Squeezed To Mexico City’s Edges, People Build Illegal Homes in Conservation Areas

Flor Bibriesca Esquivel, 52, shows photographs to one of her daughters-in-law in front of the family’s home, which was built illegally on conservation land on the outskirts of Mexico City. The home is made of asbestos sheets and wooden blocks. It often floods during the rainy season, she says. There are more than 800 illegal settlements in Mexico City’s conservation land. Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

As Mexico City bulges at its seams, people who can’t afford increasingly high-priced housing are taking to the city’s vast green areas that are protected for their environmental value. More than 800 illegal settlements now exist in conservation areas, a change that has city officials struggling to balance environmental protection with a growing need for affordable homes.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — Fourteen years ago, the Tempiluli area in the southern delegation of Tláhuac was uninhabited.

“There was nothing, it was pure dirt. Keep in mind that you were walking on dust. It was pure dust here,” says Flor Bibriesca Esquivel, 52. “Just fields.”

Bibriesca Esquivel’s family moved here anyway, and others followed.

INSIDE THE STORY: In Mexico City, illegal settlement often occurs at the city’s edge, but while reporting from the fringes of the megacity, one Global Press reporter found that the concerns of the settlement’s residents can’t be pushed to the margins. She also discovered that the issue affects all Mexico City residents – including herself. Read the blog.

Little by little, the area transformed into a dusty town of unpaved streets and shacks made of sheet metal and wood boards or cinder block.

Bibriesca Esquivel’s home is made of asbestos sheets and wood boards. The floor is made of concrete blocks that she and her husband found in a garbage dump.

She can’t afford better materials. Even if she could, she probably wouldn’t use them. She knows she could be evicted at any time. It’s happened three times in the past, she says.

“They arrived suddenly at night to knock down the house. The trucks showed up, the riot police. They came just to knock down the houses, everything,” she says. “We returned to build them again.”

Bibriesca Esquivel’s neighborhood is in an ecological conservation area. It’s illegal to build homes here.

Mexico City’s sprawl is legendary, built on breathtaking rural-to-urban migration rates, skyrocketing housing prices and toothless zoning laws.

The city and its environs make up some of the most populous urban areas in the world. An estimated 21 million people live there, accounting for 17.6 percent of the 119 million national population. In 1950, the city had 3.1 million people.

More than half — 59 percent — of the city’s 148,178 hectares (366,155 acres) are protected as conservation land. There are more than 800 illegal settlements in those conservation areas, spanning a total surface area of 2,819 hectares (6,966 acres). Conservation land is meant to shelter flora and fauna or refill the aquifer that supplies 60 to 70 percent of water consumed in the city.

There are more than 800 illegal settlements in Mexico City’s conservation areas, spanning a total surface area of 2,819 hectares (6,966 acres). Most of those illegal settlements are located south of the city’s heart. Procuraduría Ambiental y del Ordenamiento Territorial

Most of the illegal settlements are located south of the city’s heart. Much of the land there — an estimated 71 percent — is under communal ownership. About a quarter of it — 23 percent — is owned by individuals, according to city data. Just 6 percent is owned by the government. Independent landowners in particular, many of them farmers or descendants of farmers who lived off the land, struggle to keep settlers from encroaching into the area. (Read our story about one effort to protect conservation land here.)

The problem has become so severe that a commission was created in March to evaluate the settlements. The Comisión de Evaluación de Asentamientos Humanos Irregulares will streamline guidelines for conservation soil and illegal settlement management, says Miguel Ángel Cancino, the lead prosecutor for the Procuraduría Ambiental y del Ordenamiento Territorial, which handles environmental and land use issues.

Those guidelines have so far been managed by each of Mexico City’s delegations, resulting in varying practices.

The commission will also recommend legislative changes to regulate those settlements.

Mexico City’s legislators need to create new laws that recognize the importance of conservation areas while acknowledging that illegal settlements aren’t going anywhere, Cancino says. But regulating the settlements is politically unpopular, he says, while relocating them to other areas would be expensive.

Particularly for those settlements in high-risk zones, such as areas where there are ravines or slopes, relocation is critical, he says, but local authorities must agree to spend the money needed to do that.

“It’s a very complicated subject,” he says. “I think that, first, you need a public policy of complete attention, which implies revising soil use regulations and, two, political will and resources, of course.”

Conservation areas were established in the 1980s, when the city began to grow and its authorities saw a need to protect natural areas, says Irma Escamilla Herrera, a researcher from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México’s geography institute who specializes in urban development.

More than half — 59 percent — of the city’s 148,178 hectares (366,155 acres) are protected as conservation land. There are more than 800 illegal settlements in those conservation areas, spanning a total surface area of 2,819 hectares (6,966 acres).

But those urban authorities didn’t account for the fact that more people would need more living space. With no legal, buildable areas available, people pushed into conservation areas, Escamilla Herrera says. In some cases, residents are tricked into paying for land that they don’t realize can’t be built upon.

The lack of safe, affordable housing is an issue of basic rights, says Enrique Cano Bustamante, the social director of TECHO, an international organization that works with inhabitants of illegal settlements to help them improve their living conditions. TECHO works in 18 illegal settlements in and around Mexico City.

The people who live in those conservation areas don’t intend to cause environmental damage, he says.

“The people are there out of necessity, because their most fundamental rights are being violated,” he says.

The average cost of a house in Mexico City nearly doubled between 2005 and 2015 — from 1,913,984 pesos (just over $100,000) to 3,722,708 (just over $200,000), according to statistics published by Sociedad Hipotecaria Federal, a Mexican development banking institution focused on housing credit.

In Mexico City, there are about 179,000 homes that are overcrowded or built with deteriorating or cheap materials such as sheet metal, asbestos, wood, shingles or tiles.

The city’s growth should have been controlled long before now, Escamilla Herrera says.

“If action had been taken, we wouldn’t have this severe growth that we see now, understanding that behind this is a complicated social problem because I don’t have another place for these people to live,” she says.

Some of the people who built their homes on conservation land didn’t know at the time that what they were doing was illegal.

Like many other residents of conservation areas, Bibriesca Esquivel jumped at what she thought was a great deal on legally-buildable land. She says she paid 135,000 pesos ($7,167) for a 120-square-meter lot (143.5 square yards). The person who sold it to her didn’t mention anything about building restrictions, she says.

After the first eviction, she looked for the man she paid for the land. She found him and he assured that he would return her money, but then he disappeared. That’s when she decided to stay on the plot and defend herself.

“The truth is that I didn’t have anywhere to go, (so) I fought for my territory,” she says.

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In Laderas de Sayula, an illegal settlement in the La Magdalena Contreras delegation in southwest Mexico City, homes are built on a slope. To reach them, residents created stairs with tires and concrete blocks.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico


Danielle Mackey, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.


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