How sad live my people in the houses of cardboard
These are the opening lines of Casas de Carton, the ballad for the struggling poor in the countries of Latin America. It is an appropriate theme song for those who live in houses of cardboard and plastic sheeting in areas in and around San Salvador.
They are the marginalized of El Salvador's society, the poorest of the urban poor, who live in squatters shacks on land which is not their own. Since December, new "communities" have sprung up around Soyapango, which neighbors San Salvador. The growth of this marginal community has been chronicled recently in El Salvador's digital media including a story in this week's El Faro and in Contra Punto.
The shanty town featured in El Faro is a dusty place, built next to and above an old municipal dump. The presence of methane and other gases from the decomposing garbage below makes it an unfit place for building houses, but for those who are desperate for a place to live, the risks are ignored. There were promises and rumors of promises, which led more than one thousand people to locate here, on the hope that they would be given a piece of land they could call their own. They build their "casas de carton" from bamboo, scrap wood and cardboard, plastic sheeting and anything else which can serve as four walls and a roof. This photogallery from El Faro shows scenes of daily life a a community on the margins.
When journalist Juan JoseDalton wrote about the situation of these shanty towns, he quoted statistics from the Salvadoran Association of Architects and Engineers which find a housing deficit of 540,000 homes in a country with a population slightly less than six million. He notes that the inability to obtain dignified housing for this segment of the population is due primarily to the inability to obtain a loan and the lack of formal job opportunities.
The housing deficit is a symptom of poverty, but it is also a cause perpetuating poverty. The residents of these communities face disease; their children don't attend school; they are constantly at risk of losing what little they have to the weather. They are also constantly at risk from being expelled by the actual owner of the property. It is a multi-faceted problem, and one which needs multi-faceted solutions at both the national and municipal level and with support from both public and private sources.
The complete song Casas de Carton can be heard in this YouTube video. The pictures in the video aren't from El Salvador, but they still convey the reality of urban shanty towns.