage, are collectively managed.

·      The community is for low-income families who do not own any house or land in Bolivia. As in most Latin American countries, there are millions of families in Bolivia that live in one or two rented rooms, with no prospects of ever improving their quality of life or having decent, adequate housing. Most of the adults in the community work selling in the market, washing clothes, cleaning houses, driving taxis or in the building trade. Many are recent immigrants from the countryside.

·      The land is for living, not for profit. The cost of entering the community is low and does not go up. It can be paid in instalments over one year, and is returned if a family wants to move out of the community. Once allotted a housing plot the family must live there within 6 months, be it in a temporary shelter. The community is for families who really need somewhere to live, and the money saved by not paying rent elsewhere can then go into constructing a house. The plot cannot be sold or rented to others.

·      Traditional forms of organising found in indigenous rural communities in Bolivia are recuperated: community work, ayni, kermeses, etc. These activities unite the community and allow people to get to know one another.

·      Women’s leadership is actively encouraged, recognising firstly that mothers in Bolivian society, as in many others, are usually more involved and concerned about the welfare of the children than fathers, and secondly, that the participation of women is usually undervalued. The President and Vice President of the community are always women. Families with single parents are particularly encouraged to join the community.   

·      There is committee elected every two years, which manages different aspects of the community. There are sub-committees for basic services, for managing the accounts, for supporting families with problems. Participants in the compulsory monthly community meeting for all residents have the final word in decision-making.

Bolivia is currently undergoing very rapid change. Much of this is for the better: the “Process of Change” initiated by President Evo Morales and his government, which, very simplified, is a social, economic and political change to the previous power structure that favoured a tiny minority. This change allows indigenous people who make up over 60% of the population to participate and enjoy the benefits in all areas of society that were previously denied them. Another component of the government’s vision, much debated, is “Vivir Bien” (“Live Well”), ie living in harmony with other people and nature, as opposed to capitalism, which is based on greed, profit and exploitation.

What is incredible about the Comunidad María Auxiliadora is how fast the benefits of the social aspects of Vivir Bien, of living in a community where the common good is important, have manifested themselves in such a short time. Families are now released from many of the stresses that living in overcrowded rented accommodation brings on: constant fear of eviction, numerous complaints from the owner and other families that share the same small plot, young people and children who live more on the street than in the home, fathers that drink after work rather than go home, all resulting in high indices of delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, depression and other mental health problems. In our community neighbours support each other, there is safety in the streets day and night, everyone greets each other. “We are a family” I have heard so often said.

Community work on Sundays has resulted in the development of services that other peri-urban barrios lack, such as piped water, a sewage system with treatment plant, football and basketball pitches, an afterschool club, a children’s nursery. However, there is still much to do. Many families still live in one of two rooms, many still don’t have toilets or showers. While many of the stresses on the family are relieved by living in the community, the day-to-day struggle to survive on a low, unreliable income continues. In addition, the community is constantly growing, bringing new challenges of how to manage it and to ensure residents’ participation, such an important part of the community.

 

Discussion 9 Comments

  • Joanna Maguire 9th Aug 2012

    oops, sorry, don't know what happened there! My first time blogging... if someone could take out the first paragraph of gobbledyguck I would be very happy!

  • 9th Aug 2012

    Thanks for writing about the inspiring features of the Maria Auxiliadora community: collective land ownership, collective decision-making with rotating committee leadership positions, enhanced gender equality and security for women, and the spirit of solidarity that comes with communal building projects. Great stuff.

  • Lambert Meertens 9th Aug 2012

    I hope we can build up a repository of such inspiring examples. We can learn a lot from such experiences.

  • Peter Lach-Newinsky 9th Aug 2012

    Fantastic, many thanks for this inspiring example, Joanna, and a great example of 'vivir bien', a meaty, humanly juicy concept that we could perhaps take up and discuss in IOPS at some point as a way of concretising both self-management and equitable sustainability/simpler living issues?

    Also like Lambert's 'repository of inspiring examples' idea; maybe Joanna could start by putting this in the Resources section?

    • Lambert Meertens 14th Aug 2012

      A dedicated forum may be a better tool. We can call it Living the dream, and this could be the first topic.

  • 10th Aug 2012

    Very inspiring! Thank you for posting.

    All the best,

    Perry

  • Poppy Lewis 10th Aug 2012

    Glad to hear about the unique Maria Auxiliadora community. Thanks for sharing this Joanna.
    Poppy

  • Ian R. 10th Aug 2012

    It´s always giving hope to see that people are still capable to find together and help each other.

  • Joanna Maguire 11th Aug 2012

    thanks all for your lovely supportive comments! I'll put it in the Resources Section as suggested..