Ecuador: UN summit turns the spotlight on Quito’s land struggle

Ecuador: UN summit turns the spotlight on Quito's land struggle

Seventy-three-year-old Luis Ninahualpa is one of the Bolaños residents fighting against plans by the Municipality of Quito to build two new bridges on their ancestral land.

(Bryan Miranda)

Every Thursday evening, the white-collar workers that pass by one of Quito’s last traditional neighbourhoods face an inconvenient commute. They are confronted with a message that most local newspapers ignore: “Our land is not for sale,” chant a handful of elderly men and women who stand with placards alongside a major motorway that connects Quito with its suburban valleys.

Here residents of the historic Bolaños neighbourhood have been holding weekly protests over the past year in a desperate bid to halt a multi-million dollar construction project that threatens to destroy their way of life.

“This is an ancestral neighbourhood inherited from our parents, our grandparents and our Indigenous ancestors who fought for this land,” says Lydia Achig, who was born to one of the three founding families that moved into Bolaños over a century ago. “We will continue their struggle because here we live well. We grow our own corn, beans, peas. Here, we are free. Where else would we go?”

The so-called Guayasamín Road solution, which proposes the construction of a 500 metre and a 120 metre bridge across the Bolaños neighborhood, has sparked an agonising battle between the Municipality of Quito and the 86 families of this barrio who say they were never informed or consulted about the plans.

“We found out when there was already machinery down the road. That’s when we started protesting,” Verónica Ninahualpa, one of the barrio’s leading organisers, tells Equal Times.

Mauricio Rodas, the Mayor of Quito, has so far denied these allegations, saying there has been “open and democratic dialogue.” The neighbourhood’s relocation is nevertheless inevitable, according to Rodas, because it is situated in a natural “danger zone.”

“Let’s look at it [the project] as an opportunity to relocate [them] to a safe zone,” the Mayor said in June, following months of protest.

But to the residents of Bolaños, who have already lost land to the municipality as a result of previous urban development projects, this sounds like spin. They say the area hasn’t experienced any mudslides or property destruction due to natural disasters in the past 50 years – not even when Ecuador was hit by the deadliest earthquake in almost 20 years this April.

With little legal ground to stand on, residents say the municipality is now trying to buy them off in order to avoid a possible court case that would delay constructions plans and inflate costs. Their offer at US$3 per square metre of land, however, falls far below the actual market price (an estimated US$1000 per square metre) according to land surveyors.

“They are killing us, morally and physically,” says Verónica’s father Luis, who has lived in Bolaños for all of his 73 years. Like his fellow residents, Mr Ninahualpa says he is under great pressure from the municipal authorities, whose bribery has provoked rifts in the community.

“They [the authorities] ask us: ‘How much do you think your land is worth? How much do you want?’” he says. “They don’t understand that nothing is for sale here. Our neighbourhood has no price.”


Redevelopment for all?

Those in favour of the plans argue that the relocation of Bolaños is a necessity for the greater good of the city. The two new bridges, it is said, will eliminate the daily gridlock experienced at the main tunnel which connects Quito’s financial hub to the increasingly affluent areas of Cumbaya and Tumbaco in the east of the city.

Every day about 34,000 cars pass through the Guayasamín Tunnel even though it was only built for 24,000 cars at the time of its construction 11 years ago.

But while the US$131 million Guayasamín Road Solution will ease this congestion, its benefits will only be temporary. Data from the China Road and Bridges Corp., which is the main private investor for the project, indicates that traffic will once again saturate by 2021, just two years after the project’s estimated completion.

With the initial construction plans failing to include access for public transport, campaigners question whether more roads will actually improve life for all of Quito’s residents, or just a select few.

Francisco Salazar, an engineer and urban planner, believes the new development caters to “the growing middle classes who have the resources to live far and to buy cars”.

Those who will cash in from easing mobility between the city and countryside, however, is Ecuador’s ruling elite, Salazar tells Equal Times. Members of this small but powerful minority – who tend to be of European or mixed, criollo, ancestry rather than Indigenous or African – have owned large swathes of land outside Quito since they took power from the Spanish colonial rulers in the early 19th century.

“As the city grows into the valleys, the value of their land increases a hundredfold,” Salazar explains. “Since municipal authorities are too afraid to limit the expansion of the city, these new highways will not only allow oligarchs to play with land prices, but also to urbanise rural areas.”

Such a trend would only increase displacement and make housing unaffordable to the detriment of low-income and agrarian communities, while destroying the valleys’ uniquely diverse natural landscapes.

Salazar belongs to a group of environmentalists, urban planners and residents of other affected neighbourhoods who have joined the Bolaños protesters to bring attention to Quito’s larger urban development problems. Together they have formed Error Vial Guayasamín (Road Error Guayasamín), an action group that has pressured municipal authorities to create more green areas and make the new roads accessible to public transport. While these are some of the concrete victories the group has won, it is a radical shift in how to organise the city that the group yearns for.

“This is a battle for the right to use the city, which comes with the demand for a pedestrian-friendly city with public spaces and sidewalks,” Salazar says. In a city where public transport takes up only 2 per cent of road space but is used by 80 per cent of people living in and around Quito, a shift to what Salazar calls a “street-based” economy could fundamentally alter how the city is used and organised.

This street-based economy, Salazar hopes, would bring an end to a city of “rich and poor ghettos” by taking some of the commerce out of its giant shopping malls and back into local businesses. Such a shift would further imply the redistribution of capital from the city centre to Quito’s peripheral neighborhoods, resulting in fewer commuters, less traffic and most importantly, a more even spread of the city’s wealth.


“Urban revolution”

The heated debate around how to organise the city – and for whom – comes as Quito prepares to host the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development from 17 to 20 October.

Ecuador was crowned host in partial praise of President Rafael Correa’s ‘alternative’ governance. Correa is the only head of state in the world that has called for an “urban revolution”. Notably, Ecuador also included the “right to the city” in its 2008 constitutional reform.

“People have the right to the full enjoyment of the city and its public spaces,” Article 31 of the Constitution reads, “under the principles of sustainability, social justice, respect for different urban cultures and balance between urban and rural.”

But for Bolaños residents, living just 30 minutes away from where the world’s heads of state, civil servants, civil society representatives, academics, trade unionists and other stakeholders will draw up a global agenda on urban development for the next two decades, this constitutional milestone rings rather hollow.

While Salazar believes the municipality’s failure to respect the Constitution’s promises is a result of the oligarchy’s unchecked powers and the lack of political will to challenge them, for the people of Bolaños it reveals a clash of world views.

“I think they don’t understand the simplicity of life, how that fulfills you,” Verónica Ninahualpa tells Equal Times. “The way of life is not found in a pretty house, but in how you live. Those of us who have never had money, know that happiness is found in the simple ways.”

Here in Bolaños, at the tip of the city’s ever-growing tentacles, “you live, you eat a fresh fruit, you grow your own food, breathe fresh air, you hear the birds,” she says.

“This is why our fight is a struggle for el buen vivir [good living] for everyone. For humans and better ways of living – not capital – to triumph this time.”