Occupation Conflicts

Julian Portilla

Mediator and Facilitator for Fundación Cambio Democrático, Buenos Aires, Argentina, a Member of Partners for Democratic Change International

Gachi Tapia

Executive Director of Fundación Cambio Democrático, Buenos Aires, Argentina, a Member of Partners for Democratic Change International

Interviewed by Guy Burgess, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Julian: I think one of the most interesting cases we're working on now is a case in Iguazu, Misiones, which is the very northeastern province of Argentina and we're working on a land occupation conflict there, which, depending on where you're standing, is an environmental conflict, is a political conflict, is a social conflict, you know, if you ask the ocupantes, it's got nothing to do with environmental conflict, if you ask the National Park Service, it's very much an environmental conflict and if you are a political scientist, like me or some of my colleagues, it's very much a political conflict.

So there's a large piece of land just south of the Iguazu, and Iguazu is trapped on two sides by rivers and on the third side by the National Park and on it's fourth side there is a piece of land about 2,000 hectares in area and Iguazu is full and it has to grow, and it can only grow down into this 2,000 hectares. And they've had this land for seven or eight years and generally what has happened is that political "friends" get nice pieces of land in this 2,000 hectares extra-officially. In other words, the mayor or the head of the town council might say, here's a nice spot, why don't you go ahead and take it and it usually has to do with political favors in the end, and so after awhile, the housing demand in Iguazu grows and people are trying to get into the 2,000 hectares and there is a plan developing but it's never implemented from the part of the municipality, and the bishop one day stands up in the middle of town and says, "You all should go occupy this land," speaking to poorer people, "because if you don't go occupy it now, the mayor is going to give it away to all of his friends. So, why don't you go occupy the 2,000 hectares?" And so people do, and it becomes this tremendous occupation and the 2,000 hectares, which is the only plot of land into which Iguazu can grow, is eventually taken over by squatters.

Gachi: And it's also a part of this international green corridor. So that's why, from a conservation perspective, it's also a very strategic place.

Julian: It's a piece of what they call [Spanish] which means jungle of the [Spanish]. Gachi: Interior Atlantic forest.

Julian: That's right, that's what it's called. Interior Atlantic forest. And it's incredibly bio-diverse and it connects these different tracts of protected land in Paraguay and in Argentina. And there's two sections. One is an urban section which is a typical Latin American urban expansion where poor people go and basically setup shop in maybe 10x30-meter lots. 15x40 sometimes. And they setup and it looks fairly chaotic, although there is a certain amount of local organization that goes on, so when you're walking through these neighborhoods it looks like there's houses just anywhere. But when a surveyor comes and actually starts cutting the land into little plots, it turns out these people are fairly self-organized into these 10x30 or 15x30 plots of land, they just have their houses on different points.

So there's a certain amount of organization that goes on organically and there are a certain amount of rules they establish and norms between them. So there's the urban section and then there's the rural section. And in the urban section there may be close to - I don't know - three or four thousand people. And in the rural section which is the bulk of the 2,000 hectares - 1,200 hectares or so - is occupied by less than 1,000 people. But they call themselves rural workers and they have these three hectare plots of land and they clear-cut their little land and they burn the piece that they clear-cut, and then they make it suitable for agriculture - for a few years anyway, and so the municipality wants their land back and they sue several of the squatters individually to get it back. The squatters collectively sue the municipality because they are worried

Gachi: Well, they are really lack of power. They have a very strong, well they used to have, a very strong leader. Very negative one from our perspective that was in some way taking them to all this confrontation and was getting money to pay lawyers. Because actually he run for mayor too and he lost. So this is very interesting in terms of how this is a conflict in which politicians in our undeveloped country are using the very poor people when they go to elections. I don't know what would have happened if he really wins election.

Julian: It would have been very interesting. The reason he - he lost but by very little, and the reason he had so many votes is because he - this is the gentleman who took second place in the mayor's race, the way he got so many votes was by giving out pieces of land that did not belong to him to squatters. So the bishop said, go take over the land, and the sort of very concrete mechanism for people to go and occupy was that this guy would go around writing little slips of paper saying, "This land is yours "

Gachi: Requesting for money

Julian: "This plot is yours after you vote for me and get all your friends to vote for me. If I become mayor I will give you the title to this land." So he did that left, right, and center and basically populated the 2,000 hectares with this sort of crony-istic network, what we call [Spanish word]. And he got a lot of votes. And he also got a lot of votes for the provincial government, because he was running on the provincial ticket, whereas the guy who won was running on a slightly different ticket. Then you have a situation in which, despite the fact that there's incredible amounts of deforestation going on and an illegal occupation in terms of the laws that are on the books, the provincial government has a man on the inside, the second-place finisher, who they are supporting with their political capital and occasionally their financial capital and in fact he won himself a post in the provincial government - a small post but symbolic because that way the local ocupantes - the local squatters -- would see him as an arm of the provincial government. In the meantime, the municipal government is broke and is at odds with the provincial government and is very at odds with the individual who took second in the mayor's race. Talk about a divisive election. That was extremely divisive.

Gachi: Democracy is not about a collaboration. At all. That's our big deal. In terms of our work, we were looking to these land occupation conflicts. We were really excited about trying to do something with them. So what we did was develop a strategy in which we requested some money from the WWF, to make a workshop there in Iguazu.

Julian: That's the World Wildlife Fund to not be confused with other organizations of similar letters.

Gachi: Okay, so we invited to this workshop, and we get the money and we invited the people who were in some way representatives of people who were in some way main stakeholders of this conflict. So we brought people from the church, all the grassroots organizations supporting the landless, we brought people from the National Park, and the ministry of ecology, and from some environmental NGOs - because we knew these were people who never talk among them. So we're putting them in a workshop in a beautiful place for five days. It would be an interesting lab in terms of what would happen. We offer this as a training program for conflict resolution tools, and of course everybody wants to be trained in how to improve conflict negotiation or whatever. So we were lucky, and the people really came, and it was very interesting what happened during the workshop because the woman representing the National Park was organizing a demonstration against, how do you say, squatters? And Iguazu is a main tourist place in Argentina, so it's a main concern, and having all those people within ten minutes of our beautiful falls where all the tourists are coming. So they were organizing some demonstrations in the streets in order to pull down all those people and push the mayor to do something. And he was in the workshop, and she realized after two days this was not going to be a good strategy. We were doing some interesting role plays between the church representatives and the authorities' representatives and the landless representatives and we could see how they were like switching the meanings of how these conflicts were in some way constructed previously in their mind.

So when we finished with this workshop on cooperative processes, cooperative planning processes, they requested some help to deal with this conflict. So we requested, which conflict would you like to take that is interesting for you, we could talk and work on? And they took this one and when we finished, two or three of them went to mayor and request the mayor to come to Buenos Aires and request our help. So that was how we entered the conflict and then we have this first stage, this need assessment stage in which we really try to analyze and see if some kind of process could be really useful and what we did was try to commit what we thought were the main conveners in order to be successful. So we put together the mayor, and the legislative branch of the county, and the church. And the three of them were convening the process. So we were having enough confidence. Anyway, there was like, previously to the formal first meeting, there was a lot of work we have done in order to prepare all the people for the dialogue. We spend like three months working with them trying to build some confidence in the process, and in our team, and trying to feel what it was that they need in order to participate, and to build trust. And then to help the most poor ones to get organized in order to come to this kind of process and help them build some capability in how to talk, because this is nothing that they are used to.

Julian: So, like Gachi says, we designed what might start out to be a fairly standard consensus-building process, except that it has all these elements that keep derailing us in a lot of ways. But the thing I think I'm most struck by is the amount of power that we have as outsiders and as third parties in this situation. First of all, because we have access to everybody and the local actors don't. The government doesn't have very easy access to the ocupantes, the ocupantes don't have very easy access to the various levels of government. But we get in everywhere and we talk to everyone so basically in the beginning it wasn't exactly like this and it has taken a little time, but no one can say no to a meeting with us, basically. We go everywhere. Which is, you know, gets us a lot of information and information in this situation is critical. The ocupantes a lot of times have no idea what the legal situation is, and we have three lawyers on our staff and they're always trying to figure out through the Freedom of Information Act in Argentina, what the legal situation is of the suits that are going on because everyone who is in the suit will claim whatever is most advantageous for them, whether it's true or not, they'll pull up what looks like a legal document and say the court case is going our way, so we really need to circle around the wagon and join forces, and get together and make moves, which may or may not be true.

One of our jobs is giving out information constantly. The fact of observing and asking questions in the 2,000 hectares had a tremendous impact on the ocupantes and the leadership among the ocupantes. The very fact that we were going to put together a local process where people could come and access a space in which big decisions might be made, had a big impact on people, in the sense that, as soon as we started asking questions, leadership started to fragment among the ocupantes. I'm sure some of that would have happened anyway, but I think that our asking and our questions and our observing were a huge factor in accelerating the process of fragmentation among the leadership. The second-place finisher in the mayoral election that I'm talking about ended up organizing ocupantes around him and they were sort of incorporated into a semi-formal organization. But he had very abusive practices. He had a very hierarchical-authoritarian decision-making structure, which is fine with a lot of people because that's what they're used to - which is one of the challenges to trying to start any kind of dialogue is that people are used to this very hierarchical way of decision making. So you have these sorts of abusive practices, where if there was a better offer from a wealthy person in Iguazu, he would come and kick out a poorer person and give the wealthy person that piece of land, which ends up making some people very upset in the organization and because they know that we're about to start a process in which people are going to have access to a space where they can have influence over the decisions that are going to be made over that space, all these leaders started to pop up and say, "Well, I represent these people," you know, and all these leaders are former members of this other group, and as soon as you start asking questions they go, "Well, yeah I've got a group." And the next day there's a group of 25 people, 30 people, 40 people that has formed practically overnight, like mushrooms. And there are leadership changes. The situation seemed to be frozen in time, because there was no legal or political situation. Nobody cared who their leader was (I'm talking about the urban section now - previously I was talking about the rural section), but in the urban section everybody thought things were going just the way they were going, it's the natural way that Iguazu expands. Until we come around and start asking questions and saying, "We're going to put together this process where you're going to be able to make some decisions. Are you interested?" "Yes, yes we're kind of interested," but then all of a sudden people start complaining about their leader and saying, "Well, this guy can't represent us, he's corrupt. He took what little money we had in our neighborhood treasury for events for his own political purposes. So we're going to knock him out of this thing." So just the fact that you're putting together this kind of space can change the power dynamics within a neighborhood, town, or whatever unit of political space you're working in, just by the very fact that people want someone who can represent them better - either that or -- that's the idyllic view -- or the other view is that they want to be the person sitting there negotiating and they want to have decision-making power so they can benefit themselves at the table.

Gachi: So in terms of the process, I think one of the most interesting things was how we, in the main public meetings, which are actually very political ones - people are talking knowing that everyone is listening. We have done a lot of work with the media, we have really developed a strategy with the media, we have involved journalists, educated journalists, on what is the real importance of this process and the key role that they could play. So they were not inside the meetings, but they were, because we made this agreement them, they were not inside the meetings because this would bring people to talk in a different way, but yes, they were totally committed with us in terms of where we would keep them totally informed, in terms that they would try to figure out the stories in a way that would help us continue to work. The other interesting thing was how we could frame a new problem for everybody.

We work with some technology in those meetings in spite of the fact that we went to very, very poor places but we made the effort of not only bringing flipcharts but a screen, a PowerPoint projector so we can put their maps and make some presentations so people could see, understand environmental and strategic importance of the place. And we are getting everybody's voice and they see that we are taking them because we are writing where they are getting some conclusions and it was very interesting because they could see the different perspectives, and this was a lot of work of our team, of course, between meetings - we could put this in new frame. And from a new frame, everybody was included but they understood that they could continue discussing because the problem is really something that matters to them. And we started working and we actually were getting like successful in some way because the people started to organize themselves, they started working with the mayor's government, the church was doing a great job helping us, going to the most rejected people because they have confidence in the church and the church started working in collaboration with the mayor, which previously they were just fighting with him.

So people started understanding the power of collaboration and then like one month ago they started giving the titles to some of these, to the first neighborhoods that were organized. So we were having some good outcomes and some new obstacles as soon as we were working. One of the obstacles was, of course, that elections would come again and polarization in the elections is terrible. So you can work in a collaboration context when you have the elections it's like a schizophrenic thing to try to motivate the people to work together and they are like - we brought some very key officers from the provincial government and they were really excited about working in this process, but then as soon as the elections were coming they have some instructions. They won't collaborate with this mayor because this mayor was against the governor, so that's one of the big deals we have to work with. And then one of the outcomes was ??? all this transparency make the people realize that this leader was not a good leader and that he was taking their money. He was not in a legal position to bring the titles for them. So the formal movement of the landless people start fragmenting the [Spanish, Julian translates]

Julian: Right, they left the administrative board

Gachi: And this leader really get in problems because he was losing power, so he started [Spanish] threatening the people and [Spanish] to shoot some of the new leaders that were bringing the people out of his movement

Julian: We truly I don't know where you were going with that but I was going to say, that was the back side of the power argument. We have all this power to bring people to the table but when they do it has sort of internal consequences. Thinking in sort of a do-no-harm perspective, the fact that all this leadership got fragmented ended up almost killing one of the new leaders that we saw as a more positive leader who came to the fore, because the other guy - who was a second-place finisher in the mayoral race -- was a pretty violent guy. And he ended up trying to assassinate this guy by shooting him, and there's different points where we've considered stopping the intervention but it's a real tricky decision, because if we stop, we sort of leave these guys hanging. And this sort of leadership, that we didn't create by any means, but certainly gave a lot of voice to at this table are now at risk because they're going head-on with this ex-military guy who has a lot of support from the province which is the place that has all the resources so if we had left, we would have just left him hanging.