Human Rights and Evictions of the Urban Poor in Colombia

Margaret Everett, November 1, 1999

Although many governments in Latin America have improved the process of legalizing peripheral settlements, recognized the rights of housing, and acknowledged the United Nations’ position on evictions as violations of fundamental human rights, urban displacement continues. Forced evictions bring devastation to families and neighborhoods and hamper efforts to improve large areas of the city. By perpetuating a climate of fear and uncertainty, the threat of eviction makes people reluctant to invest labor and resources in their homes and barrios.

Evictions arise from the prevalence of illegal housing in Latin America, which is caused by rapid growth, the limited financial resources of the poor and municipal governments alike, and unclear or contested titles. Given this situation, the urban poor employ a number of survival mechanisms, including illegal subdivisions, invasions, and do-it-yourself housing, in order to meet their needs for shelter and community.

In the northeastern section of Bogotá, Colombia, known as Chapinero Alto, residents have faced 30 years of displacement and eviction attempts. Many of the families living in this mountainous urban periphery are related to the workers on the great estates that covered the sabana (high plain). As the estates were broken up and sold to make way for urban expansion, the workers were left to live in the hills, which at mid-century were considered worthless to developers.

In the early 1970s, a planned highway project through the area brought a wave of speculation and several eviction attempts. Residents and their allies at universities and religious institutions formed a massive social movement that blocked several evictions but could not halt speculation. When the highway was finally built in the 1980s, only a few families had to move to make way for the road, but another wave of eviction attempts threatened the barrios.

In the early 1990s, residents faced a new threat: sustainable development and claims by both government and private groups that the poor barrios were a threat to the fragile environment. Since then, continued pressure to remove squatters has tested the abilities of residents to defend against eviction. The uncertainty has also discouraged investment by both residents and the city government.

Development Refugees

The causes of evictions are varied, but typically displacement relates directly or indirectly to development. As the availability of serviceable land shrinks, competition and evictions force the residents of such informal housing settlements further into the periphery. In Bogotá, the expansion of the city has made Chapinero Alto one of the most coveted pieces of real estate in the city. The victims of evictions, so-called development refugees, are often accused of standing in the way of progress when they protest. They are rarely offered compensation or allowed to participate in resettlement. In cases of speculation, residents typically have little warning prior to eviction and experience the trauma of forced displacement.

Local governments play a central role in evictions, along with landowners, developers, police and armed forces. Clearing the poor residents from desirable lands not only makes way for luxury development and infrastructure projects but also frees the wealthy from daily contact with them. Governments and developers often cite the beautification and improvement of the city as justification, or claim that social problems proliferate in slums. Governments also increasingly cite environmental protection and sustainable development as justifications for eviction. Government officials and private title-holders hoping to evict squatters have used all of these justifications in their efforts to clear Chapinero Alto of poor barrios.

When families are forced to move, they lose not only their land and houses, but neighborhoods, communities and social networks. The psychological stress caused by months of uncertainty and the health effects alone can be devastating. Children often lose months of school and their parents often travel long distances to get to work. Anthropologists have demonstrated that relationships of mutual aid and social networks are dismantled as populations disperse. These social networks are a critical survival tool for the urban poor who must constantly weather economic fluctuations and uncertainty. Even when families receive compensation for lost homes, these social relations are virtually irreplaceable. Finally, displacement carries a very high risk of impoverishment. This is especially true for those who lack legal title to their land because they generally do not receive compensation.

In 1992, the Bogotá city government evicted a group of 30 families following a violent dispute with the title-holder. The city moved the families to an abandoned school where they lived for several months awaiting public housing promised to them by the mayor. As the months wore on and the promised housing solution evaporated, stress, health problems and lost income and education took their toll on the families. Several of the men left, rumors of domestic violence grew, and social relationships disintegrated. By 1997, the families were scattered around the city in whatever housing they could find.

One of the most distressing consequences of urban displacement is the effect that insecurity of tenure has on all irregular settlements. Whether or not residents are ever evicted, the threat of eviction affects huge areas of developing cities and prevents investment in housing and services that is necessary to solve the problem of slums in the first place. This is one of the reasons why the problem of evictions must be addressed within the framework of human rights; until security of tenure and adequate shelter are fully acknowledged and protected as human rights, the problem of urban displacement will continue.

Evictions and Human Rights

Given the far-reaching social consequences of displacement, it is not surprising that forced evictions entail the violation of a number of human rights. Evictions obviously compromise the right to housing. The right to adequate housing has been made increasing explicit in international law. Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights established the right to housing for the first time in 1948. The Declaration on Social Progress and Development, the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlement and other conventions all affirm the right to housing. More than 50 constitutions recognize housing as a human right, including the Colombian Constitution of 1991.

In addition to the right to housing, the right to freedom of movement is commonly violated with eviction. When community leaders and protestors are killed or subjected to violence, the right to life and security of the person are denied, as are the right of freedom of expression and association. When children are taken from school, the right to education is affected. When police or military enter homes by force, families lose their rights of privacy. The right to work is one of the most common violations associated with evictions. Finally, the psychological and physical toll wrought by eviction compromises the right to health.

Even where governments have ratified UN conventions on housing rights, evictions often occur. The United Nations, like many other observers, clearly places the responsibility for preventing evictions on the states. The United Nations has declared that when governments fail to ensure the availability of adequate housing, they must not claim that the removal of illegal settlements is consistent with international law. Since virtually all evictions are planned, and since there are a set of internationally recognized conventions in place condemning eviction, such displacements should be guided by social policies and a human rights framework.

Policy Considerations

Based on a review of several studies on eviction and my own research in Bogotá, I suggest a number of ways in which better enforcement of human rights can improve housing policies and prevent violence. The following points should be the focus of policies aimed at eliminating forced evictions.

  • When displacement cannot be prevented, governments should ensure relocation and compensation with the full participation of the affected community.
  • Efforts to regularize or legalize settlements must be improved. Even where procedures for legalization exist, bureaucracy, delays and prohibitive expenses make such processes impractical for much of the population.
  • Clarifying the cloudy title situation in Latin American cities is critical for protecting housing rights, preventing violence and stimulating development in low-income areas. This is, of course, difficult in areas where private title-holders have a competing claim for the land, but legalization is most urgently needed precisely in these areas. Governments must find a way to compensate both title-holders and squatters in such disputes.
  • Human rights should also govern taxation policies. In eastern Bogotá, for example, valorization taxes, which are used to recapture public investment in a 1980s development project, threatened to force out the very neighborhoods the government claimed to be helping with the project. Many residents and activists believed that this was the government’s intended effect, and even some in the city administration acknowledged that many residents would inevitably be forced to move elsewhere.
  • One of the main reasons that international laws on housing rights have not been implemented at the local level is because local governments do not participate in the creation of such agreements. With decentralization, moreover, municipal governments are largely responsible for implementing housing policies, but lack the resources to protect housing rights. Municipal authorities must be involved in the policymaking process and must be provided with the tools necessary to protect housing rights.
  • Even where governments do not have the resources to guarantee adequate shelter to all citizens, they can act to protect housing rights and deter violent conflicts by disallowing all forms of forced displacement.
  • Housing rights are widely acknowledged and rarely enforced. By strengthening the participation of international organizations, as well as local institutions such as the ombudsman, human rights violations may be more effectively prevented. Relying on states to enforce human rights conventions regarding forced eviction is unrealistic since states are nearly always complicit in the practice of eviction.

Only when effective mechanisms for extending tenure rights to the urban poor have been created can the problems associated with forced displacement-violence, impoverishment, stagnated urban development-be adequately addressed. One major way that current human rights guidelines can be improved is to extend the rights to protection from forced eviction and the rights to adequate resettlement. Current guidelines are most effectively enforced in cases of internationally financed development projects, but similar guidelines could be used by states to govern all forms of displacement. By extending human rights guidelines and improving the mechanisms for implementation and enforcement, national and international agencies can better meet the needs of the urban poor.

Margaret Everett is assistant professor of Anthropology and International Studies at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Her research for this article was funded in part by the Lincoln Institute. The complete report, “Evictions and Human Rights: An Ethnographic Study of Development and Land Disputes in Bogotá, Colombia,” is posted on the Lincoln Institute website.