In a brutal housing market, Cusco squatters seek a roof of their own
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In a brutal housing market, Cusco squatters seek a roof of their own

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Cusco, Peru. On a the slope of a mountain called Mayu Orco, about 200 men and women are leisurely stringing up a barbed wire fence. They belong to an association called Agua del Oro, which in January 2014 began a occupation of the mountainside.

Since then, they have built about 150 shelters across the slope. What began as blue tarps stretched over stakes have become homes made of reeds, wood, brick and adobe.

Members of Agua del Oro string up a barbed-wire fence. Photo: Gustav Cappaert

Members of Agua del Oro string up a barbed-wire fence. Photo: Gustav Cappaert

On the slope, Agua del Oro spawned Nueva Generación, the organization that controls the eastern part of the hill. Midway through 2014, another association called Hijos de Viva el Peru took up residence.

The organizations, called Asociaciones Pro Viviendas, say that they have legitimately purchased the land they’re on. The neighborhoods below say they are invaders, merely seizing the opportunity to grab some land. Both claim to have ironclad documents to back them up.

When Agua del Oro began building, they clashed with two established communities at the bottom of the mountain: Viva El Peru, established in the early 1980s and Los Pequeños Agricultores de San Isidro, founded about 15 years ago. Those groups also claim to own the land on the hill.

Gladys, a member of the Pequeños Agricultores, put it bluntly. “From that tree and above, everyone is an invader. As there are few of us and many of them, they’re going to try to take everything…they are purely delinquents.”

Aguas del Oro residents. Photo: Gustav Cappaert

Aguas del Oro residents. Photo: Gustav Cappaert

A roof of their own

A typical settler is Mario Mora Atausinchi, who belongs to Nueva Generación. Mora comes from nearby Urubamba, where he spent 21 years working in a state-owned hotel chain, which was privatized in 1995 during the Fujimori government. After losing his job, he bounced from hotel to hotel, ultimately ending up in agriculture.

To Mora, the changes in Cusco and the nearby Sacred Valley have been largely negative. Land in his home of Urubamba, about an hour from Cusco, became increasingly expensive as foreign buyers moved in.

“Mostly, Urubamba is now occupied by Chileans, not Peruvians,” he said.

Eufemio Cobarrubias, also from Urubamba, joined the occupation after seeing his rent in Cusco double, from $30 to $60 a month, over two years. A 2013 article in business publication Gestión found that land prices have increased by as much as ten times, from $200 per square meter in 2003 to $2,000 today.

Eufemio, Mario and other residents of the slope say they have come seeking “un techo propio” — a roof of their own.

They are willing to invest to secure one. Cobarrubias estimated that he has spent about $350 in fees: the first $20 for membership in the organization, and the remaining $330 in weekly member fees, which pay for the 24-hour security force that stands guard over the hill.

A difference of opinion

Depending on whom you ask, the squatters are either invaders or the communities at the bottom are opportunistic land-grabbers.

“They take position without negotiating with the owner. They take advantage of a moment, invade, and afterwards they use their leverage to say, ‘for this land, you’re going to pay me,’” said Dionysio Díaz, former president of the Pequeños Agricultores de San Isidro.

The land these squatters are occupying, said Díaz, is not fit for habitation. It has not been determined if these are archaeological sites, or areas of high risk in the event of an earthquake or mudslide. “There is plenty of space down below,” he said, “But the majority want to be close to universities, markets and jobs. That’s why they’re looking at these spaces.”

A structure with the owner's name painted on it. Photo: Gustav Cappaert

A structure with the owner’s name painted on it. Photo: Gustav Cappaert

Rubén Mamani Mora, the leader of Agua del Oro, sees it differently. He says the Pequeños Agricultores are owners of an entirely different property, which does not overlap with the squatters’ claim.

“They’re very ambitious,” he said. “They want to take it all for themselves, but with us they’ve made a mistake, because this is not the land that their documents entitle them to.”

Mamani said that in 2013, a man offering a piece of land approached him and three friends and suggested that they start an organization. According to Ruben’s documents, the seller purchased the land from the agricultural community of Chocco in 2007.

Since the squatters moved in, there have been conflicts. In January 2014, members of los Pequeños Agricultores climbed the hill and attempted to dismantle the constructions. Mamani insists that the Pequeños Agricultores sold a piece of the hill to another group, Hijos de Viva el Peru, on the condition that they harass Aguas del Oro.

In 2012, two new settlements fought a pitched battle for a piece of land less than a kilometer from the conflicted hill. Twelve were wounded, and the police dispersed the combatants with tear gas. Later that year, another group of squatters was violently evicted from the agricultural site of Wimpillay.

To avoid this kind of conflict, Agua del Oro and the other squatter groups employ a full-time security force, paid for by member contributions. The pay is good, ranging from S/1,200 ($388) to S/1,500 (about US$485) a month.

Both groups profess that they have no desire for further violence. Mario Mora of Nueva Generación said, “Nothing has happened. Yes, they threw us out once, but there were no casualties, nothing. [The security] is just to protect us.”

Double titles and land traffickers

Conflicts like these occur because determining the legal owner of a piece of land in Cusco goes far beyond reviewing the documents.

Under Peru’s 1969 Agrarian reform, land once controlled by powerful haciendas was redistributed to rural communities. According to professor Linda Seligmann, who has been researching Cusco since 1974, the reform did not produce the kind of productive community agriculture that it intended.

Instead, it meant that some community members felt entitled to sell their land, sometimes to multiple buyers at the same time. “They say they bought it from this or that community, when in reality they just paid one campesino or the other,” said Álvaro Sánchez Valencia, a Cusco anthropologist.

Into the ensuing confusion have stepped land traffickers, who buy terrain from unverified sellers or simply falsify documents and then resell that land to people like Rubén Mamani.

Because verifying ownership is so difficult, possession is everything. In the decades following the agrarian reform, new settlements in Cusco and Lima popped up that were gradually incorporated into the cities. Since 1950, Cusco has more than doubled in size as informal neighborhoods have been incorporated into the city. The most populous areas of Lima began as squatter settlements.

Why the dramatic increase? Professor Seligmann believes that tourism is to blame.

“With the surge in tourism, you have an effort to protect some sites, which are genuinely important archaeologically. And then there are simultaneous grabs for real estate…pushing out people who used to live in Cusco proper.”

Other reasons include a strong economy, bolstered by profits from natural gas and mining, as well as speculation on the part of newly enriched miners buying up land in the hopes that its price will rise.

Rubén Mamani, of Aguas del Oro, reviews a member's documentation. Photo: Gustav Cappaert

Rubén Mamani, of Aguas del Oro, reviews a member’s documentation. Photo: Gustav Cappaert

With prices as they are, the land claimed by Aguas del Oro is dirt-cheap. Each member paid only S/3 per square meter. In contrast, Mamani said, that land could be sold on the open market for $20 a square meter, making the 40-hectare hill worth about $8 million.

With such high stakes, the squatters are in a hurry. Each member of Aguas del Oro is obliged to make improvements to their property every Sunday. Most houses, which started out as tarps, are now made of reeds and sheet metal. A few settlers have begun constructing from adobe and brick.

Optimism runs high on the hill, but patience is starting to wear thin.

“We’re in the final stretch,” Mario Mora said. “I just want to know if they’re going to kick us out or if we’re going to win.”

Scarce services

If the experience of the communities at the bottom of the hill is any indication, a thriving neighborhood on Mayu Orco might be a long time coming.

Ubiquitous among the squatters and in much of the official community below are 100-liter barrels of drinking water, since the city of Cusco has yet to connect some settlements to utilities. As such, residents estimate that they pay four times as much for water, and are exposed to disease, as the barrels sit uncovered for up to four days before they are consumed.

The same goes for electricity. Dionysio Díaz of los Pequeños Agricultores de San Isidro described the process of electrifying his neighborhood.

“We put in 300 soles per person between 10 people. We bought the poles, we bought the cables, and we had to pay for each house to be connected.” For 10 years, he said, “We’ve fought for the most basic: water, sewers, and electricity.”

As the squatters and established communities prepare for a legal showdown, rumored to begin in March, progress in the crowded margins of Cusco is slow.

“You will have heard in your country, that tourism in the city of Cusco is beautiful, ancestral, they call it many things. But if you go a little further, a few meters further, you’ll see that the reality here is much different,” said Díaz.